Persona 3: Reload and the Death of Anxiety

When you arrive at a fatal accident as a first responder, you’re told to only make sweeping glances over the body.

I was twenty-three when I first got to put that advice into practice. It was the first thing on my mind when I arrived on the scene of what was called in as a two vehicle “car versus truck” incident. I swept across the scene. The back door of the driver’s-ed sedan was already removed and clung to the front of the semi that rammed it. There was a dead sixteen year old boy on the side of the road. Sweeping glance. We needed to remove the other door to get the other two in the back. The hydraulics were powering up. The boy’s eyes were open and not blinking. We had to pop the door hinges. There was the huffing of chest compressions as EMS worked on another patient. The driving student in the front seat asked if everyone was okay, and someone else responded yeah they were. The dead boy was missing a shoe. There was glass on the road and speedy dry soaking up oil. Sweeping glance.

Twenty-three was a complicated year. A few months after the car accident that took three teen lives, I received word that a woman I worked with had burned to death in another wreck. She was two years older than me and we had gone on an awkward date once and at the time she was practically living out of her car. She moved away a few months later for another job and last I heard she was doing well. I didn’t even know she was back in town and she was already gone. I put the only advice I had into practice for the wake. Sweeping glance. Her mother’s propped up smile and bubbly greeting felt incongruous to me. There were photos on a memorial board that could have been taken yesterday. They picked out a sky blue coffin.

I had no idea how to grieve these deaths.

My experience with death up to that point came in one of two forms: they were either old folks resting in coffins while we passed around homemade cookies in the funeral parlor because boy Aunt Gloria would have loved if we snuck some of her cookies in places we weren’t supposed to, and illnesses ending in still-too-soon-but-long-time-coming funerals. I didn’t know how to grieve those kinds of death either, so how was I supposed to feel about the death of three teens that had nothing to do with me other than witnessing the immediate aftermath of their crash? How was I suppose to feel about the sudden loss of someone I was only brief friends with?

It was too absurd. Everyone I talked to would shove their hands in their pockets and shake heads and flatly state that the world was fucked up. It felt like as good a way to grieve as any.

Grief is a journey that needs to lead somewhere, but at the time, I didn’t know where to follow it. I was stuck in a vise. You could die when you were sixteen and you could die when you were twenty five and that meant you could die at any time. How could you move on when it was everywhere, and what were you supposed to do in the meanwhile?

A friend once told me after a close and sudden loss that death was not romantic, it was just empty. I finally understood what he meant and I didn’t want to look at it anymore. It panicked me. Suddenly body pains and airplane turbulence became threads by which my anxiety would pull and pull until I received external validation I was not going to die then and there. Ten years later, I realized I had become obsessed with it by fostering a fear of death while simultaneously not wanting to look at it. I had internalized sweeping glances of death.

In Persona 3, you are a spectator of death. It is not something you glance at. It is simply the strange, uncomfortable, and violent vehicle by which all lives end. By the end of Persona 3, both the main character and everyone you come in contact with is intimately familiar with death themselves. It’s come in the form of sudden gunshots and slow diseases and car accidents and plain old age, and every time they look squarely at it. Near the climax of the game when the party is told Nyx will destroy everyone in one month, to hear that death is imminent was not a surprise. It was just the matter of how and when.

The party’s resolute attitude stands in stark contrast to the rest of humanity, who over the course of the game has become a sea of mass hysterical heretics. They’ve come down with what the game calls Apathy Syndrome, a succumbing to the darkness in their hearts that they mistake for truth – everyone is going to die, so what’s the point? They cast off the trappings of life and resign themselves to shuffling around public spaces, walking tombstones who have remembered they have to die and can’t be bothered with anything else.

The main characters of the game are nowhere near as dispirited, despite their intimate closeness to death and its imminence, hammered home with the literal tick of every Dark Hour. They are not afraid to engage with it. Every night when you return to your dorm, death is all they discuss. They talk about how they don’t want to die, but they have to plan as if they’re going to live to see February 1st anyway. There are still study sessions and finals and after school events. There are post graduation plans and housing logistics and plants to harvest. It’s easy to giggle at our heroes huddled around a math textbook while the end of the world is knocking, but there was something awfully brave and stoically cavalier about it too.

