“Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing, but of something new.”
The last thing I remember was sailing fast through the air high atop a mountain and thinking, This could be bad.
The next thing I remember is waking up on the rocky ground thinking, Why did we stop for a nap?
I had been knocked out for fifteen minutes. When someone asked me my name, I said, “I’m twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. Something like that.”
I felt so confused. I later learned that just before coming to, I was unresponsive, cold and convulsing. Yellow stuff was coming out of my mouth.
“Just stay where you are,” the lady sitting next to me said gently.
Wait, where did she come from?
“I’m a nurse, and you took a nasty fall. I want you to stay where you are to protect your neck.”
Now most of it came back to me. I was hiking with friends in Montana on the Highline Trail along the continental divide. I slipped on a wet spot on an overhanging rock and plummeted below.
Now here I was with my friends, along with two nurses and a park employee who, lucky for me, happened to be hiking on the same trail that day.
“We’re going to get a helicopter for you to get an X-ray of that neck,” one of the nurses said. “You sliced your ear open pretty good, too.”
I was fairly coherent before the paramedics showed up and slipped me some medicine. After that things got pretty hazy. A silver solar blanket. My shirt getting cut off. All these people I didn’t know hovering above me as I lay there.
I later learned that it took nearly four hours to get me off the mountain. Two choppers landed: one for the paramedics and one to carry me away. They had to immobilize me and carry me for forty-five minutes down the steep side of the mountain.
On the cramped helicopter, for the first time I felt like freaking out. Here I was, high above the peaks on one of the most beautiful spots in the park, and I couldn’t even move my head to see any of them. When I did move my eyes, I felt nauseous. I felt trapped and claustrophobic.
I thought about my girlfriend and the future. I wondered what I was doing with my life.
Along with that came some terrifying thoughts I could barely let myself think: What if that fall has been worse? What if I hadn’t stopped sliding down? What if others hadn’t been on the trail to help me?
It could have been The End.
When I arrived at the hospital, they gave me a CT scan, neck X-ray, and other tests that I tried to ignore. The worst part was the immobilization and the neck brace. I felt like I needed to move around. Just be anywhere except where I was.
Over the next few hours, I received eleven stitches in my ear, I was diagnosed with a concussion, and my nervous system was pretty shocked. My blood pressure and pulse were racing. Since my shirt had been cut off on the mountain, I wore my friend’s bloody shirt which he had wrapped around my head, and my face was smeared with dirt and blood. I had cuts all over my arms and legs.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t get comfortable, physically or mentally. I felt out of sorts, nervous, scared. I felt like I couldn’t talk. It was going to be a long recovery. After spending the first part of my life in school, I had moved to Montana to seek quiet and solitude and think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life in the “real world.” But my accident jolted me with the realization that I wasn’t guaranteed a “rest of my life.” I only had now.
I looked worse for the wear, but at least I was alive. This experience gave me perspective. I felt like I’d been given another opportunity to do something with my particular gifts that mattered, before it was too late.
I was lucky. It wasn’t the end of my journey. It was the beginning.
Reflection: Whacked on the Head
In his classic book on creativity, Dr. Roger von Oech wrote that sometimes it takes “a whack on the side of the head” to shake us out of our complacency. That whack can be literal or figurative. How has this happened to you? Students in my class have shared stories of how traumatic moments helped them focus on what was truly important. Here are a few of them:
“I woke up one night to some noises in my house. I learned at that moment that my uncle had passed away. It came as a shock to my whole family, considering that my uncle was a healthy man, only two years older than my own father. It was the first time any one of my family had passed away so I didn’t know what mourning felt like until then. There were also many family duties and obligations which I was expected to comply with, even if I didn’t like them (to this day, I really hate wearing black). It was such a strange time of my life, transitioning from focusing on my own life to focusing on my family and the family’s needs, and also an awareness of how fragile life is and how strong we are expected to be. Yes, my family was shaken by our tragedy, shaken but not destroyed. We kept moving forward with our lives but in such a way in which we came to further appreciate each other. I learned a lot about love and my faith that has grown since then and strengthens me.”
“I experienced a ‘whack on the side of the head’ during freshman year. At the beginning of the summer, I learned that one of my old dance friends had been diagnosed with cancer. I knew that it was a really aggressive cancer, and that she didn’t have enough time. When she died, I received the news when I was doing homework with friends. It was really hard to get through the week before going home for her funeral, but in that moment, I leaned on the support of my new friends at school. Experiencing the loss of someone my age for the first time, and watching her family go through it, made me reevaluate the things I was focusing on, and it made me more aware of the impact I hope to have on those around me. Over the course of the year I did lots of reflecting, and I decided to get more involved in service across campus and more in touch with my faith. Becca had an amazingly kind, loving, and unforgettable spirit, and what would I be doing if I just sat around complacently without making conscious efforts to have an impact on those around me?”
