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Being Alive Puts You at Serious Risk of Death


I have always been a rather careful person when it comes to my physical safety. I suspect deep down some part of my psyche believes that if I just keep my nose clean and play my cards well, any freak mishaps, violent incidents or sudden illnesses that must happen will happen to people who are less careful than I. My shiny track record of no broken bones and no serious illnesses seems to suggest that it’s true, but I know it’s mostly luck.

It’s no fun to think about it, but fatalities without warning do happen, and not even the most asinine of worrywarts can “careful” their way around that possibility. There is an inescapable caveat attached to the gift of life: that it is only borrowed, and we never know when we have to give it back. Lightning strikes, it really does.

We live in a culture that wants us to believe we can circumvent any real possibility of an unfair and untimely demise if we just focus on security and minimize risk. Human beings have real trouble coming to terms with their temporary nature, because among the animals we have the unfortunate distinction of being the only one intelligent enough to be aware throughout our lives that we will die.

Particularly when we read about a fatality in the news, the frightening unforeseeability of death very often gets masked by blame. In most of these stories, the question of blame pops up like clockwork, as if an untimely death can only be the result of a preventable, punishable human error. It couldn’t happen just because — there’s always something that was overlooked, some warning that was ignored or unnecessary risk that was taken.

They should have put a handrail there.

The doctors downplayed his concerns.

She must have gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Excessive speed may have been a factor.

Anyone can identify where things “went wrong” when they look at an event after the fact. “This death was preventable,” how many times have you heard that meaningless sentence? All we need to know how to prevent a fatality is hindsight, which means it must have happened already.

Particularly in the USA, there is a cultural belief that with enough cunning and power and money, a society can stitch up virtually every risk of catastrophe. We’ve all witnessed the dramatic surge in airport security since the 9/11 attacks. It’s made our flights longer, more expensive and more bureaucratic, all to prevent something that has already happened. I still hear people say, “Well as long as it keeps us safe from terrorists, it’s worth the extra time and money.”

But it doesn’t. When it comes to people intent on doing harm, they seek the cracks and loopholes, which aren’t even countable, let alone fillable. Making one route only makes the others more attractive. Every airport in the world could be utterly impenetrable, and it wouldn’t matter, because anyone intent on killing indiscriminately will strike wherever it’s easier: a school, a festival, a sports venue — or even another skyscraper; they just won’t use planes this time. It hurts to admit it, but no matter what we do, we are always at risk of an unfair, unexpected death. Yet billions continue to flow into the unachievable human dream of death-proofing life.

A few summers ago, there was a horrific incident aboard a Greyhound bus en route to my hometown. Without warning, one passenger produced a hunting knife and began stabbing the young man beside him. The bus driver pulled over in a hurry, and all but those two passengers fled the bus. Barricaded inside, the perpetrator eventually walked up to the front door, carrying the young man’s severed head.

The case made international news. Before young Tim McLean had even been laid to rest, there was a lobby calling for the outfitting of bus drivers with sidearms so that such a thing could not happen again.

Presumably, at the first hint of an impending stabbing, a well-trained bus-driver could leap out into the aisle and pick off the attacker, with John Woo-style theatrics. And just like that, no more grisly stabbings on buses.

Greyhound was immediately blasted for not having metal detectors and airport-caliber security, though nobody had mentioned the lack of security before the incident. They bent under the public pressure. Security increased, along with the ticket prices, ridership decreased, and now Greyhound continues to close routes in Canada in an effort to stay profitable.

Life is high-risk

In the weeks following the Greyhound murder, Facebook groups appeared, soliciting people to attend candlelight vigils for the victim. A friend of mine expressed a bit of a rant about it in his status message. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “Why are all of these thousands of people mourning the death of this person they’ve never met? Was it because he died in spectacular fashion? People die violently every day, but I suppose their deaths aren’t quite cool enough to make them popular.”

My initial thought was “Yes, probably,” but as his remark continued to rattle around in my head, I realized there was something much more upsetting about this case than its gruesome imagery.

What was so shocking about the incident was how completely random it was. There was no predicting it, no preventing it, no understanding it. A young man’s life ended in the most unspeakable manner, and nothing could have been done about it. He could have been the most careful person in the world. It didn’t matter if throughout his entire life he had stayed away from unsavory crowds, never touched alcohol, never spent too much time in the sun, never ate trans fats, always held the handrail, always wore his seat belt, always obeyed the speed limit, never meddled in skydiving, drugs, casual sex, red meat, third-world travel, black diamond skiing, golfing in the rain or crossing from between parked cars.

He assumed no identifiable risks by taking the bus from one sleepy Canadian city to another, yet the result was a brutal, reasonless death. The reality that is so unpalatable to the public is that death is very often senseless, yet we try to wring some sense out of it by citing a security flaw, or more easily, identifying an individual who is solely, cleanly responsible for the senselessness of it. With that individual locked away, death becomes once again sensible and preventable, and we can all breathe as easily as we did before we saw the awful headline that day. In court, killer Vince Li was demonstrated to be utterly, violently insane. He had no criminal past, and he beheaded and began to cannibalize his victim because he thought the boy was a demon sent to destroy him.

People were extremely upset when he was determined to be insane. They seemed to ache for a good reason as to why this boy was killed — a lucid, calculating killer instead of a crackpot — perhaps because then they could ask “Why?” and at least get a coherent answer.

For a lot of people, I suspect this murder dealt massive blow to the illusion that untimely death happens only when predictable, controllable factors are overlooked.

If something should happen…

Most of my life I pictured myself dying gracefully in a hospital ward — or better yet, in a warm, quilted bed at my beautiful country home, like Forrest Gump’s mom — with every opportunity I needed to say whatever I needed to say before I winked out for good. I could tell everyone that I loved them, that I’m at peace with death — whatever it would take to help us all come to terms with the prospect of old Grandpa David moving on to greener pastures.

Of course, this scenario is certainly not guaranteed. I often think about the people whose sudden deaths make the news, and what their last interactions with their loved ones were like. The 9/11 attacks alone would have produced over three thousand such haphazard, unsentimental final goodbyes. For most of them this last parting moment would have been completely pedestrian: “Why can’t they make a decent shoelace these days?” or “Don’t forget to pick up Nutella on the way home, we’re almost out.” Some of them probably had a quarrel. Likely none of them said, “If I don’t see you again, I love you and regret nothing.”

No, we really can’t be sure we’ll have a chance to wrap up those loose ends. Making sure your will is in place is certainly one considerate thing to do for your family [actually I better get on that one – D] but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about telling people who matter the things you want them to know. Once lightning strikes, there’s no more time to ponder it, so best do it now.

What do you want your people to be aware of, while you still have a chance to tell them?

I won’t even suggest what those things might be for you personally, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But in a moment I’ll tell you what I know I need to say, for what it’s worth. It’s pretty simple, and might as well be public.

I have long fantasized about writing a lengthy discourse, called “Why it’s okay that I died,” or something along those lines, and leave it in a conspicuous place in my closet. Its purpose would be to inform my surviving friends and family members that, in the case of an untimely death, I am cool with it. Doesn’t really matter how it happens: lightning, bowling ball accident, rhino attack, car wreck (boring!), rapid flesh-eating disease, javelin mishap at the 2036 Summer Games in Singapore, it’s all the same — I’m fine with the outcome, because it’s utterly inevitable no matter what the timing or form.

It has been rather nervewracking to put off this particular task. Not that I plan on taking any unnecessary risks, but sometimes the urgency of it does bubble up inside me. For instance, the thought came up back in mid-November when I found myself hurtling down an uneven country road in Thailand in a home-made Tuk-Tuk (really just a motorcycle with a covered bench welded to its side) with nothing resembling a seatbelt, commandeered by a shrewd driver who was ripping me off even though he insisted I was ripping him off. He was adept at dodging the plentiful potholes, even at that speed, but one bad one probably would have done it… Of course, nothing happened, and I put off my little “Just in case” discourse again. Two months later, I’m happy to say I’m actually doing it.

Now I’m in the much saner, more regulated country of New Zealand, where I feel the likelihood of being catapulted from a makeshift Tuk-Tuk is drastically reduced. But this island nation is prone to earthquakes, volcanoes and the occasional colossal squid.

I like life, and I plan to keep at it for a while, but death itself doesn’t scare me. I just don’t like the thought of a lot of people being distraught should things end abruptly. In case anyone, whether you’re a casual reader, a friend or a family member, finds themselves needing to make sense out of the senseless, here’s what I feel I need to say. It’s in past tense, for obvious reasons, but at the time of writing I’m still kicking.

