The Best Personal Essay

Sarah B. Wagenseller, “Why I’m Afraid of Zombies”

The whole family visits my grandparents every year around Christmas. This year, my grandmother and a couple of uncles and aunts cornered all the college-aged grandchildren at the gathering and began firing off questions about our opinions of the world we were inheriting – what we thought of it, how we thought it might change, how we would change it, if only we could. Touched, lightly, with panic at the ambush, the six of us answered as best we could, as fast as possible. When my grandmother asked the following question, however, there was a pause in the rapid-fire question-and-answer session.

She asked us, “What are you most afraid of in the world?”

She meant our generation. We all knew what she, and all of the elders, expected us to say: terrorism. After all, these were people who had grown up fearing a second World War, fearing Communism, fearing nuclear war, fearing economic collapse – every decade or so had its own brand-new trend in the number one fear among Americans, and our inquisitors had pretty much followed along faithfully. Terrorism is the new fashion in bogeymen.

I looked at my brothers. They shrugged.

I looked at my cousins. They were looking quizzically at each other.

I looked my grandmother square in the eye and I said seriously, “Zombies.”

The elders were taken aback.

To explain, more eloquently than I did, there in my grandmother’s house: Since none of the big fears of any previous generation have really been fixed, we inherited them all. If we were afraid of everything we should be, our generation would fear everything and its opposite: foreigners and neighbors, anarchy and government, criminals and police, nonbelievers and fundamentalists. Crime and mental illness alone dictate that we fear each other and ourselves.

And that’s on top of all the big things: nuclear war, economic collapse, pollution, deforestation, massive outbreak of disease, depletion of environmental resources. We have all of that and more, and frankly, I didn’t have enough fear to go around as it was.

When terrorism was added to the top of all that, I quit. I just don’t have enough! So, I lay it all at the feet of zombies. They are as real as nuclear war and total environmental devastation, and therefore about as good a thing to fear as anything else. Plus, who wouldn’t lose control of their bowels if they saw a dead body running at them at top speed, much less an army of them? They are totally irrational, and you can shoot them over and over, and they just keep coming. Also, their bodies are room temperature, and they eat flesh! Give me nuclear holocaust any day: at least that’s over quick, and I wouldn’t have to feel the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom tearing into my body.

My point, at the time, was that spending our lives fearing things that may or may not come, regardless of our input, is sort of silly, and totally pointless. We should try to do what we can about the things we have a chance of affecting, but there comes a point when we are powerless, and must accept whatever fate deals, just like everyone else in the world does. I love this country, but America is isolated and spoiled, to the point that it actually believes that being attacked or even destroyed is something that happens to a country once in a blue moon, and only to countries that deserve it. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is totally destroyed every twenty years or so. They don’t put ropes around the destruction site of every building and swear revenge: they rebuild and move on. They make jokes about it even. When I was there, one Hungarian lady pointed to a particularly ugly building and said, “Next time they bomb us, I hope they get that one.”

Regardless of my point, I really am afraid of zombies. I fear them more than any other horror movie villain, supernatural or real, and more than anything I see on the news. For a long time, I thought it was just the unnatural speed and the flesh-consumption. But now I suspect it goes deeper.

It’s like this: Bad things happen, and will continue to happen, but the human spirit thus far has always prevailed. Like the Hungarians have done again and again with their capital, we rebuild and move on. But if a situation arose where zombies overtook the earth, turning normal, logical humans into cannibalistic beasts with a single bite, it would be the end of the human spirit. There is no rebuilding from that.

When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia last Christmas, I am sure many frightened people briefly reordered their list of fears to include natural disasters somewhere near the top. Which makes sense. According to the worst estimates, the Earth, on average, kills about 250,000 people every year. With that kind of record, I am surprised anyone even thinks about war or terrorism.

The death toll is now well over a hundred thousand, and new fears are mounting every day – fears about outbreaks of disease, too little clean water and untainted food, orphaned children being illegally trafficked, and the staggering amount of money it will take to rebuild homes, schools, hospitals, stores, and the like. All valid fears. But, fearing only zombies as I do, I am allowed to step back and appreciate their opposite: rational beings capable of the most astonishing emotion I have ever witnessed, which is compassion.

When word of the tsunami hit soon after the tsunami itself did, millions of people from all over the world, both governmental officials and ordinary folks, poured support on the devastated countries. Food, water, clothing, doctors, specialists, armed forces, prayers, helping hands, and billions of dollars were immediately made available for the lone reason that those affected were fellow people, and they needed help. Race didn’t matter, religion didn’t matter, nationality didn’t matter. Only humanity mattered.

Such is the nature of compassion, which is so lovely and amazing because it is based on love for fellow humans that we’ve never even met, which is especially amazing in a world where we are taught to fear, or even hate, each other. Since there is no logical reason for this love, we have a word in English that describes compassion, which is miracle. A miracle is an event that appears to be inexplicable by the laws of nature, but which is so wonderful and beneficial that even the most austere medieval Catholic was unwilling to refuse the gift by attributing it to witchcraft. Instead, miracles were said to be an act of God.

Another name for an act of God, in American idiom, is natural disaster.
Curiously, a seemingly little known fact about the Christian Bible is that it claims there is another word for God. The word is love.

Without going any further out of my depth, though, I think I can better explain what I really fear: I fear humans without compassion. With up to 250,00 deaths a year credited to the Earth’s natural functions alone, it’s obvious that everyone needs help sometime, and compassion is the only thing that drives the momentarily stable to help the momentarily unstable. Without compassion, humans such as the survivors in Southeast Asia wouldn’t have a chance. Without compassion, the human spirit would be vanquished: all we’d be are a bunch of irrational consumers, absolutely individualistic, unwilling to cooperate or help each other, unable to rebuild anything, and utterly doomed.

We’d be zombies.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes