What I learned at Death’s Door

I’ve written an e-book titled Reconnecting.calm: Finding common ground for science, technology and faith, based on my observations over 40 years writing about technology, most of that time in Silicon Valley. (Info on that book is at www.reconnectingcalm.com.)

I finished the final draft of the book on the night before I went into the hospital for spinal surgery, expecting to be home in three or four days to post it to e-book stores like Amazon.

Instead, there were complications following my surgery, and I remained in the hospital for 70 days: 30 days intubated and in a coma; 20 days in and out of consciousness; and then 20 days in Rehabilitation learning to walk and talk again.

I had a remarkable experience upon becoming fully conscious in the hospital again, 50 days after my surgery, and it pertains to the subject of Reconnecting.calm: bringing compassion and composure into a technology-based environment, in this case an Intensive Care Unit.

After seven weeks being bedridden and immobile, my body had atrophied. When I finally woke up in intensive care I could not move my limbs, sit up, or even lift my head from the pillow.

I could turn my head, though, and looking left and right I saw a row of broken bodies in the ICU. For the first time in my life, I was not in a position to pity the pitiful few. I was one of them now.

And suddenly, and surprisingly, the pain and fear lifted and I felt bathed in a warm light, like a halo or an aura, binding all of us broken ones. The overwhelming sense of serenity overrode my terror at being unable to move my limbs. I literally felt compassion (meaning “to suffer with”) toward and among all of us on the ward, as if we were all lying together in the surf of an ocean of infinite mercy and mutual support. The sensation lasted for maybe a half hour, long enough not only to experience it but also to reflect on the experience as it was happening. And all the while a mantra played over and over in my mind: It’s okay. It always was and always will be. It’s all okay.

The message was somewhere between “Let go. Let God,” and “Sit back and surrender to the void.” And I noticed too, for the first time since childhood, that I was seeing the world fresh and unfiltered by anxiety or apprehension or complacency. I’d lived, as many do most of the time, with the cataracts of concern, the gauzy haze of anxiety, constantly before me, like a scrim that dims the view. I’d forgotten there was ever a time when I had experienced color, light and sound directly and intensely, unclouded by distractions or concerns.

I’d come back from nearly two months in the realm of gloom and shadows, and incredibly I wasn’t anxious about whether the hospital bills could be paid, or if I could get work again, or even if I could ever walk again.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’d awakened to find that I was still alive. And that was wonder enough. The existence of existence is inexpressibly awe-filled. How existence came to be is the province of science; why it came to be is a question for philosophers and theologians; but that there is such a thing as existence is a joy, a mystery, a puzzle, and a triumph to anyone who bothers to reflect on it.

I felt like Emily, the young girl who dies prematurely in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (1938): “All that was going on in life and I never noticed…. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?”

I’d read books about the Big Bang, and had a general idea of what it was: out of nothing there suddenly appeared the singularity, of zero mass and infinite density, from which exploded all that was, is, and will be.

Then early one evening, alone in the hospital garden during my weeks in Rehab, I saw the Big Bang playing out. It was a very mundane sight: a slight breeze was blowing through some tall grass in front of me. But now, forced to wait for an aide to wheel me in, with no TV, CD, DVD or iPad within reach to distract me, I didn’t just look at the event. I actually saw it.

I realized I was witnessing the still-lingering notes of the song of Creation, still reverberating across the cosmos for these 14 billion years. The energy released way back then was there before me, as wind rippling the grass. And the grass itself is ancient energy cooled down, made substantial, and now alive. Perhaps even sentient, for all we know.

Like many, I’d been taught to see composure and compassion in one silo, called religion, and science and technology in another, called the real world. But my experience in the ICU and in the garden brought home to me that there is only one expansive field: existence itself.

And I realized that the energy released in the Big Bang was not only evident in the wind and the grass, but was also beginning to find its way again through my atrophied synaptic connections and muscles.

In my enforced reflection time, until the aide came, I carried the line of thought further to realize we are all ripples of energy that originated in the first fire. Our common genesis in an always-changing, but always-complete, cosmos demands that we manifest harmony with one another. I realized at a gut level why Love one another is not called the Great Suggestion. It’s the Great Commandment. It’s in the nature of the nature of things.

And the first step to achieving compassion is to learn composure. We cannot be kind to others if we’re at odds with our own true selves. To the extent that the technology we are all immersed in now promotes composure and compassion, it is truly a godsend. To the extent our silicon technologies frustrate our pursuit of the golden mean (moderation) and golden rule (kindness), we need to begin rethinking them.


© 2012, Tom Mahon

Tom Mahon