Whatever happened, I’m proud of it all, right up to and including the end. Whether, as I write this, I’m due for a quick lightning strike, or fifty years of terrible decisionmaking and failed goals are yet to come, what I’ve experienced so far makes it all worthwhile.

No matter how unfair or unexpected or early or needless my death was, it is not a tragedy.

I don’t care if someone took my life for no reason. It doesn’t matter to me if I was victimized or martyred or sacrificed or betrayed. I don’t care if I did something dumb and out-of-character and did myself in. Ill-advised cliff-dive, maybe. Let it be, it was my right. Please, do not interpret my life’s conclusion as a tragedy and do not regard my life as incomplete.

It was perfect. I got to make hundreds of friends and eat fish and chips out of a newspaper and beat my dad at chess. I got to experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. I got to drink beer on the patio with some of the planet’s finest human beings. I got to laugh, often. I got to write things, and got you to read them. My life wasn’t “tragically cut short” unless you have some very serious entitlement issues. Nothing went wrong. Learn what you can from it and carry on knowing I was cool with all of it, and that no lightning bolt or falling piano can change that.

Ah. Huge weight off my chest.

So, is there anything you need your people to know, before you’re unable to tell them? Give it a bit of thought, but don’t put it off. Especially if there’s a thunderstorm outside.


Photos by jondoeforty1 and Artmakesmesmile

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Sarah Joy Albrecht January 11, 2010 at 5:31 am

I admit, I get scared driving on ice.

They don’t salt the roads here in rural Japan – the salt would allegedly destroy the nutrient balance in the rice fields. In the winter, the roads freeze and are a solid sheet of ice. They reflect the car lights and it looks like you’re driving on glass.

Last night, my husband was driving us (me + five kids) home and we ended up passing the car in front of us (dangerously speed up/slow down w/ not much warning… needed to pass him!) and our car fishtailed in the on-coming traffic lane, unable to accelerate for a few seconds of eternity, and we slid (literally) in front of the car we were passing and were able to continue down the road, albeit quite scary.

During this fishtail pass, I asked the kids to be quiet. My husband said, “these are possibly the last seconds of their life… dont’ tell them to be quiet”.

He’s so crazy-calm.

My daughter started to cry. “I don’t want to die!” she said.

He said, “Any of us could die at any time. If you die, you’ll be with Jesus.”

We made it safely home, of course.

Sometimes I wish I had the same calmness he does in stressful situations.

I thought about your question about what you’d want people to remember you for, being as you never know when your time may be up. I actually wrote it out a while ago. You’re welcome to read it here: http://bit.ly/5w8uNv

More rules aren’t the answer. Death is a part of life. So many rules and government intervention, and we can’t enjoy the life we have. Which is worse?
.-= Sarah Joy Albrecht´s last blog ..Winter in Aomori Prefecture: 2009 vs. 2010 =-.

David January 11, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Yikes, I’m glad the ice didn’t do you in. Otherwise I would have missed out on your story ;) Thanks for sharing it.

Lisis January 12, 2010 at 7:42 am

That really WAS an amazing story! The perfect follow up to your awesome post. WOW!!

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Suzanne January 11, 2010 at 7:55 am

I came away from this smiling…crazy as that seems.

This is how I feel about life. I do not want to worry about dying during the whole time I’m living. I’m also the kind to be aware that I’m not guaranteed a tomorrow.

Sure, I still get stuck in the “just another day” boring way of thinking but there are moments when I am very aware of the temporary and unpredictable nature of my life. At that moment, I feel so much gratitude for life as it is right now, because it’s another minute that I got to experience.

For anyone reading this, I agree with David and ask you to write your letter, if such a thing matters to you. Dying is most hardest on, not the person it happened to, but those left behind.
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..Half Year Celebrations =-.

David January 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Yes, it’s rather easy to get used to thinking, oh I can do this tomorrow or next week or in ten years, but sometimes it’s quite an assumption. Actually I love feeling temporary and unpredictable. I find it’s easy to do that while I’m traveling; wasn’t so much back home. I’ll see if I can carry that “Who knows what’s around the corner” mentality back into a regular routine when I return to Canada.

Hayden Tompkins January 11, 2010 at 8:13 am

I love what you are saying here and for the most part agree with you. (My thoughts were very similar on the Greyhound tragedy.)

The only thing I’d like to mention is in response to this:

“We live in a culture that wants us to believe we can circumvent any real possibility of an unfair and untimely demise if we just focus on security and minimize risk.”

