What Discworld’s Death Can Teach Us About Empathy
What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the reaper man?
There has long been this notion that Death — that is, the anthropomorphic personification of the natural process — is a cruel, unjust villain. He appears at your door one night in his dark robe holding a scythe and takes your soul off to the Great Beyond.
What a jerk.
Sir Terry Pratchett had a different interpretation of Death, however. What if Death was just simply a civil servant, carrying out the duties of his job to a highly effective degree? And, like many other workers, what if he was a bit jaded with the job?
A Bit of Background
For those unfamiliar with the works of Sir Terry Pratchett, who passed away in March of 2015, he is the author of over 40 novels in the Discworld series. He also co-wrote Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, which was turned into an Amazon Prime original series last year (and it was fantastic).
Terry Pratchett was also an advocate for a person’s right to choose death. Faced with a rare form of Alzheimer’s that pulled him slowly further away from himself, his relationship with Death — both the character and the actual state of being — is more friendly than most other people’s.
When asked whether he was afraid of death, he said, “I can’t be bothered about death, I have made him so popular that he owes me one… I’m bothered about dying badly, but everybody is.”
Within his Discworld series, there exist a variety of sub-series that explore the stories of key characters. There is the Witches series, the City Watch series, the Wizards series, the Tiffany Aching series, the Moist von Lipwig series, and quite a number of standalone books as well.
Then, there is the Death series in which Death not only has a daughter but gains an apprentice, loses his job, plays “music with rocks in,” replaces the Hogfather — Discworld’s equivalent to Santa Claus — and attempts to stop The Auditors of Reality from permanently freezing time, thus removing human unpredictability from the universe.
Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack.
The Discworld series has always been a sort of funhouse mirror reflection of the real world. Sure, it looked a bit different: the people were zanier, there was magic, the world wasn’t round but flat and carried on the backs of four giant elephants that also stood on the back of a giant turtle named A’tuin, but the core essence of humanity permeated each of the stories that Sir Terry wrote.
Of all of his characters, then, it’s a bit ironic that the character that most embodies human empathy is none other than Death.
As Sir Terry said, “Death isn’t cruel — merely terribly, terribly good at his job.”
Throughout the forty-one novels of the Discworld series, Sir Terry used Death as a method for conveying observations about humanity and the relationships between humans.
Here’s what Terry Pratchett’s Death can teach us about empathy:
1. We must care.
Speaking to the ultimate Death — the Death of the Universe, Azrael — Discworld’s death makes a plea to get his old job back after his termination from the position.
The reason for his removal? He cared too much about humanity.
IF WE DO NOT CARE, WE DO NOT EXIST. IF WE DO NOT EXIST, THEN THERE IS NOTHING BUT BLIND OBLIVION. AND EVEN OBLIVION MUST END SOMEDAY. LORD, WILL YOU GRANT ME JUST A LITTLE TIME? FOR THE PROPER BALANCE OF THINGS. TO RETURN WHAT WAS GIVEN. FOR THE SAKE OF PRISONERS AND THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS.
— Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Let’s take a look at this quote not from the perspective of an everyday, average person but rather from the perspective of those who are in powerful administrative positions.
The Deaths are, in a sense, administrators. They see to it that people die when they are supposed to, help them move on to the next life, and generally keep things in tidy order. Death’s study contains within it the hourglasses of every person on the Disc.
As a character, he is tested time and time again, forced to choose between his duties or the well-being of the people with whom he has grown close. When he is replaced by Discworld’s New Death — an over-dramatic, appears-in-a-burst-of-lightning type of show-off — there is a moment of clarity. Death should not be a fearful, foreboding, and cruel force.
To put this into the context of reality: do you want a leader who leads by intimidation, cruelty, and fear? As an American, all we have to do is look at the time between 2016 and 2020 to answer, resoundingly, “No.”
If those at the top cannot lead with empathy, respect, and care then what hope is there for those who are led? As Terry Pratchett himself writes:
WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR, IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?
2. The things we do outlive us.
The burden of self-awareness is that we are fully aware that, someday, we are going to die. The cliché goes, “The only certainties in life are death and taxes,” but as Terry Pratchett said, “at least Death only happens to you once.”
This knowledge is the only thing that makes life worth living. Knowing that it’ll all come to an end one day, and accepting that, is what makes the moments we do have here worthwhile. Still, people are afraid of dying, of that final, conclusive breath and the flash of white light before life stops.
But is it the dying we're afraid of? Is it being dead? Likely not. Studies have shown that 4 out of 10 adults regret their life choices when they look back on them, and a study from The Guardian shows that the biggest regrets of the dying were: they wish they’d kept in touch with friends, hadn’t worked so hard, were more true to themselves, been more expressive of their feelings, and that they’d let themselves be happier.
I think people aren’t afraid of dying as much as they are afraid that, on their death bed, they’ll realize they never even lived much in the first place. In his book Happy author and magician Derren Brown touches on the same idea, and comes to a similar conclusion as Terry Pratchett does in his book Reaper Man:
No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away, until the clock wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.
Life goes on without us, but that doesn’t mean it forgets us. The things we do every single day — the little moments when we held a door for someone or made someone laugh — live on in the memories of the people around us. Our existence is so much more than just our “life.”
3. Fantasy is what makes us human.
Throughout human history, stories have been a way of bringing tribes together, by sitting around a fire roasting the day’s hunt and telling tales of how the mammoth became the meat or speaking of Gods and how the world came to be.
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
— Death, ‘The Hogfather’
Stories have always served a purpose, whether it be to entertain, teach a lesson, or explain something about the world. And even today, millennia later, the world’s most influential people are, in some way or another, storytellers. Every time a president gives a speech, they are telling a story. Every time a pastor preaches to his commissioners, he is telling a story. Every time a lawyer defends her client, she is telling a story.
TIME magazine shared a story that has been passed down in the Agta community of the Philippines:
The wild pig and seacow were best friends who enjoyed racing each other for sport. One day, however, the seacow hurt his legs and could run no more. So the wild pig carried him down to the sea, where they could race forever, side by side, one in the water, one on the land.
The reason this story is told regularly, even today? It teaches us empathy. It instills in us an important lesson: that we should care for one another.
And more than that, stories unify and bind people together — stories from Santa Claus to Game of Thrones. Each one serves a purpose and provides a sort of commonality for people who might otherwise have none. It is this shared interest in stories that reminds us that, well maybe we aren’t so different after all.
Terry Pratchett was not afraid of death. In fact, you could argue that over the course of his career they became very good friends. Certainly, he felt a soft spot for Death in some capacity. Most importantly though, Terry Pratchett understood that we have a lot we can learn from Death, and especially a lot we can learn about being human.
Death, both the character and the concept, teaches us that one of the greatest tools we have as a species is our ability to empathize. It is our empathy that has allowed us to continue as a species for so long and to build and grow despite years of countless wars and atrocities.
Empathy is the closest thing we have to magic, and I think we’d all benefit from a little bit more of it.