Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Death Story: Version One

I am 15 years old and a Junior in High School. I have broken up with my girl friend just before the Christmas Holidays. I am very upset--I am having trouble sleeping, I am sad and tearful much of the time, I have trouble thinking about anything but her.

My parents suggest that perhaps it would be good for me to take a trip so that I will have something fun to do over the holidays. They propose that I go to visit my Uncle and his family who live in Texas. I will have to fly from New Orleans to Houston. I have never been in an airplane before.

The plan to take the trip does lift my spirits some and I agree to go. I get on board the four engine prop-jet plane and take my seat over the wing. I look out of the window and I see an enormous engine most of whose length sticks out far beyond its apparent anchoring part within the margin of the wing.

I am certain that the way the engine's placement is designed is unsafe and that the engine is likely to fall of at any moment, but certainly when the plane takes off.

I fasten my seat belt and prepare to die. Since I had never been scared at the thought of dying, I do not feel fear. Just a strong conviction that I probably will not survive the take off. As I contemplate my likely death, a wave of sadness comes over me and the thoughts that generate this sadness are related to my young age and a sense that I have not yet accomplished anything worthwhile in my life. I think that I have a lot of potential for achieving something significant and that I am going to die before I get a chance to do it.

These thoughts and the sadness stay with me as we taxi toward the runway and await our turn for take off. When it is our turn to take off, as the plane begins to move down the runway, my body is more and more filled with the sensations of acceleration, and I begin to feel some excitement as well as sadness. As the plane surges forward and suddenly leaves the ground and soars into the air, I am pressed back into my seat and I feel really excited and somehow transformed as if I have participated in a miracle.

After a few moments, the exhileration seems to fade away with the passing away of the acceleration, and I am calm, even though still looking at the cantilevered engine, surprised that it has survived the stresses of take off, and surprised that I am still alive. It still seems likely to me that the engine might fall of at any moment. Both the sadness and excitement are still with me in mild form and I do have a strong sense that I hope to survive and get to fulfill my life's potential.

In the years following this flight, I probabaly took a trip by airplane every two years until I was 30. My internal experience always paralleled my experience of that first flight, not with the same certainty that I was going to die, but rather with clear thoughts that I might well die, accompanied by the feeling of sadness generated by a judgment that I had not done anything very significant with my life.

As the years went by, my life moved ahead in many ways. I went on to love and be loved by other girls, I graduate from high school, I graduated from college, I got married, I fathered a child, I earned a doctorate. Yet every time I flew, I thought of the possiblity of dying and felt sad that I still hadn't accomplished anything that was a clear fulfillment of my own special gifts and potential.

When I was 32 years old I spent a year as an intern in clinical child psychology at The Judge Baker Guidance Center in Boston, Massachusetts. The internship involved some seminars, a few hours of individual supervision by senior psychologists and several hours a week of testing and providing psychotherapy to children.

That spring, as I was nearing the end of the internship, I made a flight to New Orleans, to be with my father who was having cancer surgery. As the plane taxied toward the runway, the usual thoughts of the possiblity of my dying as the plane took off came to me. I noted that I did not, however, feel sad. And as I thought about the absence of sadness in the post take off calm, it occured to me that the therapy I had done with the 8 or 10 children who had been assigned to me, represented a signficiant achievement and that it would not be especially tragic for me to die, since some of my potential had been fulfilled.

I should add that I was somewhat surprised by this experience, because my earlier definition of what would have constittuted fullfilling my life potential would have been a lot grander (grandiose?) and involving a lot more externally visible success. However, it was a very clear experience and I knew that some important change had occured in my life.

For several years afterwards, I continued to have that sense of facing death when I flew, but the sadness never returned.

I became more conscious or self conscious of this story, and began telling it ocassionally to people in my life. At some point, I labeled it as my death story, and took it to mean that I was quite comfortable with the knowledge that I would die someday and that I could accept that with no special sense of tragedy or loss and without fear.

It is true that I have no sense of tragedy in relation to my death. I have had a rich, full and meaningful life. I am not ready for it to be over and I am grateful for the time I have had and all that I have accomplished. I have loved and been loved, I have had joy, I have given life, I have been of help to people, and I have used many of the talents I have been blessed with.

1 comment:

  1. It's a function of age for most of us I think. I can recall after I turned 40 I used to say, "If I were to die today, I could feel satisfied that I have had a rich and fulfilling life," and I meant it. And yet as each year has gone by I have felt that way more and more whilst still looking forward to and having so many plans for the years to come. It's sad to hear someone past 50 or so to think that their life has had no value. I hope I live to be 150!
    Thank you for another fine contemplation.