[An edited version of this post can be found here]
Have you ever wondered: “What if we could live forever and never die?”
No? Really? Well, I guess I must be the odd one out. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong Bible. I was quite certain there was mention there of a new heaven. One where all tears, pain and death are gone, and we’ll live an eternity worshipping God our heavenly Father. Oh, how that revelation would always make me take a deep breath in wonder and amazement!
You see, I’ve asked myself this question at least a hundred times in the more than 50 years I’ve lived on God’s green earth. And clearly many others have too. Cos, no matter the era, pop culture references in many art forms like books, comics or films, almost always portray some aspect of this “What if…?” question.
And try to offer an answer.
One recent release on Netflix proves this.
Neil Gaiman and The Sandman
Now I best say right up front I’m not promoting Netflix.
However, even its more ill-advised and morally reprehensible stuff can still provide fodder for possible meaningful, spiritual conversations.
If we know where to look.
Like in the new Netflix series The Sandman, which debuted on August 5.
(I best also state upfront here I’m not promoting this show, cos I believe many of its scenes and characters would raise more than a holy eyebrow!)
When I first heard of this show, I recalled the 1954 chirpy tune Mr Sandman by The Chordettes (yes younger readers, you would know this song too if you’re as old as yours truly). Then there was that 2012 animated film my sons and I watched some years ago called Rise of the Guardians. In it were characters like Jack Frost, Santa Clause, and one who was the keeper of dreams, the Sandman.
Only much later did I learn that in 1989, DC Comics published a series based on this character who governs dreams and nightmares. The series was written by the famous fiction and comics fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. I had previously written about Gaiman in my Writing Heroes mini-series.
Incidentally, Gaiman was also deeply involved in the reimagining of his work for this Netflix series.
So what is the big deal about The Sandman?
Firstly, as a concerned parent and keen observer of contemporary culture, with its ever-expanding minefield of dark materials for unwary kids (and adults!), I’m always watchful for the slightest sign of anything spiritually “harmful”. The trailers and publicity for this series certainly gave me that impression.
Secondly, I can’t credibly speak God into any discussion of trending topics and contemporary issues if I’ve not even had a cursory brush with them. Kinda like Apostle Paul. Wanting to be all things to all kinds of people so that by all means he can save some (yeah fist-bump Paul!).
The show is rated R21, which should put us on alert. Because let’s not kid ourselves. In this day and age, we can’t assume the resourceful under-21-ers can’t get their eyeballs on things age-inappropriate by hook or by crook. Especially if its rating is the modern-day equivalent of the forbidden fruit!
Now before you get all fire and brimstone on me, I would like to offer a sliver of hope.
But first, here’s a quick (and I mean quick) rundown of the storyline.
Morpheus, aka The Sandman aka Dream, is trapped and hidden away from his kingdom (a realm called The Dreaming) for 100 years. When he finally escapes, he goes about recovering his realm and undoing whatever damages his rampant dreams and nightmares had wreaked on humanity in his absence. That takes up the first five of Season 1’s ten episodes.
Now you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, thanks to his appearance and all the black costumes and dark hues in the promo materials. But Dream is actually the good guy in the story.
A critical but neglected societal issue
For the record, I’m cutting out a lot of details about the storyline because this commentary is not a review. It’s a reflection on an issue our society isn’t noticing enough, nor addressing much of if at all!
The issue? Loneliness.
More importantly, I wish to jump right into Episode 6 which, for me, brought this critical issue of loneliness front and centre.
You see, this episode begins with Morpheus, having successfully recovered his kingdom, sitting on a park bench brooding like his dog just died. (He doesn’t have one but he does have a talking raven that follows him around)
Along comes his older sister Death, with a kind and gentle face, and no visible scythe. She takes him on a stroll down memory lane to an old tavern in 1389 England. There, they come across a man named Hob Gadling who proudly declared to his ale-guzzling buddies he had no intention of dying.
Morpheus, or Dream as he’s more often referred to in the show, then turned to Death, asking with lips curled cynically why anyone would ever crave an eternal existence. Surely anyone who’s lived a century would be begging to die!
Death smiled in return, declared to Dream she would spare Gadling’s life and challenged Dream to find the answer for himself.
100 years is like a day
Dream strolled casually over, and announced he had heard Gadling’s boast and would meet him same time and place 100 years later, before leaving a bewildered Gadling with his equally-bemused friends.
At this point, you can pretty much guess what happened 100 years later. Then another 100 years. Then another.
Now with each meeting, Dream fully expected Gadling to capitulate. To beg to be delivered from immortality.
He was wrong.
Not once did Gadling wish to end his life. Though, watching his fortunes roller-coaster from knighthood to poverty across the centuries with loved ones that came and went, even I thought he should call it a day.
Instead, it was Dream who got increasingly agitated even as Gadling became increasingly sanguine.
By 1889, five centuries after Death first laid this dare on him, Dream had had enough. And it didn’t help when Gadling turned things around at that sixth meeting to ask why Dream bothered to return every 100 years to see him. Could it be that Dream was lonely and needed a friend?
As a member of The Endless (what Dream and his siblings Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium were called), that amounted to the greatest of insults. That they who were here since the dawn of time should need friends.
Will you be lonely when you’re old?
And yet, during his own imprisonment of 100 years which caused him to miss their next appointment in 1989 (hmmm why is this date so familiar?), Dream realised he did come to care, even though he neither knew at first nor admitted to it later. Until Death’s intervention and reminder at the park bench where this episode began.
So even though he was late, Dream returned to meet Gadling to apologise for missing their previous appointment.
And Gadling was right there waiting.
At this point, the message of hope and friendship in one’s twilight years practically screamed at me. Making me ask myself now a different but related question. One that we could all do well to ask ourselves and those around us. Especially when loneliness is increasingly an issue in this world, where screens replace faces and texts replace conversations.
And even more for those yet to know the One who’s far greater than Dream or Death. The One who promises to be with us into eternity:
Will we be lonely when we’re old? Or will we have friends or, more importantly, know intimately a God we can count on and who’s always waiting for us like faithful Hob waits for Dream?
Let’s hope we’re not like Dream, waiting for several centuries to pass before we know the answer.