I typically am a lot more security conscious than most people, I believe that has to do with being a woman who grew up in a big city. (Miami)

All too often people do not focus on their security or minimizing their risks when they are in the most potentially dangerous situations.

Yes, it is true that you cannot control everything that happens to you. However, it is true that you can reduce the likelihood of being mugged or raped by simply being vigilant and alert.
.-= Hayden Tompkins´s last blog ..Cats! Evil? =-.

David January 11, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Certainly. I was thinking more about security on the “Department of Homeland Security” level. As I said, I don’t take a lot of unnecessary risks with my personal safety, and I haven’t gone out and booked a bungy jump since I wrote this :)

There is definitely a point where too much security becomes detrimental, and I think the average person is way past it, especially in the area of staying secure socially (not opening up to people, not engaging strangers, etc.) I am recovering from that kind of social hypersecurity.

Chris January 11, 2010 at 10:35 am

beautiful post, i read it to the end (unusual for any blog i regularly read)

couldn’t agree more

David January 11, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Thanks Chris. I’m proud to know I have compelled you all the way through 2200 words.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? January 11, 2010 at 11:09 am

Hi David – It’s rare to find a writer who tackles death; for me, it’s refreshing to read. Because death is just the last great adventure, right? I know you’re talking about unforeseen accidents, but I see the “what could have been done to prevent it?” mentality with every kind of death (except for that old person, under the quilt in the nursing home, who’s lived a full, rich life). All other deaths are classified as untimely, or worse, as the fault of the person dying: what did he/she do to bring on cancer, heart disease, stroke, brain tumor, or some other illness? Sometimes people just get sick and die. Or as you say, have accidents and die. I think our inability to accept this speaks volumes about how much we need to be more comfortable speaking of death, our own and others’. So thanks for the thoughtful post.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Meaning Mondays: The Teapot Edition =-.

David January 11, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Thanks Patty. I’m pretty comfortable with heavy topics, but I know most people aren’t. There will be more, but I don’t want to go overboard. That’s why I tried to keep it lighthearted. But I agree, the more we can talk about the difficult stuff, the less difficult it all becomes when we’re forced to deal with it.

Erin January 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

I have a talk to deliver in a week and I have chosen this exact topic as it is an important one. Safety has been an obsession and it is an illusion. As you point out, life is high risk and that is OK. The important thing is to take a risk, not to place yourself directly in harms way, but to choose a life of significance and joy. The path to move mountains or to higher awareness is not safe. But worthwhile and exciting. Life should be exciting and fun.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..You Can Do It =-.

David January 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Yes, security is the basest of motivations, and thus one of the most easy to obsess over. It takes so many horrible forms – warmongering, reclusion, racism…

Lisis January 12, 2010 at 8:07 am

Hey, D… having lost my mom in a plane crash, a dear friend to suicide, and my dad to a combination of the two, I am definitely NOT one to assume I’m guaranteed to live to be 100, or even to my next birthday. Almost the opposite, really; I go to bed most nights with an underlying fear that I will not wake up in the morning.

When I say “fear” I don’t mean that I’m afraid of dying, or even that I feel like I’ll miss out on all the great things I had planned for my life (I no longer make long term plans). But I fear leaving Hunter without a mom at 9 years old. I’m so afraid that I have not yet prepared him enough for life, and that going through life without a mom from such an early age would cause him a tremendous amount of pain.

In other words, I feel it is my responsibility to stay alive for him, while he needs me. But aside from that, I have no attachment to this incarnation of mine. It feels like it is just a little side trip (perhaps to produce him?) on a much longer spiritual journey.

Anyway, I love this post, was shocked about the Greyhound story, really love your pre-death speech about your death at the end, and would only have to disagree with this part:

“…among the animals we have the unfortunate distinction of being the only one intelligent enough to be aware throughout our lives that we will die.”

I feel like the opposite is true, like animals instinctively know death is a natural part of the cycle of life. They don’t worry about it, and aren’t traumatized by it because, unlike humans, they don’t live in denial that death is inevitable and unpredictable.

Brilliant post!

David January 12, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Hi Lisis,

What I meant is that we have the capacity to worry ourselves about death, while other animals don’t.

The toughest part about death does seem to be the people we leave behind. I feel I have a duty to outlive my only surviving parent, because it would be really hard for her if I didn’t. And my blog would go stagnant! Unacceptable.

