Perspectives from Death’s Doorstep

I’m nearing the end of another semester of college. I’ve weathered capricious professors, bad break-ups, and numerous existential crises in the past two years.

But finally, I cracked.

Last week I came down with a nasty cold. My symptoms resembled bronchitis and mononucleosis, though the jury at the Health Center remained out. In the face of three exams over the span of four days, I only wanted to curl up in bed and sleep away the hours.

My body, weakened by the incessant coughing and shortness of breath, appeared emaciated and derelict. The thought that I ran a half-marathon just a few days prior seemed preposterous. Worse yet, I gradually felt more helpless, as if all sides of my bedroom were closing in on me.

Since then, the life has breathed back into me. I returned to my regular haunts, running along the rugby pitch and burning the midnight oil in the library, all seemingly with a renewed focus.

To say that I was on Death’s doorstep is both overdramatic and inaccurate. At no time was my life remotely close to being at risk.

Nonetheless, I took away from my ordeal several perspectives on the life I had led over the past few months and reordering of priorities that needed to take place.

Lessons:

1. Don’t live the life of someone else.

With so many of my closest friends studying abroad this semester, I worried that my social network would flounder and I began scheming about how I could infiltrate long-established friend groups.

In the process I became intent on keeping up with the latest fashion trends and staying up to date with topics that others were talking about.

To better fit in, I bought a pair of worn leather boots, which are increasingly in vogue, but always cruel. Haute couture: 1. My vegan conscience: 0.

I also added several commitments to my workload, justifying the move with the excess time I now had with fewer friends on campus. All the while I subconsciously hoped my busyness would impress others and that I’d actually gain more friends.

At first I kept up the pretenses. I took fifteen minutes each morning to ensure I looked like I was clipped straight from a J.Crew catalogue. I could recite the laundry list of my various roles on campus while gargling water, standing on one foot, in my sleep.

Inside, my soul slowly died. My personality– the essence of my being– was being sucked out of me.

Joining a new clique and forming new bonds became so pertinent that I took to living someone else’s life. My own wants and predilections became peripheral; I liked whatever others did.

While we can greatly admire several aspects of another’s life– strength, intellect, beauty– those which are intrinsic characteristics of a person’s being can never be fully emulated in another.

You like what you like and are who you are. Denying that central truth and work to change it is senseless.

2. Put down that bloody cell phone.o-new-yorker-570

About halfway through my cold, I walked to the health center for my second follow-up appointment. Though brisk, the weather was pristine– brilliantly sunny with just the right amount of clouds interspersed amidst the blue backdrop.

No one around me, however, seemed to notice. The neck of almost everyone around me was craned down to look at a glowing rectangle in the palm of their hand. I could’ve ran past them naked and they wouldn’t have stirred.

Life was teeming all about us. The last few errant songbirds were chirping peacefully high up on perches. Squirrels busily buried acorns for the following spring. The branches of surrounding trees moved rhythmically to the breeze, tensing and releasing with each passing gust.

None of that mattered. What did were the virtual movements of friends and acquaintances, the most recent BuzzFeed quiz, and whatever a Kardashian recently said on Twitter.

Cell phones are an extremely useful and vital tool in our world. They help us stay connected to distant loved ones and remain secure at all times. They educate us and throw light on the esoteric. These attributes, though, can’t compensate for smart phones’ more malicious effects.

The attention that cell phones demand of us inescapably decreases the amount of time we spend actually experiencing life. The draw to immediately answer every text, Facebook message, and Snapchat takes away from time spent appreciating the austere beautiful of nature or the simple joy of a good conversation with friends.

A cell phone should stay tucked away in one’s pocket more often than not.

3. Be thankful for the trivial

At the time of this piece there are over 4 million Syrian refugees, most of whom are living temporarily in Turkey or Lebanon. With no end in sight to the Syrian Civil War or the absolutist regime of the Islamic State, families left behind their entire lives– homes, businesses, relatives, lifelong friends–to seek safety and better futures for their children.

Before I got sick, my biggest concern was not being able to order a new pair of running shoes on Amazon due to a clerical error. My ability to train for a marathon I’d paid $70 to register for suddenly seemed in jeopardy.

As I laid in my bed, reeling from the pain in my chest and aches throughout my body, reminders of life’s more mundane elements came to light.

The comfort of my pillows and comforter, the sunlight streaming through half-closed blinds, my roommate practicing his guitar. In that moment, that which made up my immediate environment formed the whole of my life.

I marveled at my body’s ability to instantaneously process the bevy of sensory information inundating my eyes, ears, and skin. More miraculous yet was my capacity to assign meaning to these inputs: the sun was likely setting; Ian was practicing “Paint It Black”; someone downstairs was making popcorn.

Long ago my genetic code endowed me with these abilities. They are no different than those of the majority of Syrian refugees. Because of the frequency in which I use them, though, I easily grew accustomed. I forgot how incredible it is that I can see both the fine curvature of my fingernails and that of the blazing sun; that I can hear a whisper as well as the engines of a jet plane; that I feel the warmth of a lover’s touch and the biting cold of winter.

The same goes for life’s necessities. I am so accustomed to having shelter, food, and running water that their availability is never in question. I come to expect them and in doing so, no longer value them as highly. Just like my senses, though, the amazement and appreciation for the fulfillment of my needs should be never-ending.

Being grateful for the smallest things in one’s life should never be forgotten.

4. Never ignore one’s humanity

Dr. Jerome Motto, a Bay Area physician working to install barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent suicide, recounted the following story to the New Yorker in 2003:

The jump that affected [Motto] most occurred in the seventies. “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner,” he told me. “The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’ ” [Emphasis mine.]

We can never know, of course, whether someone smiled at the man. His determination to kill himself might have prevailed what he wrote in the note.

Nonetheless, the idea gives me pause: A smile could save a life.

How often do I pass by a homeless man or woman, begging for money or food, without looking them in the eye? While I may have no intention of reaching into my wallet, the least I can exchange is a glance, an acknowledgement of their existence.

Being a pre-professional college student is at once a selfish and selfless endeavor. You have to prioritize your GPA, extracurricular involvement, and standardized test scores above all else. Relationships with parents and friends, at least from my experience, are bound to suffer at times.

All the while your ability to one day shape society for the better, as a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer, is unparalleled, though surely writing the next great American novel or play has a similar influence.

In striving towards those professions that will make such a difference, however, others’ humanity can often be forgotten. A friend’s immediate needs for love and attention are just as important as my next organic chemistry exam, even though the former won’t help me get into medical school.

We forget the humanity of so many in our society based on differences in socioeconomic status, religious belief, and ethnic background. Politicians can so easily talk of ending social welfare programs and closing our borders because these differences are so well-engrained.

People are born black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim through no decision of their own. Yet, we often attribute– and I am no exception– one’s lot in life to decisions they have made. That is, they deserve to be where they are in society and we therefore have no imperative to help them.

Every individual on our planet shares in the same needs for shelter, food, water, love, importance, and companionship. Denying that humanity in others is the surest way to lose your own.

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