This is what I thought about when I thought I was going to die.
Backstory: Perhaps ironically, only days earlier I was at a book event, where bookish people walked around and eyed us author types as one might evaluate lobsters at one of those pick-your-own seafood places. We (the authors) smiled behind our books in likely the opposite fashion of said lobsters (pick me! pick me!) and tried to helpfully answer questions from reluctant potential buyers in some way other than “yes, I can see that $25 is a steep price to pay for that year I spent pouring my heart and soul into the words on those pages. Totally reasonable point.”
I had it easier than the memoir writers, of course. I was exceedingly impressed they didn’t say that to each and every person who flipped through their book’s pages dismissively. After all, business books have little detail of personal torment and sorrow. Although I hope my fellow writers were in turn impressed that I didn’t respond to the person who asked if she would actually learn anything from my book or if it was all stuff she already knew with “I’m not sure. Show me your book and let’s compare.”
But the point is that every so often, we lobsters would escape our tanks. On the plane the night before, I had read one of the memoir-style books: this one about a fast-paced TV news producer who had a brain hemorrhage and nearly died, and then took stock of his life and made some changes. I was chatting with him about the experience and he told me that how you figure out what’s important is what you think about in those moments when you truly think you’re going to die. That it’s not if they got the right person booked on the show that day. It’s your family. Your spouse. Your children.
Well, fuck you. I don’t have those things, so what the hell can I do about that? Only I only said that to him in my head. He was very nice, actually.
In any case, as it turned out, I had cause to try out this theory less than a week later, while on a tiny plane with my seven-year old niece. After the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced (context: I have been on over 90 flights this year alone), things suddenly took a turn for the worse. The plane began plummeting out of control, everything not tied down flew through the air (for instance: passengers), everyone was screaming. It was your ordinary, every day, basic plane crash scene from a movie. Or perhaps the pilot episode of Lost.
After several hours (possibly this was actually less than a minute, but I’m pretty sure it was about three hours), the pilot seemed to regain control of the plane and we went back to the much calmer state of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. He then came on to apologize. A lot. And reassure us that we would be landing soon. No really.
In those moments — not the actual I’m-going-to-die-we’re-crashing moments — but the ones just after, with the bracing that the really actual death was likely coming any moment, a part of me tried to focus. What did I think about when I knew I was dying? Is that a clue as to the meaning of my life?
This is what I thought: “Oh my fucking God. I cannot believe I’m going to fucking die right now in a plane crash.” Which isn’t all that helpful in life focus other than it supports my theory that I don’t really want to die. My post-crashing moment thoughts were about my sister and about how sad she would be that her daughter died in a plane crash. So, I guess I’m not entirely selfish.
My third set of thoughts (after the “fuck I’m going to die” and “my poor sister” ones) weren’t helpful either, to the extent that I can’t even really write about them. They were all self-pity and woe is me and wishing for things that don’t exist. (Despite what people tell you, your dreams can’t always come true. Dreaming for a pet unicorn that takes you on rides to your friend the leprechaun’s house won’t actually get you very far, sadly.)
My point is that I didn’t gain any new life insights from my near-death experience and I’m kind of mad about that because if you almost die, shouldn’t you get something positive out of it? All in all, I guess I can’t really recommend this method for seeking clarity. In case you were considering it.