"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest." Confucius
I would add a fourth—nearly getting killed, which is scariest—although you could argue that this is just a part of bitter experience.
I emerged from all my nearly-getting-killed experiences relatively unscathed. What I learned is that the difference between living and dying is sometimes measured in inches or seconds or amperes, and while a near miss may be good as a mile, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try at least to draw a lesson from it.
Periodically I review the ways I have been nearly killed in order to refresh my sense of good fortune at having survived this long on the planet. So far, I have:
- tangled and lost with an electric arc welder
- dived headfirst into a shallow pool, cracking my head on the bottom in the process
- passed on a ride in an airplane that crashed
- pulled out onto a highway in front of a speeding car
- skidded across an icy interstate between two tractor-trailer rigs going the opposite direction
- spun out in heavy traffic on a wet interstate highway
- been held up at gunpoint
- toppled over a low iron railing from a concrete stairway onto an asphalt drive
I could probably add being diagnosed with cancer, which certainly gives pause for reflection, but it doesn't quite fit with the potential for instantaneous finality that characterizes the rest of the list. With cancer you get to think about your imminent demise before it overtakes you.
So what lessons have I learned from all these there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-went-I events? Not much it would seem. I'm more cautious than I used to be, but who isn't?
I used to want to sail around the world single-handed. I idolized guys like Joshua Slocum and Francis Chichester. Now I'm afraid to go out of sight of land.
I used to want to ride a motorcycle across the U.S. Now I'm afraid to get on one for fear I won't be able to keep it upright at a standstill.
I used to want to race sports cars. Now I drive slower than anyone I know. Friends and family make fun of how slowly I drive. People stuck behind me in traffic who don't know who I am want to kill me. That's the only thing that keeps me moving along at all. I'm almost as afraid of being shot by a road enraged motorist as I am of being sucked under a truckload of cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.
Another thing I used to think is that I was somehow being saved from all these near deaths for a higher purpose. That there was something important I was supposed to do, and I wasn't going to shuffle off the mortal coil until I had done it. I'm still trying to figure out what it might be. I've cataloged my singular talents, hoping the things that I am good at would give me a clue as to my purpose on earth.
The one thing that I do better than anyone else I know, better than you, and better than anyone you know, is to fart. I've always been pretty good at it, but since I lost 14 inches of south-bound pipe to colorectal surgery my skills are world class. I'm not talking just volume and duration either. I have tonality and pitch control that would make an opera tenor proud. If I went onto America's Got Talent, I would blow the competition away. (pun intended because, you know, who could resist?) As a bonus, my farts do not stink, although my wife maintains that the only reason I think this is that I have burned out my olfactory nerves with Afrin and Mucinex.
Even I know, however, that this is not the kind of talent for which one can reasonably expect to be preserved because it is so unlikely to ever be the fundamental impetus of some august achievement. If anything, trying to capitalize on a penchant for flatulence should be cause for being struck down early. Alas the fates and the rules of natural selection do not work that way. A spectacular paucity of anything meaningful to contribute to society is not, apparently, reason enough to be excised from the fabric of modern culture. Else why would Pauly Shore and Perez Hilton still be with us.
A part of me harbors the idea that, so long as I fail to realize my appointed purpose, I will be safe from the grim reaper. I know this is probably ridiculous, but the notion panders to the same part of me that thinks it wants to live forever.
“How do you want to die,” someone asks.
“Last,” I say.
“Last among whom?”
“Just last...or not at all.”
Many are happy to point out the error.
“No one lives forever.”
“So far,” I reply.
Lately though this too is a thing I used to think that no longer holds the same fascination for me. I am so riddled with pains and diminished capacities in my sixties that I can scarcely imagine going happily into my nineties. I figure by the time I get to eighty, the only thing holding me upright is going to be the gas.