Realization of Mortality
Pendant with a Monk and Death
“Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.”
~ Excerpt from William Knox’s poem “Mortality”
The first time I ever really thought about death was in grade school, after learning that the sun would inevitably blow up and take Earth and everything ‘human’ and familiar to me into nothingness. I don’t remember clearly ever having an in depth conversation with my parents about death; the subject tends to be quite taboo. I did have pets though, small furry ones that didn’t live more than a few years, so I imagine if they told me anything it was probably something akin to “They go to Heaven with the angels to be with God” or “They go to sleep and never wake up” which are the two most common explanations I’ve seen in regards to death. My parents weren’t especially religious, but I think I remember animals getting the sleep explanation and humans getting the ambiguous Heaven spiel. But once I learned that there was an ‘inevitable’ end to Earth, that was when Death really struck me. Its funny that it takes an Apocalypse type scenario to really understand the unstoppable force that is Death. We like to think we understand it or have accepted it, but as soon as an Apocalypse scare is around the corner everyone loses their marbles. I think the reason Apocalypse scenarios are so popular with people (as opposed to Post-Apocalypse, which offers the chance of survival) is because it scares them, it gives them a case of the heeby-jeebies, but why? Because in the scenario, its Death, its coming closer and closer, and no matter where you run, or where you hide, you can’t escape it. What people don’t really think about is that the Apocalypse IS coming. For you, for me. For every mortal. It’s called dying, and its inevitable.
But these thoughts were soon covered up by childhood worries and fun. I ended up forgetting my fear of the sun blowing up or asteroids hitting the earth (Armageddon, the movie, was popular when I was a child and soon refreshed my fears of space and Death) and got on with my life for the most part. That is, until high school. In my sophomore year, my only real ‘close’ friend dropped on the school track (he did cross country) from some sort of stroke-like brain aneurysm and was rushed to the hospital. Our school was informed, and we were told it didn’t look very good. I was horrified. My friend did end up surviving, but he was left with the left half of his body paralyzed and had to undergo extreme physical therapy; his dreams of cross country running put on the back burner so he could fight to even use his left hand. The shock of it stayed with me, however, years later. I realized that anyone, at any moment could drop. My friend was lucky to have survived (he later became a cross country runner again), but many people weren’t. The fact that Death seemed to loom over us so stealthily never left my mind.
Occasionally I think back to the first time I was ever sure I was going to die. Obviously I was wrong, but at the time you could qualify it as the feeling of impending death. Does this qualify as a Near Death Experience (or NDE)? It depends on what sort of definition you go by. There seem to be variable opinions on the subject as to whether or not an NDE ‘counts’ if you were not actually about to die. For example, the difference between one person suffering cardiac arrest whose heart stops beating, and another having a gun pointed in their face by some mugger. The person whose heart stopped could be said to have physically been ‘near’ to death, while the person who is threatened with a lethal weapon might get away unscathed. Are they the same?
I would argue that they are not the same, but that perhaps related. It isn’t so easy to simply say one is a ‘real’ NDE and one is fake. What about times where you are close to dying physically/your brain activity stops but you have no conscious realization of the moment? Or times where you were closer to dying than you previously supposed, only to look back later and realized how easy it could have been? Perhaps there is something to having nearly all of your body shut down, because there does seem to be a tendency for more ‘transcendental’ experiences during these experiences, compared to the ‘fear of immanent death’, perhaps these could be defined as two facets of a general area of study. My personal experience was with the sense of impending death while at work.
My immediate family and I have been installing insulation into people’s houses since I was at least sixteen, though for me it has been off and on. One day I was doing what is called ‘blowing insulation’, in which you load a special kind of insulation into a large machine that looks like this. The top of it is about chest height for me, and what you can’t see are the large rotating ‘chopper’ blades on the inside. They aren’t really blades, because they aren’t sharp, but they could easily crush human anatomy.
One winter, I was loading the blowing machine in the back of a pickup truck. It was a bit cold and I neglected to roll my sleeves up as I normally do when loading it. Suffice to say the sleeve of my sweatshirt got caught up in the rotor blades. At first I didn’t think anything was wrong, in fact quite ironically when it got caught I automatically became very annoyed. I had to work, in the cold AND get my sleeve caught in this stupid thing? I was perturbed. Then my sleeve didn’t release, I was jerked forward into the machine, smashing my chest against the side with great force, and pulled up and over into what is called the ‘hopper’, or the opening that leads to the rotor. Without thinking, I pulled my arm back and thrust it out through the zipper on the front of the sweatshirt, and tried to keep myself away from the crushing blades beneath me by putting my arms and legs over the sides and pushing upward. The sleeve went around, and around and soon my body was being dragged down, and closer to the rotor. Unintended screams burst out of my lungs the likes of which I’ve never heard myself be able to do on purpose, they sounded like what I always imagined a rabbit screaming must sound like… they were animal-like.
Then I realized, I was going to die. I saw in my mind my arms being pulled into the machine and crushed, the jagged wounds spilling out far too much blood to be stopped before I could get help, or my head getting pinned and crushed against the metal sides, and picturing this, everything went calm. I wasn’t nearly as upset as I thought I’d be. I remember weighing up my own life, up until that point and thinking “I couldn’t die in my sleep? Really? I had to be crushed to death.” My muscles felt weak, and while this entire episode might only have lasted a few minutes at most, it felt like an eternity, until suddenly the machine shorted out.
The sweatshirt had been made out of a super durable fabric (I had paid extra for it, because it was my work-wear) and the arm had wrapped around the rotor so many times that the fuses in the machine blew themselves out. An old man who lived in the house we were insulating came running out about that point (which goes to show you it must have only been a minute or two, though it felt like at least fifteen to me by the time it was done) and helped me out. The sweatshirt was tattered, and I still have it to this day as a memento mori. Maybe I wouldn’t have died, but my brain certainly thought so.
It was about this time, that the cumulative evidence I had seen finally came to be too much. The fact that you can die anywhere at anytime, doing something you love, at your shitty job you hate, having sex, watching a movie, it all made me say “Fuck this”. I had a miserable life. I hated every second of it, and the experience with the blowing machine was the last straw. I was angry. At myself, and at anyone who would try to convince me that I should put things off another day. I decided that if I was going to die, I’d be damned if I was going to do it at some job I hated, or before any of my goals were ever completed. I refused to die unhappy. It wasn’t long after this that I decided to travel around America for two-ish years living out of a backpack, walking around and getting rides or shelter where it was offered. I realized what had kept me from adventure my whole life was ultimately a fear for my own safety. But if you could die at work, what point was there to hide from adventure because of the fear of danger?
~ Seth Moris