One of the truisms of life is this. That which is alive will die. It happens to be true of every living thing we see or have ever come in contact with. Cats, dogs, birds, deer, crocodiles, cockroaches, flies, trees, grass, flowering plants, and the myriad varieties of bacteria. All will eventually die. Each and every one of us included. It was the American author William Saroyan who famously said, Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case. Five days later, he was dead.
Last weekend, I had a heart attack. The Cliff Note version is that I woke up at 2:00 a.m., felt pressure on my chest, shooting pain down both arms, and was profusely sweating. After getting to the hospital, I was stabilized. Then, came the necessary medical procedures: catheterization, stent inserted in the arteries feeding the heart to open the blockage, and being given more drugs than a crack dealer slings in a thriving inner city market.
I will give myself a little credit. Not once in this entire process, even when I thought I was breathing my last, did I ever invoke a deity (Abrahamic or otherwise) pathetically intoning “why me?” Nor, did I offer up incantations or supplications to an invisible and non-existent being in a wretched effort to somehow save me or spare me. I did, however, offer profuse thanks. The thanks were expressed to the doctors, nurses, cardiac therapists, and other medical professionals who all worked as a team to save my life. I’m able to write this not because of soothsayers, witchdoctors, shamans, or archbishops who use their secret knowledge of the arcana to commune with the invisible. But, because of caring humans whom, through scientific study, have honed those scientific skills to a fine art.
Now, if you want to have an “in your face” reminder of you own mortality, try lying on an operating table, fully conscious, while looking at a video screen in real time of your heart beating as you watch wires go through your coronary arteries. I don’t necessarily recommend this. But, it is an eye opener.
All of this, needless to say, had me contemplating my own mortality. The answer to the “why me” question is a no-brainer. The answer stares back at me from a mirror. I am a mortal being who, in over six decades on this planet, wore my body down like a race car constantly running in the red rpm range through years of tobacco use, alcohol consumption, questionable diet, and a high stress job.
The more important question is this. Was and is my existence worth it? A question each of us, if we are being honest with ourselves, would like to have answered before we cash it in. And, many of us answer it ourselves by reminding ourselves of all the good things we have done. True enough. But we also tend to conveniently forget those times when we were selfish, assholes, and hurt others around us; myself included. Those who deny that part of themselves either 1) never got out of their parents’ basement, or 2) are selectively editing their autobiography. The latter like writing your own eulogy.
For many of us, that answer won’t come in our lifetime. My children once asked me what a successful life is. Time to remind myself of the answer I gave them. Success is not measured by the accumulation of wealth, fame, or notoriety. It is when, after you’ve changed your career to that of a root inspector, or your ashes are spread over someplace you will never again be able to consciously enjoy, someone can walk by and state or think this. "You know, the world was actually a better place because he/she was in it." If I’m lucky, someone may say that someday.
Because of the advances of scientific knowledge, and the application of those principles through technology, I hope to be around long enough to see the leaves change color in the autumn, spring flowers opening, the late summer harvest of fruits and vegetables, and laughing and joking with my friends, for many years to come. If I am that lucky, it will be in no small part due to the accumulation of scientific knowledge, advanced generation by generation, and actively opposed and fought against by every religion ever invented.