I was struck with sudden clarity. I used to feel this way too. Before I grew up, before I had experienced enough of it first hand, I used to be able to look death in the face and carry on. I really paid it no mind in the grand existential sense of the fear. I used to love plane rides and I used to have regular check ups without needing ad hoc ECGs because my heart rate was already spiking. Seeing S.E.E.S act how I used to feel made me realize with abject horror that at some point I had come down with a form of Apathy Syndrome. I was waiting for the world to end because it was gonna come anyway and I just didn’t know how. So I was looking for it, obliquely, ahead and behind me, of course not wanting it to happen but also always sweeping over it in case this was it.

If these highschoolers who definitely knew the end was coming could stare it down and continue studying for finals, why couldn’t I? What was so paralyzing to me? Why was I suddenly so at a loss with being with being able to shrug off the inevitability of death?

Twenty-three – a strange year.

At that time, I knew better than to continue being Catholic but I did it because I was comfortable. That year was the first major crack in whatever semblance of faith I had left. It was farcical. I learned that that if there was a God he didn’t protect kids learning to drive and he didn’t care about women trying to find stable jobs and so I figured it was better to not believe in him at all. It took time to internalize that. These weren’t the only events that paved the way to my Catholic deconstruction, but they were important stones.

Losing my religion presented a conundrum. When you’re Catholic, you are constantly reminded that Jesus can return at any time. You had to be prepared for the second coming at any instance, which is why you had to live a pious life all the time. There was a literalness to this belief, but it also makes a nice metaphor for death. Meeting Jesus was code not just for his revelatory return, but for meeting an unexpected end. Christians are fond of memento mori motifs for a reason. Luckily, I was a good Catholic boy who went to mass every Sunday and prayed for the ill and wayward every night and kept Christ in his heart always. I had no problem looking at death because for me it meant eternal life with all of my loved ones. Death wasn’t really that big a deal in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

To the Catholic Church, to live is to suffer. Their promise of the afterlife is, at best, an attempt to distract you from the suffering of the world and offer long term salvation in exchange for your compliance. They will make sure you follow a strict set of rules designed to make sure your life is nothing more than a drab palette. The world is filled with suffering, so not only should you offer it up to God, but you should revel in it. You do not want to taste the apple.

The process of deconstruction is long and ongoing, but I had a new lens on life almost immediately. If death was the end, that made what we did here all the more important. In the years since leaving my religion, I feel more present as a human being. I try hard to not take even the smallest of pleasures for granted. I take the opportunity to go to new places as often as I can. I appreciate large feasts as much as I appreciate a hot cup of coffee. I am comfortable with my sexuality. I discovered bird watching. I have had the opportunity to do so many wonderful things and meet so many wonderful people and I wish to continue doing this forever.

Dying, therefore, would be quite an inconvenience. With the backstop of eternal life out of the picture, I continued to avoid looking at death as much as I could. I was always afraid of it. I was terribly anxious about anything. I knew the soft pleasures of life could go away at any time and I didn’t know how to reckon with that. There’s no template for how to look at death for atheists who have very much enjoyed learning to live.

I tried a few different angles of looking at the problem. Perhaps reincarnation was more likely than I’d thought. Maybe I would return to the earth, a string of atoms scattered to the stars to become part of the cosmos. I had a phase where I latched onto the idea that it was simply a matter of time until I inhabited a new consciousness, although I would have no memory of me and all the things I did. But every theory left me with that same empty feeling. I was still avoiding looking at death. I was still only looking at it through sweeping glances.

Everyone is destined for death in Persona 3. In some inverted form of the Christian revelatory belief that you must be ready for the resurrection at any moment, Persona 3‘s characters are reminded constantly that they are going to die. At first, it’s a villainous taunt that Strega throws at Shinji and Ken before he attempts to murder them. But as the party comes to realize that Nyx will wipe out all of humanity, it’s put into sharp relief that Strega’s words aren’t threats so much as they are factual inevitabilities. He is the not-so-subtle prophet figure that his design embodies. Everyone is going to die when Nyx arrives anyway, so what does it matter when?

