Part III – Death and Vulnerability
People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. One study (I heard of but haven’t seen) showed that people would feel more nervous about an inevitable impending speaking engagement than of impending bodily dissolution. Why is this?
I think it is because death means going into the unknown… Public speaking means being known. Standing in front of your fellow man, dozens or hundreds or thousands at a time, and opening your mouth to speak means submitting your most tender parts to public scrutiny, examination, and judgment. When you speak, it is not just your body people see and critique (though they certainly do this as well), nor is it your appearance and overall demeanor; rather, they are privy to and make the harshest possible estimations of your psyche, the real “you,” the person you are in bed at night, or in deep conversation with a friend, or around the dinner table at Thanksgiving with family. I knew I was afraid of public speaking. I didn’t think I was afraid of death.
When the doctor leaned over me to do the surgery, my dad was by my side. We exchanged a few words as the Demoral set in. He held my hand. My responses grew shorter, and my motivation to speak waned to nothing. I leaned back, heavy, floating. I was aware of the doctor moving about, and my dad’s large hand on my hand, but I just laid back and closed my eyes.
I felt exactly as I have felt at times, when, sleeping in a room wherein other people are have already woken up and are getting ready and carrying on conversation, I half-consciously hear their conversation, and attempt, almost in a dream, to enter into it by suddenly speaking — posturing as if I had been a part of the conversation all along. Each time I have endeavored this, my contributions have been met with long pauses, blank stares, and/or laughter. And each time, upon regaining full consciousness, I see why. I see that my twilight-proficiency at following their conversation was less than I estimated. Just so did I listen to the conversations of the nurse and doctor and my dad, repeatedly feeling the desire to pipe up and say something, to make a joke, to respond, to question, and repeatedly feeling that my comments, if I could eke them out (I was feeling fairly weak at this point) would probably be met with blank stares.
The worst part was being cut. My dad sat by my side, and the doctor loomed over my ghostly self, and the nurse bustled back and forth in the room. My dad, finding me an increasingly non-responsive partner in conversation, had given up on communication with me. He looked around the room, chatted with the doctor, and released my hand briefly to dial the phone or type on the Palm Pilot. The nurse followed whatever orders the doctor gave her, coming and going. The doctor came and sat down next to me, and produced a scalpel from his tray. He leaned in over me.
For a moment I felt that this man wanted to hurt me. “Don’t stab me! Please!” But the words would not come. “Why is he stabbing me? My chest! My heart! My dad will protect me. My dad is holding my hand. Can he stop it? Make him stop! I don’t want surgery. I cannot speak, and I cannot ask dad for help. Help! Help.”
I lay quietly and breathed.
The pressure of the knife on my numb pectoral was uncomfortable, but there was no pain. The hole was opened, and the doctor produced a Heimlich Valve, which he carefully inserted into my chest. More pressure. His eyes gazed intently just below my face; he ignored me.
Soon the valve was in. The operation was a success. The sewed me up like an old leather purse, bandaged me, and gave me a sling to help prevent my arm from moving too much. I lay there for awhile, trying to regain strength.
The Demoral kept me in a dreamlike state. Some friends came to visit me, but I wasn’t much of a host. I stood dumbly, letting conversational opportunities pass me by. I somehow couldn’t muster the strength to care. My dad and I made a trip to the drug store to get Vicatin. I lay motionless in the front seat, trying, and failing, to sleep. When we got back to the dorm, the drugs were wearing off a bit, but I was still trapped in the in-between state. I tried to read some Shakespear, but I couldn’t remember the last line, let alone the last page. The guys on the hall came and oogled my open wound. Despite the sling, I hurt.
Since that time I have not been able to view life in the same way. People who have had “near death experiences,” and who come to face the fact of their own mortality speak of those events as ‘turning points,’ in their life, as ‘new beginnings,’ where ‘everything changed,’ and each day was invigorated with a sense of life and purpose because (they now know) tomorrow is not a guarantee. This surgery experience managed to accomplish the same purpose for me. I was not in danger of death, not really, but the vulnerability, the fragility, the utter helplessness it impressed so effectively on my mind left me miserably aware of my own fragility. As the Psalmist says, “Man’s life is but a hands-breadth… He springs up like the grass, and fades away.” At first, we fear this fact, but I realized I must no longer ignore it. The psalmist, rather than ignoring or fearing this fact, uses it to keep his life “in perspective,” whatever that means. Death is real. More importantly, vulnerability, fragility, and being known, those are real. My favorite band says, “I choose to hide from the all-seeing eye.” The whole point of “all-seeing” is that this is impossible. Since the Eye of God pierces me, whether I like it or not, the only recourse I have is to hide from myself. For, being so known is scarier than death in a way. But the psalmist has showed me that I must not flee. He says, “Make me to know my end, and what is the extent of my days. Let me know how transient I am.” Though it was through unexpected (or should I say spontaneous) means, this is the request my heavenly father fulfilled.