“I never had a single whack on the head, but one friend of mine in high school gave me a whole series of whacks, eventually getting through to me. I guess I have a thick skull. I was very quiet throughout elementary school and the first half of middle school. In seventh grade, I met someone who was the exact opposite of me. Talkative, always doing something, living on the spur of the moment, and always taking risks. Somehow, for reasons I still don’t totally understand, I became friends with them, and slowly got pulled (whacked) out of that shell of mine. This friend helped me escape that bubble and helped me gain a more social aspect to my life, making me a more well-rounded person. I retained my interest in learning, but I was given other social options. It was [knowing] this person that forced me to do new things.”
“My ‘whack on the side of the head’ moment occurred in my first semester in college. It wasn’t anything physical that happened to me, but social. After being at school for a month or so, I started to realize that the first friends that I had made at college weren’t necessarily the right ones. It finally hit me at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday that I was homesick and lonely at college, something normal for most college freshmen, but something that I never thought would happen to me. I emotionally called my parents in the middle of the night, and while it seemed like an insignificant moment at the time, I now realize how important it was in my journey through life. It definitely showed me how to make the right kind of friends and how to budget my time for other people and time for myself. It showed me that it is okay to say no to some things and yes to others.”
“Of all the mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.”
Spoiler Alert: You’re going to die.
But here’s the good news: You come from a long, long, long, long, long line of survivors. These were people who found a way to survive long enough to pass along their genes.
We don’t have to study human sexuality too much to understand the power of procreation (from the Latin words for “to create” and “to bring forth”). I remember my high school biology teacher arguing that this urge underlies everything in society, from the elaborate rituals of prom to the kind of car you own. The Greeks called our life-giving energy eros, a drive to create.
We’re hardwired by biology to be creative. It’s embedded in our DNA. Throughout human history, creativity has been used to ensure the survival of our species. It’s an evolutionary gift that keeps on giving.
Homo sapiens weren’t the strongest or fastest species. But we were driven to create, and that’s what set us apart. Our ancestors created new tools that helped us hunt and defend ourselves against other animals, despite our physical inferiority. We developed drawing, language, and storytelling techniques, which allowed us to transmit knowledge and inspiration to motivate and strengthen our tribes.
Today, we still see this creative drive in our species. But this desire to create manifests itself in more than a wish to survive and pass along our genes. We recognize creativity in fields as diverse as music, medicine, food, fashion, architecture, technology, transportation, storytelling, engineering, and much more. Creativity has the power to excite, improve, teach, and inspire.
Aristotle wrote of eudaimonia, which is sometimes understood as happiness. But it goes deeper than everyday pleasures or feeling good. Eudaimonia is a complex concept that measures flourishing and fulfilling one’s potential. To Greek philosophers, eudaimonia was the highest human calling.
The desire to fulfill your potential could take many forms. From cave paintings and ancient Egyptian pyramids to Pink Floyd laser light shows and vlogging, the formats of creativity have evolved over the years and vary by generation and culture.
Near-death experiences (like the one I had on the Montana mountain) open our eyes to the value of life. It focuses us on what we should be doing.
Dr. Anees Sheikh has taught psychology at Marquette University for fifty years, including a class called the Psychology of Death and Dying. On the first day of class, Dr. Sheikh tells one of his favorite stories written by the late Anthony De Mello, an Indian Jesuit priest:
“All questions at the public meeting that day were about life beyond the grave. The Master only laughed and did not give a single answer. To his disciples, who demanded to know the reason for his evasiveness, he later said, ‘Have you observed that it is precisely those who do not know what to do with this life, who want another that will last forever?’ ‘But is there life after death or is there not?’ persisted the disciple. ‘Is there life before death? That is the question!’ said the Master enigmatically.”
We don’t have a choice in this matter. Death is the ending we all know is inevitable. But when we forget that, we don’t live up to our full creative potential.
You don’t need a run-in with a mountain in order to benefit from this perspective. You could just visit a Death Cafe.
“At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.” That’s from the description of DeathCafe.com, a franchise of cafés that puts a twist on the traditional coffee shop. Instead of wasting time on your laptop, at a Death Cafe you contemplate your own mortality. To date, there are nearly 5,000 Death Cafes around the world.
You could even hold your own Death Cafe. Here’s all you need:
• A host and facilitator.
• A venue with refreshments booked for a certain time and date.
• People who want to talk about death.
That’s it. The Death Cafe format is straightforward: You talk about death.
The format was started by Jon Underwood, who quit his job in London to spread the message of living life to the fullest by thinking about death. His movement exploded to more than a dozen countries with more than a thousand gatherings.
In a tragic twist of fate, Underwood died suddenly in the summer of 2017 from a brain hemorrhage caused by acute promyelocytic leukemia. His death was unexpected, or as unexpected as can be for someone who thought about death frequently. His leukemia had not been diagnosed. He was forty-four and the father of two children.
