03/16/2011 01:22 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Value of Mortality

A few years ago, I underwent unexpected triple bypass heart surgery. There were several subtle changes that accompanied this event. It truly was life changing, but in ways you might not expect. For example, today I find myself unable to hold back the tears while watching acts of courage, sacrifice or deep personal love. Why, I reasoned, would this be so? Could it be that the heart, as myth and legend have it, is the seat of emotion?

I began to share my experience with others who had gone through major surgery. I discovered that they, too, were unable to restrain the tears. Some of the men I spoke to were rough and tough cowboy types: former football players, truck drivers and the like -- men you simply would not expect to be easily emotional. Why? What had happened? Could it be a byproduct of the anesthesia?

I did a little more research. I found that many people were reporting a special new sensitivity: empathy following surgery. Some of the surgeries were not particularly major. One anesthesiologist on the Internet, Gareth S Kantor, M.D., theorized that it could be due to a repressed memory about the surgery itself. That's a guess, which he admitted. Unfortunately, as Dr. Kantor was quick to point out, anesthesiologists typically do not see their patients in the days that follow surgery.

Although the reports are many, the answers are few and none are definitive. I suppose that the "post-general anesthetic effect" of tearing up over things that formerly would never have produced a single wet eye could be due to some cognitive impairment -- brain damage. That's an interesting question for the neurologist, but from my perspective, and the input of those I have spoken with, it's really more a matter of feeling somehow more mortal.

In my mind, the solemnity of major surgery reminds us that our mortal self is not all there is. Once we recognize this -- truly cashing in the meaning, not unlike those near-death experiences -- our lives change. The empathy arises particularly when we behold the glory of humanness on display, and that is why a sad movie can trigger the crying.

I first experienced this with a "chick flick" that I saw with my wife. It was an ordinary story of a relationship between two people who loved one another to the core. Through this and that, their relationship came close to ending, indeed you thought it was over, and then through a few near magical events, they were brought back together to live happily ever after. Previously, I had watched many of these kind of films with my wife because I love her, but I generally failed to appreciate them. Not this time. I wept during the happy ending. "What the hell is this?" I asked myself.

For years, I practiced criminalistics, and my life was threatened more than once. For recreation, I trained horses, and sometimes these were wild horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). As a boy, I was in more fights than I can remember. I don't cry... or didn't!

A day or two later, we watched another movie -- this time one to my liking, "Armageddon." In the end, Bruce Willis puts his daughter's intended fiancé on the ship for home, and in that way takes his place -- a place that had been drawn by straws for the one who would remain on the asteroid, set the charge, explode it and thereby save earth. Throughout the movie, the two men have been at each other's throat, but Willis has promised his daughter that her fiance would come home. Hell, tears come to my eyes as I write this, so obviously I cried!

The glory of the human condition is beyond words. As a species, we can be so cruel, so conniving, so filled with enmity; and yet, there is this other side: the side of humanness that reaches beyond the needs of the individual, that is willing to pay the highest price for the good of our fellow human, that knows no sacrifice too great for those we love and cherish, that simply is proof, in and of itself, of the Higher Creator who endowed the species with the ultimate "good," or god, within. It is the portrayal of this side of humanness that evokes the tears.

Perhaps if our species knew no temporal limits we would fail to recognize the ultimate good that we are all wired to express, to share, to be. Perhaps the nature of major surgery reminds us all that we could be out of here, figuratively speaking, in the next breath. We are eternal, not from our indulgences with the outer world, but from who we truly are, at our innermost level of being.

This is a reminder that opens us up to the real beauty of the world we live in and the people we are. Our human potential is so incredible that without its glory, I wonder if we would even need tears. It is for this reason that I find great value in mortality.