I just got through threatening my life by swimming around in YouTube. I ended up drowning in despair in the plastic soup that our — that’s you, me and EVERYONE’S! — sea is becoming.
Maybe I don’t really want to know what’s going on in the big impersonal world out there today; it’s much too personal.
I’m 58 years old now, and death prowls around in my consciousness every day of my life. It gets continually renewed by the passage of my peers, one after another in a relentless, procession. Their numbers now are swelling, but too soon will run out.
My life has been lived much closer to death than most. In 1969 I started working in a nursing home and then went on to become one of the first paramedics in the US. I left allopathic medicine in 1985, and behind it participation in hundreds of deaths, most all of them right in my hands.
There’s no one who understands better that I’m going to die than me.
Combining this experience with what I’ve seen in my lifetime and done with my own life, I’ve come to a conclusion about my species: We defy life in hatred of its impermanence. Each of us, and we as a whole, seem to court suicide.
Even as a child I knew — not suspected, but knew — it wasn’t a matter of if humans would wipe themselves off this planet it was a matter of when. This would have to have been the conclusion drawn by any child of my generation living near any of the primary targets of the USSR’s nuclear missiles. The futility of “Duck and cover exercises” every day at noontime sirens (in my case, Brooklyn, NY) gets wired into your DNA.
On my TV screen were images of Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the country pointing its arsenal at us, beating his shoe on the UN podium looking as if Michelangelo himself had taken a stab at portraying our vicious id. Though debated about, and today better understood, all of my classmates still talked about that madman who swore “We will bury your children!” That is what we heard; that is what got in. The Dude was Serious!
And, even as a child, nothing you could have told me would have lessened the fact that there is no such a thing as a Good Guy because WE were the ones to first annihilate and torture fellow human beings with the evil handiwork pointed at us.
So I’ve not been surprised at all by the incredible amount of pollution in the air during the Seventies, the AIDS panic of the Eighties, Global Warming and the Middle East debacle in the 90’s and up to this very day when incredibly huge areas of the Pacific Ocean occupying over 30% of the earth, have six times the weight of plastic particles in them than plankton and there are 90% less fish in the sea now than in the 1800’s!
My biggest surprises have been the significant reduction in air pollution and the lessening impact of AIDS here in the US, but all that’s really happened is the rest of the world, in a rush to be like us, is picking up the ball and heading us all to the goalpost.
Some day, it’s all going to catch up with us and we’ll be, as we say here in Hawaii, “Pau!” Finished.
And that’s where it all gets personal. Right now I am more aware of the ways in my life I’m killing myself or have “tried” to kill myself than I’ve ever been before. I have to look at every accusatory sentence I’ve ever laid on anyone about killing themselves and apply it to myself.
To me, their attempts have always looked blatant. With me, of course, it’s been more subtle!
I’ve always considered myself to be a lightweight in suicidal behavior in everything except food. My eating habits will ultimately take me down. In terms of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and all the typically self-destructive behaviors of my generation, at worst I was a periodic. I did smoke cigarettes for 30 years, but quit. Yet, in how many moments during such indulging did I put my life in danger knowingly?
Still, looking through the eyes of other people, I’m sure they said about me what I say about them, “Look at how that idiot persists in pursuing suicide!”
As a paramedic in all sorts of environments, my life was continually on the line, and often I totally disregarded the fact. If I found myself in a moment where something immediate needed to be done to interfere with death’s grasp, I barely considered my own safety and took action. I’ve pushed gun holding murderers away from their victims, jumped into canals to hold someone stable with an amputated leg when I’m a lousy swimmer, entered rooms to “talk down” violent psycho patients as police stood behind me, guns drawn, covering my back.
Lookit that Idiot! Is that not courting death?
For more than 30 years I rode motorcycles and toured all over the mainland US and into Canada. I’ve raced old growth log-carrying tractor-trailers on mud roads in Oregon, drafted Semi’s within four feet of their bumpers to be in a wind-pocket saving me from freezing rain in Georgia, hit a VW bug at 70 MPH, totalling it and landing 116 feet from the point of impact (spraining my foot!). In fact, the only time I ever had a motorcycle seriously break down on the road, it saved my life! I was on the 1st Mt. St. Helen’s eruption Missing List because I was scheduled to be camped out on a neighboring mountain’s slopes (up a closed Forest Service road) photographing the volcano’s activity the very day it blew. I was delayed by the breakdown for twelve hours!
This very day I make my living driving the Hana Road, on Maui. That’s driving about 200 miles each work day, 100 of which include 1,234 curves and 108 one-lane bridges through a tropical rainforest known for flash floods, landslides and disorientated tourists.
Suicidal food, jobs and movement are just a few categories whose volumes don’t come close to the pile of individual moments powered by death-defying choices I’ve made. Along the way, I’ve learned of others doing similar things — hauntingly similar things — but they got killed in the process.
It is not my fastidiousness that keeps me alive, and I know it. I cannot count the opportunities I have given death to claim me.
That leads me to suspect even more that death and I are in a sacred alliance. We are meant to meet. My job is to provide the occasion and Death’s job is to decide the time.
From within my own very human skin, I wonder if this is not the arc of our collective reality.