Learning From Life's Big Classroom: Taking Stock in 2014

Herein lies a personal story and some of what I learned from it. The story is not just mine. Unfortunately facing mortality applies to all of us.
01/14/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2014

A friend asked me to write about the new year. Nope, I said. He asked again. Nope. He said people want to know: How do we start fresh? How do we cultivate new goals? Great questions but frankly, December 31st and the champagne and fireworks don't do it for me. They remind me of a life-threatening event that is hard to look at. "Then share from the inside, for the sake of education" my friend encouraged. Ugh, he won.

Herein lies a personal story and some of what I learned from it. The story is not just mine. Unfortunately facing mortality applies to all of us.

On December 31st, 1992, around 11:50pm, I was sitting down in a restaurant with my sister and some friends in New Orleans. Suddenly I fell over and could not breathe. No one knew why. As I gasped for air, friends searched for some sign of what happened. No one heard or saw anything; the rowdy crowds exacerbated the confusion. After several minutes, one friend who was interning in an ER noticed internal bleeding and called for an ambulance. It turns out that I had been shot by a stray bullet from three to five miles away. An AK-47 was shot up in the air in 'celebration of a new year' while nearly ending my life. What goes up must come down.

Whether we recognize it or not, the consequences of our actions affect others. Bullets do not disappear into never-never land, nor does the impact of our behaviors. As the hospital techs wheeled me into emergency surgery, I said goodbye to my sister and asked her to give my love to our parents in case that was it.

Luckily I awoke the next day in Intensive Care. The bullet was removed and I was told that it was a miracle that I survived and that I was not paralyzed. The bullet pierced my lung, spleen, diaphragm, stomach, and just missed my heart. I was not permitted to exercise for one year, and I was a college soccer player at the time. I could not lift more than five pounds for a few months. I had to ask for help with my school books, laundry, food, and more. My body was not mine. A stranger invaded it and likely felt no remorse because he/she did not even know about it. We were invisible to one another yet indefinitely linked. For years, digesting food properly has been painful due to the surgery.

Ultimately, the physical healing became easier than comprehending it. There I was, an Emory student, college athlete, Jewish student leader, volunteer with the elderly, former Vice President of my high school and hit by an illegal assault rifle weapon from three to five miles away. Kushner's famous question emerged: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do people hurt people? How come life's larger truths are so hard to see with the human eye? I searched for answers in academic, religious, and philosophic contexts.

Now, 20 years later, this story has an entirely new meaning as my niece and nephews are growing up as orphans, with their bodies, minds, and spirits forever affected by a fatal car crash. This story is not just about me nor my family. This story is about countless individuals and families who undergo near-death experiences, experience an abrupt shift in reality, and then scramble to find new ways of being.

More than 30,000 people are killed each year by firearms in the U.S. An estimated 32,885 perish from auto fatalities with an estimated 5,419,000 crashes. Approximately 14,080 people die annually from brain tumors, which does not specify brain cancer but provides an estimate. Combined, this totals approximately 76,965 lives lost per year. And loads more go from a variety of illnesses and injuries. Although it is easy to feel alone in one's diagnosis or disability, the reality is that we are not alone.

Trauma specialist Dr. Sandra Bloom explains in Creating Sanctuary, people who suffer significant trauma may no longer feel as if they are living in a normal society (1997). "Trauma shatters the assumptions upon which each of us bases our sense of safety and freedom in the world. The [survivor] may perceive the world as no longer meaningful or benevolent.... We rarely think about the underlying frameworks of how we perceive the world." But trauma destroys them. For example, the shooting showed me:

• The world is not safe.
• My body cannot be protected by physical structures or people.
• Random strangers can take my life in an instant.
• Many people sleepwalk through life, have ulterior motives, and do not value a human life.

I have found some resolution over the years. Time can heal. I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers and mentors along the way. I am grateful for devoted friends and for stellar faculty and staff in the English writing department at the University of Texas at Austin. For meditation and five rhythms dance class. For G-d's help in reclaiming my body and running a marathon four years after the shooting.

The combination of cultivating compassionate relationships, writing, running, prayer, activism, and allowing myself to create new social outlets enhanced my recovery. When the physical world seemed false and devastating, I learned that I could go inward. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in Quest for G-d, "Words have ceased to be the [ultimate] commitments." When words do not suffice, there is a way of "kindling" the spirit in the depths of our souls. This is real, and this comforts me.

The goal is not "to get over it," but rather to cultivate healthy ways to manage trauma (Transcending Trauma 2012). The potential of one's recovery does not depend on the severity of the trauma, but mainly how one lived before the trauma.

Survivors benefit from being addressed as a whole person rather than an icon of suffering. Although it is a life-long process for survivors to discover their own path, identify safe allies, and incorporate the tragedy into a new belief system, indeed it is possible.