The party has a meeting about this when Pharos gives them his ultimatum. They could forget that death is coming and live their lives blissfully unaware of the end, or remain fully aware of their impending doom even if it means being conscious of their obliteration. Of course for the “true” ending, you must decide to face death fully conscious of its coming, but the part that floored me is how the characters carry on regardless. They acknowledge that they will likely die on January 31st, but they decide to live their lives as normal anyway. There’s some friction among the party members, sure, but they cook together, they take Koromaru for walks, you continue going to school, everyone still has finals they want to prepare for.

It was at this point in the game I turned to my wife and said I was done with being anxious. I didn’t even know what I was shedding at the time, but I was done with it. I was sick of my search history being littered with WebMD pages and Reddit threads from r/healthanxiety. I was tired of losing sleep over the potentially disease carrying mice in the attic or researching plane specifications before taking a trip. I was granting my energy to constant sweeping glances at death and for what? So I could miss the point of being alive in the first place?

My party was well prepared for the Nyx fight. I burned through each phase as one by one Ryoji held up each arcana and narrated the flourishing humanity behind it, before declaring it null. Discarded. It matters not who you are, Death awaits you. Apathy Syndrome is the end. He was narrating how I had felt subconsciously all this time. I refused to fully grieve for those kids that died on a country road and for my friend Cat because it meant acknowledging death was a plain and simple eventuality that could happen at any time. But I was so focused on the end itself, on avoiding it, or changing it, or bargaining with it, that I was forgetting to look at the blue sky all around me.

Stopping The Fall in Persona 3 doesn’t stop death, it just changes the when.

In the days following Nyx’s defeat, the game takes you on one last tour of Tatsumi Port Island to interact with your social links, providing closure for all of your bonds. They’re all beautiful in their own way, each one uniquely faceted to the way you touched their lives, whether you talked them through radical life changes or spent time sweeping a bookstore after school. They tell you that life is worth living because you simply got to know them.

It’s the Sun Social link, Akinari Kamiki’s, where the game turns from squarely looking at death to looking at life. Returning to the park where the nineteen year old spent many of his last days, you find his mother on the same bench, marking his birthday. After ruminating on his brief life, she promises to live life for him, to have stories to tell when they meet again. She vows to eat the finest foods and take exotic trips. But it’s what she says as she stands up to leave that get to the heart of the game:

Take good care of the ones you hold dear…It doesn’t take a grand gesture. You don’t have to make a big production of it, but…If you love someone, let them know it. We all go through life with the same struggles, the same heartbreak…We should all lift each other up with the same love and kindness as well.

Persona 3 is not a game about death, it is a game about life. It is a game that understands that the reason we are here is for other people and the most important things we do in on this Earth are eating meals and telling stories together. I thought I understood this, but I didn’t really. I believe I needed to hear it stated so plainly. It is okay to live. It is okay to revel in life’s grandeur. Perhaps it was the last vestiges of Catholic guilt being cleansed from my soul.

I didn’t need to replace my view of what happens after we die with anything at all. That part doesn’t matter. What matters is my wife sitting on the couch next to me typing away her own stories. What matters is watching the baby birds under my deck open their eyes and leave the nest. What matters are the beautiful woods we walk and the gift of seeing what the top of clouds look like and hearing your loved ones softly breathing next to you under the warmth of blankets.

Persona 3 taught me that it is okay to look at death because everyone dies, which means only life matters. To be born is a gift and to live in apathy is to be dead already. I didn’t want to live like that anymore, and in the days and weeks since finishing the game, my life feels brighter. I will grieve those three teenagers and Cat and all of my passed on loved ones by living unafraid. I will collect moments that are big and small and I will tell stories and I will pass on memory that is both theirs and mine and in this way we’ll arrive at the only truth that matters: that in order to live, you must burn your dread.

One response to “Persona 3: Reload and the Death of Anxiety”

  1. […] Persona 3: Reload and the Death of Anxiety | Gamequest Steve Dixon charts a path forward to living life. […]

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