When I was a young, my father played this song on the boombox called “Live Like You Were Dying”. I didn’t get. I didn’t want to live thinking about death. I was already scared enough about hell. I’d listened to enough sermons to know that the afterlife was just waiting for me on the other side of nasty car crash. But like most children, I didn’t really believe in death and I certainly didn’t want to walk around acting like I was about prepare my bed six feet under. As long as it wasn’t quite a reality, I ignored it. Even so, I enjoyed the song. And I went about my merry way, cautiously avoiding nasty car crashes by yelling at my mom when crazy drivers swerved into her lane. See, there’s a reason to call front seat.
When I was thirteen, my family went hiking in the Olympic Mountains on the Mount Ellinor Trail. It’s gorgeous landscape. If you’ve every had the pleasure to visit the area, I heartily encourage you to at least drive through the place, especially up to Hurricane Ridge.
A bit before the top of the peak, I was left behind. It was understandable. I had been running around cliff edges on mountains up and down the West Coast since I could walk. They had every confidence in my ability to follow a trail. My parents took me to Half Dome before I was out of the backpack and my mom scaled it while pregnant with my sister. (She didn’t know she was pregnant but she did shortly after!) But that day, I was still recovering from a cold that had gone into my lungs. I wasn’t breathing well.
Reality became very confusing. There are large black out periods in my memory. It was high elevation and I wasn’t getting the oxygen that my body or my brain needed. I lost the trail. It happens to the best of us. We do everything we can, but some part of the equation isn’t working. In the moment, we don’t always know why.
I remember violent movement, sliding on rocks and then some part of our wonderful human physiology kicked in because I was suddenly very awake and aware looking down at pure, open space. I had my arms spread wide on either side of me and my fingers buried by the nails in dust and crumbling stone by it wasn’t going to be enough. With my belly down in shale, every time I moved, I slid closer to the edge of nothing. It had been a windy day. Until that moment, I had been cold. No longer. Such things didn’t matter. I was terrified. And I was alone.
We’ve all been there, that moment, when you scream because you truly need help and no one one answers. I could hear the others, but with the wind and the rock, they couldn’t hear me. I decided the end had come. Shale and I had a long, respectful history. Eventually, it was going to drop me over the edge. There was nothing to hang on to. I remember raising my head and seeing a panorama very similar to what is pictured above. It was beautiful. More than beautiful. It was going to be the last thing I saw. The words of Tim McGraw’s song were suddenly wisdom. The moment after the worst happens is not harder. Once it’s done and it can’t be changed, the fear is gone.
Literally, fear vanished.
We spend so much time worrying about what could be happening, what could go wrong. It’s so very, very hard to turn off the voices in our head telling us that this might happen or that might happen. We stare so hard at potentially miserable future versions of our existence that we miss what’s around us. I am so guilty of this. I worry about paying off student loans, of keeping tabs on family members and hoping they’re doing well. I worry about getting sick with cancer and not having health care. I worry about being a good friend and eating preservatives and what my niece is finding to put in her mouth off the floor.
Frankly, the inside of my head, if I’m not careful, would sound something like these cats do.
There’s never been time, when all those yowling cat noises in my head turned off because I walked away from what I was scare of. Not even once. The only way to shut them up…is to go over the edge and accept.
I remember falling off the side of the cliff. The physical evidence says I didn’t. My memory begs to differ. I suppose our imagination are that strong. In the memory that didn’t happen, I fell backwards and saw the sky, framed by the mountain peaks and felt the air beating my back as I dropped through it. The colors were clear and strong. Time moved slowly. The world was very quiet.
And very beautiful.
And then I was on the shale again and not scared. The worst had already happened.
I’ve heard that samurai in ancient Japan pondered their own deaths and all the ways they could die so that when they reached the battlefield, they would have already made their peace, experienced the fear and moved past it. I remember getting my rejection letter from the university I really wanted to attend. I knew, before I opened it, what it would say, because it was a slender envelope instead of a large package. And in that moment, it was over. I’d already pondered imagined, felt the fear, and made my peace with the outcome. The need to open the envelope, once I saw it, did not exist.
Someday, the worst is going to happen. Someday, I’m going to fall over a cliff and I’m going to die, be that cliff old age, disease, an earthquake or a traffic accident. Do I want to continue living, a thousands time yes! This is an amazing world, tortured and twisted as some pieces of it are. It’s dangerous, glorious, mundane and wondrous. It has angry cat videos and coffee and musicians like Lindsey Sterling and bands like Within Temptations.
If we worry every moment about the little things or even the big catastrophes, we’re going to miss the point of being alive. So I’m going to jump over that edge, regularly. We need the terror. There’s nothing like surmounting true fear for making us feel like we’re alive. Why else would we ride roller coasters!
The moment I truly accepted falling off the edge of the cliff, I calmed. I already felt like I had gone over the edge. I didn’t scream anymore. My mental state shifted. I’m certain medical professionals could tell you more of what was happening. But in the silence, I saw a stone that I would have sworn had not been there before. It didn’t move when I touched it. I grabbed it and dragged myself up on my stomach and back to solid ground. Was that piece of rock there before. In all likelihood yes, perhaps the shale was covering it. I don’t know. Could I have found it before? No. Why? I was staring straight at the fear of falling so completely that I couldn’t see anything else. I couldn’t see the way out.
I hope you live like you were dying. Those moments when I thought it was over, were absolutely breath taking. There was no time for regret, no putting off appreciation of each little bit of awareness of life. And those hours afterwards, as I walked off the mountain, those hours will go down in my life as some of the happiest. I was in love. The cold wind meant nothing. I handed my jacket to someone else who was complaining. Bickering siblings and less lunch than planned for meant nothing. I was alive! I could still FEEL the cold. I could still BE hungry.
It’s not something that lasts forever. Eventually, what most of us refer to as “real life” gets back in our focus again and the mundane takes over. And most of the time, we don’t have the opportunity to face our eventual demise and get to walk away to remember the lessons. When we do, it’s a gift. One of my brothers recently called up another brother and said “Dude, I’m alive.” He’d bounced off/ducked around a car who ran a red light. It was a celebration. Better than a birthday.
It’s not just the fear of dying that we have to face. It’s a loss of a job, a relationship, a situation we hold as part of our security. Now and again, we have to go over the edge, just to hit the reset button on our perspectives. We have to stand there and face the fear and walk through it. It’s worth it, I swear. It’s terrifying and risky and ultimately, life affirming. Sometimes going over the edge comes with a price, a life changing price, even when it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but as you’re falling, you’re alive, really, truly, alive.
I’d rather be alive for one short moment then part of the walking dead for a hundred years. What about you? Have you ever gone over the edge? Is there an edge you need to face?
Great post! I totally get what you’re saying. I too had a near-death experience in my youth, the details of which I’ll not get into because it was totally stupid and totally my fault. But I remember distinctly having the thought, “I’m about to die.” And as soon as I accepted that reality, I was presented with an opportunity to save myself. Mind you, it was a slim opportunity, and my thought then became, “If I don’t make this, I’m still going to die.” But like you, I think having come to terms with the fact that death was indeed possible and very close at hand, I found the strength and courage to fight and live.
Here’s an interesting thought about fear that really resonates with me despite hailing from the dubious source Dr. Phil: he says that it’s not really the thing itself (job loss, divorce, going blank during an important presentation, etc.) that we fear but rather our ability to handle it if that bad thing did happen. In that case, the way to overcome fears is by learning to believe in ourselves and trust our ability to rise again in the face of adversity.