Brush with death gives reason for perspective
Yesterday, for the third time in my life, I was given the great gift of having almost been killed, but living on without injury.
I had scrambled up onto the railroad right of way to take a picture of a cathedral in Beziers, France. I’d just seen a train whiz by at about 70 mph, so I knew to be careful and, by frequently looking both directions on the double track, thought I was being careful.
I could see at least a quarter mile each way. But, as I was about to take my third shot, a whistle sounded, surprisingly close. Startled, I reacted by taking a step to my right – as it turned out, directly in front of the train. It was about 250 yards away and closing very fast. Getting it, I dove head first off the track in the same direction as the misstep, a choice which, I’m sure, saved my live, as reversing direction would have taken more time. I’m quite certain the train missed me by less than 30 feet.
Being mathematically inclined, I couldn’t help converting that to the equivalent 3/10 of a second.
Try that on a stopwatch. It’s not much.
The reason this was a great gift, besides the obvious fact that I continue to breathe, is that such an experience forces one to contemplate one’s own mortality, something we are generally loathe to do.
In about 1971, I nearly drowned. But I was too young then to gain much more than the simple lesson that death might really happen to me. Not a profound insight, but one most parents wish their children would have.
In 1984 I had a much more intense experience than yesterday’s, as the contemplation of the possibility of death was a matter of days, not of a second or less. This time I knew I had survived almost as soon as I became aware of impending doom. That time, through miscommunication with my doctor, I spent a weekend thinking a biopsy had indicated I had an
incurable cancer, only to find out on the following Monday that it had not. Thirty-six hours of thinking you may be dying is definitely more impressive that any number of days realizing you were very nearly killed. But both give one pause.
Only one thing in my life is really important. It is the love I have for my wife, Barbara. Oh, of course, other things are also important. But they all pale in comparison. And they are only really important in proportion to how they relate to love. My father, my son and grandson, my best friends, politics. And, unfortunately, being important doesn’t necessarily correlate well with having been the highest priority in the actual day to day practice that constitutes one’s life.
I like to think that, when all the circumstances are taken into consideration, people always do the very best that they can. I like to think it largely because I like to think it of myself. Have I regrets? Yes, many. But choices are often not easy to make, and sometimes not even ours to make. There are things I would have done differently had I known how they would work out. But I didn’t know, and I do believe life always made the best choice I could at the time, knowing what I knew, under the circumstances as they were. I think the same can be said of us all.
Sometimes the best we can do, in a given circumstance, turns out to be pretty piss-poor. But I believe we all try. Sometimes we just don’t have faith enough in ourselves or each other to choose an option that we may later think was better. Sometimes we overreach.
Often reality, in one way or another, surprises us. Often we fail our loved ones. But I think all of us -everyone -tries to do the right thing.
That doesn’t mean that I think those who wind up doing the wrong things oughtn’t to be held responsible. I believe in law and order and I believe in prisons (although not in sending people to prison for many of the things we do send them for). There are, in fact, many forms of holding people accountable in which I believe.
I realize that, in view of my claim that love is the essential consideration, some will be surprised at my inclusion of politics in my list of things that are also important. But government is the most powerful societal expression of love – or of hate – that we have.
Good government can make people’s lives so much better: food, health, water, sanitation, safety, peace. Bad government makes people’s lives inconceivably awful: war, famine, pestilence, disease, prejudice, repression.
Personal love is far more critical in one’s life than what’s going on in the government – and especially so when government is doing a half-way decent job. But government does matter. It matters because of its power to express societal love or hate, a power which can be overwhelming in any individual’s life. The Beatles said it all, “Love is all there is.”
I’m so lucky to have a woman whom I can really share my life with. I love you Barbara. Thank you for being there.
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May 6 marked the start of International Nurses Week, the annual recognition of nurses and the profession of nursing.