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Near-death experiences for cowards like me

Jan 07, 2013

Near-death experiences for cowards like me

Tim Kreider, in his piece, “The Year After” (collected in his great book, We Learn Nothing), talks about what a wonderful year he had after he got stabbed in the throat and almost died: “it was one of the best things that ever happened to me…. After my unsuccessful murder, I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.”

I started brewing my own dandelion wine in a big Amish crock. I listened to old one hit wonders, much too embarrassing to name in public. And I developed a strange new laugh that’s stayed with me to this day— a loud, raucous barking thing. It makes people in bars or restaurants look over for a second to make sure I’m not about to open up on the crowd with a weapon.

Trouble was the feeling didn’t last:

You’d like to think that nearly getting killed would be a permanently life-altering experience. But getting stabbed was like a lightning strike— over almost as soon as it happened, and the illumination didn’t last. You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life anymore than you can stay passionately in love forever, or grieve forever for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busy work of living.

It’s easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you’d feel after being clipped by a taxi. But you could also try to think of it as a rare glimpse of reality, being jolted out of a lifelong stupor. I can’t recapture that feeling of euphoric gratitude any more than I can really remember the mortal terror I felt when I was pretty sure I had about four minutes to live. But I know that it really happened, that that state of grace is accessible to us, even if I only blundered across it once and never find my way back.

George Saunders, in a wonderful New York Times profile, tells a story about his plane hitting a flock of geese, thinking he was going to die, and the feeling afterwards:

“For three or four days after that,” he said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

(Maira Kalman, from The Principles of Uncertainty)

In many cases, a near-death experience has led to the formation of an artist. When he was 16, Wayne Coyne, the Flaming Lips frontman, was held up in a Long John Silvers:

I realised I was going to die and when that gets into your mind that’s a motherfucker. It utterly changed me for a while there. I thought, ‘I’m not going to sit here and wait for things to happen, I’m going to make them happen, and if people think I’m an idiot I don’t care.’

(A post-it note from Roger Ebert, after he almost died from cancer and lost his voice.)

Here’s Steve Jobs:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.

Thing is, I am a coward. As much as I wouldn’t mind that “existential euphoria” that comes with it, I don’t really want a near-death experience. I want to live and be safe and stay away from death as much as I can. (So far in my life I’ve been pretty lucky to be insulated from it.) I certainly don’t want to taunt it or court it or invite it closer. But I do somehow want to remember that it’s coming for me.

I guess that’s why I read the obituaries every morning — it’s a way to think about death while keeping arm’s length. Reading about people who are dead now and did notable things with their lives makes me want to do something decent with mine…

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