Lisis January 13, 2010 at 7:16 am

Well, there’s definitely that. We can’t have life without Raptitude. So that settles it, then. Immortality is your only option. ;)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Book Review: Female Brain Gone Insane =-.

Brenda (betaphi) January 12, 2010 at 11:42 am

Interesting post, David. Made me think of Helen Keller’s famous quote. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

It also got me thinking about the relationships we form online and what happens when someone we read often suddenly disappears. I’m thinking particularly of someone you and Lisis both know who just disappeared. I wish there was a way to know why she stopped posting and responding to comments and emails. And if you suddenly stopped posting and Tweeting, how would we know what’s going on? There should be a way to know, don’t you think?
.-= Brenda (betaphi)´s last blog ..Dr. Guisenberger’s Story =-.

David January 12, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Oh no, who disappeared?? I’m so out of the loop.

Disappearing from the online world is one thing, but yeah you never know what’s up. It’s a bit disturbing when you go to someone’s site expecting an update and it’s just the same post there, and the days flip by ominously.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) January 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I tend to think about my transiency quiet often. It does help to keep life in perspective, especially interactions with others. “I could be hit by a bus in an hour” is my usual response when people question my motives for doing or not doing something.

I seem to enjoy life a lot more than many in my social circle, even when the chips are down. I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m reminding myself so often that my death could be completely random~ or not, if you saw how I ride my push bike ~:-)

David January 12, 2010 at 9:32 pm

When you can get that mindset, impermanence is almost an emotion in itself — a very clean and easy one.

marshall | genverters.com January 13, 2010 at 6:23 pm

We all worry about death and accidents, however, the trick is to not be consumed or paralyzed by fear. On the other side recklessness is not a virtue either. I strive to live with a purposeful sense of adventure somewhere in the middle.
.-= marshall | genverters.com´s last blog ..Managed Expectations for Satellite Internet =-.

David January 13, 2010 at 9:53 pm

The middle way! Never fails.

Anthony Morris January 14, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Once again absolutely amazing post.

Through the short time I’ve been alive I haven’t had much experience with death, although most of it has come from internal issues. I’ve never quite been afraid of death, but depression put me on another side of the argument.

I’m glad to say that no one has had to read a note from me, about my passing. I, like you, do enjoy this life I’ve been given. While it has not always been that way, this is who I am now, and I’m someone who doesn’t want to leave my friends and family without some kind of word.

I never really thought of writing an if-you’re-reading-this note, but now I’m definitely interested and believe that it would not only be fun, but an honestly good idea, just in case!

David January 17, 2010 at 8:31 pm

I have to say I feel lighter after reading this note. It was a big loose end, which is now tied up for good.

LeeShand January 16, 2010 at 11:12 am

What a powerful post. Serious thought mixed with laughter. Everyone needs to read this. Personally, this post mirrors alot of my thoughts lately. I too have been pondering Death. Why? My age? My girls growing older? The fact that I too have been driving on icy crazy roads? A crazy premonition that I am getting ready to die? Watching the news too much? I don’t know.
You said it best, and I will take your advice.

David January 17, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I’ve found a lot of people talking about mortality these days. I think New Years may have something to do with it. People tend to reflect around this time of year.

Val January 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I would say :
“Being alive puts you at serious risk of “doing anything possible to forget you are about to die anyway” :
addictions (huge choice), consumerism, faith………arts ?

On a side note, the fact that people seem to no longer tolerate any risk collides with the implementation of the “precautionary principle” in law and politics. As people feel that (technological, medical…)progress has come so far that the authorities have the possibility to prevent any catastrophy, an unforseen event (like say…the snow ) can make the headlines and require experts to talk on national tv (any French ppl would get my point ^^).

And finally (because even if my comment has no 2200 words…”toutes les bonnes choses ont une fin”), I really do not care about letting people know something “before it’s too late “…but I’d enjoy a piece of music as a eulogy : either “The Frail” (alt.version) or Rachmaninov ‘s”Concerto n°2- premier mouvement” – how to sum up the passion, the tears, the fears, the ugliness and the beauty of a human life.

sally December 26, 2013 at 2:29 am

I’ve done mine too, at last. One of those things one puts off, like a will (yes I have one of those too). It was kind of hard but I’m glad it’s done. Borrowed bits of yours in there (thanks). I think it’s a lovely thing to leave.

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