Do you believe we are born with an expiration date and that we “sign up for” a certain number of years? I heard a story today of a stellar young woman on the way to a big event who was killed in a car accident. She crossed paths with another driver who was running late for his own intended destination and he blew through a red light. The young woman was an organ donor whose generosity will save numerous lives.
I know of others who were just going about a “normal” day, and they made their transition suddenly. Some are unexpectedly given a life-ending diagnosis and, as a result, experience pain and suffering. There are many who beat the odds and recovered.
There are some who seemingly have nine lives. I know two of them. Stephen had numerous occasions on which he was declared dead; the first at 3 or 4 when he was run over by a threshing machine on his family farm and then frozen to a fence in a blizzard on his way home from school a few years later and, if memory serves, stung by yellow jackets, struck by lightning, drowned and later was in a motor vehicle accident. He took his final breath this year at 72 as cancer claimed him.
Another friend, Matthew has had at least one stroke, a few heart attacks, open heart surgery and cancer. He is still, blessedly, on this side of the veil, continuing to make a positive difference in the world.
This is an area in which psychology and spirituality overlap. It is an essential conversation for those who ponder the nature of life and their place in it. I happen to be one of them, since, even as a child, I knew there was more than what I could see, hear and touch. Something beyond. Having grown up in a Jewish home in which death was discussed openly, since I had older relatives who passed on and my father was often called on to be present for a minyan (back then 10 men needed to say certain prayers when someone died; now women are counted in that quorum) when someone from out synagogue died. I learned not to fear the eventuality. In college, I had a dream in which I was hover-walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood and my sister asked what I was doing there since I had died. I woke up, feeling a sense of peace.
It was many years later, on June 12, 2014, that I faced my own mortality. On my way home from the gym at age 55, I had a heart attack. Unexpected, but not completely out of the realm of possibility, since there was a genetic pre-disposition to cardiac disease, combined with my own penchant toward workaholism. I almost didn’t make it. Even now, five years post cardiac event, I am still a bit in denial of how close I came to crossing that threshold and staying there. I do what I can to have a healthier lifestyle, set boundaries and maintain awareness of the tendency to fall back into old patterns. The question I pose to myself often is: Was I meant to survive that experience for a higher purpose? When I incarnated in this current form, did I have a soul contract which implied that as a result of early childhood loss (my beloved grandmother died when I was four), having what could have been debilitating asthma diagnosed right after that, an ectopic pregnancy in my 30s that was nearly life ending, the death of my husband when I was 40 and he was 48, I would grow up to be a social worker/therapist/minister/journalist? Was it a direct line from one event to another, or a random series of events? The answer is important as a means of shaping behavioral choices.
I consider multiple stories surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, of those (including my sister-in-law and brother-in-law who were late to work that day) who didn’t make it in, canceled plans, stopped to pick something up, or were taking their children to school and got stuck in traffic.
A story I read came from Rabbi Jeff Salkin.
“A colleague told me the following story. It is about a non-Jewish woman who worked in the World Trade Center. She had fallen in love with a Jewish man. She decided to convert to Judaism. When she told her parents about her decision, they were not happy. Let’s just say that they were not exactly lovers of the Jewish faith or people. Then, September 11 happened. Her parents called her in anguish, looking for her. Finally, she called them back, and said: “I’m alright. I skipped work today.” “Why?” they asked, through audible tears of gratitude. “I had an appointment with the rabbi who is teaching me for conversion.” Her parents came around. By now, I assume, they have come to believe that Judaism actually saved their daughter’s life.”
I had also heard about a man who survived the attacks on the World Trade Center only to die a few years later in a plane crash.
When I posed this question to various people, the answers were as diverse as they are psychologically and spiritually.
“No. But I do realize that we don’t know how long we’re going to be on this Earth. My time as a pilot of antique aircraft caused me to realize that I might leave this world as a bit of a surprise. And to become okay with that.”
“No. I used to think that maybe everything happened for a reason, but I have seen and experienced things that can have no other reason except that ‘shit happens’ on this planet. A cousin’s husband and my friend were taken out by a perp running from the cops driving through red lights. He was full of life and I knew at that moment there was no reason except cause and effect of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I definitely believe he was taken out before his time and that it was NOT meant to be.”
“There is a random element to the universe where creativity is allowed to flow. If everything was pre-planned there would be no creativity.”
“I do believe that before we come in we know how long we plan to stay — and some choose to go early. One of the things that convinced me was all the stories of those who should have been at work in the World Trade Center on 9/11 but stopped to buy donuts or were otherwise late for a reason. I think it just wasn’t their time. Another thing that convinces me is all the stories of people who have near death experiences and they are sent back here, being told, ‘it’s not your time, yet.'”
“I’d welcome being taken out suddenly ‘before my time’ than a slow, suffering decline.”
“My grandfather told when I was a wee one that there is a day you are meant to be born and a day you are meant to die. I don’t know if he was right. But I hold that as a truth alongside — maybe for some it isn’t.”
“When I first met my husband, we were having a discussion about the paranormal and the metaphysical, and he told me that he has always believed he would die at age 56. He was 40 at the time and promised that he would give me the best 16 years of his life. We celebrated his 56th birthday with some gloom. He’s now 65. We both have had some near-death illnesses that we have survived, and still, I buy green bananas.”
“Well considering I might be the guy you mentioned with 9 lives or 15 I think as of now; this is my humble opinion and from my own experience with death and life:
“Death comes for us all period, it all happens exactly as it is supposed to happen, suddenly or slowly there, our lives are meant to be lessons for others. We are not meant to know what those lessons are. Take a person who is dying slowly and painfully, their family watches as the decline occurs, my daughter experienced this as a child with her grandmother’s fall into MS. My daughter used the lesson of sitting and reading to her grandmother and volunteered at a nursing home reading to the elderly who had no family. Now was her grandmother’s painful prolonged exit without benefit? You decide.
“Take my first death, I hated myself because I told my mother I hated her for being sick but when she died in my arms at 10 I told her I loved her, and I thought she never heard me. For almost 40 years I carried that guilt till one day on my trip in the desert I realized when I was dying I heard everything, so she heard me, that revelation freed me at the right moment and the right time to do the most good.
“Our lives are not chance, things happen when they are supposed to. It is just up to us to be open to the possibility of what the lesson is and open to that chance when it comes, meeting a stranger that becomes a dear friend, helping a down and out guy get through a divorce because you’re a good hearted attorney and turns into a lifelong friendship. Thinking things are just chance closes you off to life and lessons even when those lessons may not be for you at all.
“I’m going to die finally one day in some epic fashion alone and in the middle of nowhere and I am so okay with it. Because somewhere somehow along the way there was a lesson to be passed along because of my life, all of our lives, it’s just not your place to know what that lesson was.
“Either that or this life is all horse shit and meaningless, but I don’t think it is. Being one of the few people to be alive who has experienced death, not near death, I don’t fear it because I know it, but I also don’t welcome it. The act of dying is beautiful for the person dying I know that may sound illogical or contrary to what you may see, while the pain leading up to death may seem too much and often is the actual part of dying is beautiful beyond words understand that last part please and if you’re struggling with grief about the loss of a loved one know they were at peace fully without pain as they transitioned to whatever is next.”
In the midst of this discussion, the reality is we will all die someday.