Life as a near-death experience

by nick on May 9, 2016

In the days when I regularly used to work in sub-Saharan Africa I was constantly surprised by how much more alive I felt in the tropics than at ‘home’ in the UK or Europe. It didn’t take me too long to figure out why. In Africa, earth and sky seem so much closer together; the natural rhythms of life are more tangible; and the ubiquitous presence of life-threatening organisms and animals – mosquitoes, bilharzia, venomous spiders and snakes, lions, buffalo, and elephants – constantly remind one of the precariousness and fragility of human life. Not least one’s own. The awareness of mortality is never far away.

In the so-called ‘developed’ world it’s easy to become distanced from the natural rhythms, to feel safe in a world that’s been largely sanitised of dangerous species, to trust that modern medicine will protect us if we’re unlucky enough to succumb to accident, disease or illness.

But this distancing from our mortality has two downsides. Firstly, that we take the fragility of human life too much for granted; second, that we can too easily lose contact with the vitality, the heightened sensory awareness, and gratitude for life that living in close proximity to danger inevitably gives us.

Besides it would be perverse to think – even in our brave new world – that danger is not always hovering about somewhere in at least one of its many and multi-faceted guises ….

A pilgrim boarded a ship to the far side of the known world. As was the custom, other passengers as they came on deck, asked him for a blessing or a word of wisdom. All he said was, “Without death, life has no meaning. Be grateful for the gift of your mortality.”

But the passengers, being much the same as most other people, didn’t care for the bleakness of the message and it was no sooner heard than forgotten.

But once out at sea, a great storm blew up. It was so violent that not only the passengers but even the captain and crew begged God to save them. Some moaned, some prayed, some stayed silent; but most offered to do a deal: a life of ‘good works’ if only they were spared.

Meanwhile the pilgrim sat calmly, a smile on his face, as if he had not a care in the world.

Finally the storm passed, as storms do, and some of the passengers asked the pilgrim how he had remained so serene. ’How could you be so calm while our lives were in such peril? When all that existed between us and death was the thickness of a plank of wood?’

“Yes, yes that is quite true,’ said the pilgrim. ‘And just think: on dry land we don’t even have that!’

[Adapted from The Salmon of Knowledge: Stories for Life, Work, the Dark Shadow, and OneSelf. Nick Owen, 2009. Crownhouse Publishing, Carmarthen. p 162].

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