In a message on DeathCafe.com, Underwood’s wife Donna Molloy reflected on his life.
“He lived every day reflecting very consciously on the fact that none of us know how long we have and focused completely on being present in, and making the most of every minute,” she wrote. “We all know this on some level, and try and act accordingly, but it’s so easy to forget. Easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get caught up in the minor detail. He pulled off that challenge so many of us can only aspire to, of truly appreciating what we have. This was how he lived his life and through his work he helped so many others to live this way too.”
So why would you spend your time thinking about death when you could think about something more pleasant?
Because death focuses you. Our time is finite, and remembering this fact motivates us to create. It’s kind of like seeing your laptop battery is at 7 percent and getting down to business instead of scrolling through Facebook again. It’s a reminder to make your time count.
“You know you have a certain time left, and then the question is, What is important for me to do in that time?” Underwood said in 2014. “That’s different for everyone, so talking about death, for me at least, is the ultimate prioritization exercise.”
There’s a term for this: Post-traumatic bliss. This is the feeling you get when you have survived a deeply frightening or potentially deadly event: surviving a car accident, beating cancer, waking up from a nightmare, or simply contemplating your own death and realizing you’re still alive. You still have time.
Thinking about your own death every day, paradoxically, will make you happier and more focused.
The first year I taught a course on creativity, I asked the class how to write a résumé. This was an honors course filled with bright, ambitious college students. Of course everyone in the class knew exactly how to format and fill up a résumé.
They told me that you create an objective, and then you list all your skills, internships, majors, minors, GPA, and other qualifications. Students learn throughout their education how to fill their résumés, and these students were exceptionally ready.
Then I asked students how to write an obituary.
The room went silent.
We know how to prepare for what goes on a résumé, but we spend relatively little time considering what our obituary will say about us.
It sounds morbid, but if you were to die today, what would you want to leave behind? Something you posted on Instagram? Clothes that you wore? A grade on a test? How many digits in your salary? Or something deeper?
We all know everyone is going to die, but we hope in our case there will be an exception. Or we simply assume it will happen in some faraway time and place. So we avoid thinking about it for now.
But if we begin with the end in mind, we focus on what matters. We can start to create a legacy today. We’re not promised anything beyond this moment to make an impact with our skills, talents, and creativity.
Marina Keegan — a writer, activist, and playwright — was one student who built an impeccable résumé by the time she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University. She served as one of the youngest paid staffers on the Obama campaign, organized panels on health care and homelessness, became the only person ever to be honored for both fiction and nonfiction by the Norman Mailer College writing competition, and the list goes on and on. On the strength of her achievements, she was hired by The New Yorker right out of college.
But she didn’t do it for the résumé. During her time at Yale, she spoke up urging her high-achieving classmates not to go into Wall Street careers just because Ivy League recruiters promised them a high salary. She helped organize a protest challenging campus recruiting, known as Occupy Morgan Stanley.
“Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think most young, ambitious people want to have a positive impact on the world,” she said. “Whether it’s through art or activism or advances in science, almost every student I spoke to had some kind of larger, altruistic goal in life.”
For her graduation, she penned an essay that was distributed at commencement repeating this message. She assured her classmates that the “best four years of their lives” were not behind them. They were just getting started.
“We’re so young. We’re so young. We have so much time,” she said. But as she looked around, she felt tempted to think that others were more accomplished “creating or inventing or improving.” After all the years, at the end of the education journey, she was left with questions.
Am I on the right path?
But everyone has doubts, she said. Even—or especially—high-achieving college students with a résumé a mile long.
“What we have to remember is that we can still do anything,” she said. “We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.”
Five days after her graduation, Keegan was killed in a car accident. She was twenty-two.
Keegan had an impressive résumé, but it’s not what people remember about her. She no doubt would have achieved so much more had she lived. But in the end, her stirring words about possibility continue to inspire others.
After she died, her obituary ran in The New York Times. The essay she wrote for graduation—titled “The Opposite of Loneliness”—went viral. A collection of her writing was published posthumously as a book.
Six years after her death, a high school senior named Becka commented on Keegan’s essay on the Yale Daily News website. “I’m reading this as a high school senior and this essay keeps drawing me back, feeding me hope and the opposite of loneliness,” Becka wrote. “I feel so much that she was feeling. I feel her humanity and I’m so sad she’s gone but the notion that it’s too late for Marina Keegan to change this world is laughable in itself. She’s changing it still.”
And her legacy lives on. Keegan ended her essay with these words:
“We’re in this together…. Let’s make something happen to this world.”
One ending becomes another beginning. It’s time to create.
Practice: Write Your Obituary
In this exercise, think about your creative legacy by writing your obituary. What do you want to create? What do you want to leave behind? What do you want to be known for? Write 500 words in the third person about your life.