“If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,” I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore . . .”
Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
–with thanks to Ray Bradbury for the words I wish I had written (everything in italics)
As a critical care doctor for over 30 years, my dad has seen many thousands of people die.
For the health worker this can be a vulnerable moment when the result was not what you wanted; you face your own mortality and your own ultimate powerlessness. I remember clearly the first patient of mine who passed away despite doing everything that could possibly be done. I remember feeling helpless and angry, at myself and at the world. And then I
remembered something my dad said about patients and their lives and deaths.
My dad always says, when people die–sometimes it is a peaceful anticipated passing at the end of a long rich life, sometimes it is the unexpected nightmare of a child broken beyond repair by a chance fall–that no matter what we do as doctors, ultimately everyone gets the same: one lifetime; no more, no less.
My dad says that nowhere does it say for how long a life, only that you get ONE, and one only. In this job, you see how quickly it can be taken away; how sudden and how senseless. Arriving in a community in Petit-Goave, Haiti JUST in time to administer simple antibiotic eye drops to prevent permanent blindness in a baby with gonnorheal conjunctivitis…but also arriving in a community 2 days after a 22-year old Ngabe girl died of diarrhea that we could have prevented had we been there.
We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
One life…length indeterminate.
Why is it so hard to remember this every second of every day? Every breath is one less we will ever take; every step we take is one more both to our destiny and to the grave. So many external pressures can be brought to bear on us…money, peer pressure, social expectation; and so many internal pressures…fear, guilt, resentments. It seems like such a recipe for despair until we remember that ALL of us are Captains. Everything can be taken from us and a gun held to our heads, and even then we have the ultimate power not to give in, to retain that last bit of free will that is us, that chooses not to go quietly into the night but to rage against the dying of the light.
“So few want to be rebels anymore. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily.”
We have that power; all of us know of ordinary men and women who were beaten and degraded into hell, and who somehow found that power within themselves to defy tyranny and refuse to be coerced. The martyr who suffers torture and death rather than renounce their beliefs…the concentration camp victims who chose a bullet and a communal grave rather than inform on their fellow prisoners…the young student in Tienanmen Square who stood firm before the tanks…the passengers on the hijacked plane who decided to go down standing up.
“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library.
Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.”
These ordinary people just like us became legend, but ALL of us have that power within us. Although very few of us have ever been put to the extremes above (and I hope I am never put to such an extreme test), all of us have faced moments in our lives when we had to draw on strength we didn’t know we had in order to survive–how to get past the loss of a child…the betrayal of your husband or wife of 40 years…all the way down to one day long ago when I was swimming far out at sea over deep water and got caught in a current. No matter how hard I swam, I was getting swept further out to sea and was getting more and more tired as the wind got stronger, pushing me away from the island. I actually don’t remember how I made it back to shore…I just remember making the decision right then and there that I was NOT going to die that day…and I swam. I remember breathing fire, choking on sea water, and not being able to feel my body anymore; diving down and swimming below the wind current, surfacing and being swept back, and diving again and again and again. My eyes were closed most of the time. To this day I have no idea how long that swim took…it felt like my entire life; my whole existence had been reduced to one great driving impulse…swim. And then I opened my eyes and saw the bottom sloping up below me and the breakers only a few hundred yards away…and then I was in the breakers, and as my body was hurled forward I went limp and the sea took pity on me and cast me up onto the beach, with nothing left. I lay there on the wet sand for a long time until I crawled above the tideline and lay down again. And that day I did NOT die. And I learned greater respect for the sea’s power and saw that for a moment I had touched within myself that spark of endurance that all of us have within us.
When those moments of extremity come we don’t always manage to access that power–what is is that stops us?? When the extreme tests come, however, there are always ordinary people just like you and me who time and again suddenly become strong like a wave harnessing the power of the whole sea and rise up to smash themselves against the rocks rather than retreat, “making nations quake, and monarchs tremble in their capital.” How amazing if we could unlock it at will to seize control of our destinies…to turn the power to defy a nation into the power to follow our dreams?
How beautiful and how sad that a life with infinite potential richness should be such an eyeblink in the universe…each life unique and beautiful like a single wave among the billions of others rolling across the seas and onto the beach, only once, and then gone forever except in the echoes of what we have touched during our lives.
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
One life…length indeterminate.
Make it count!
“Where would you like to go, what would you really like to do with your life?
See Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot at a few times in a dark alley on a Morrocan midnight. Love a beautiful woman.”