I have been thinking a lot about death lately. Not a fun topic, but one rich with interpretations, nuances, fears and murky voids. Our mortality is perhaps the singular most pressing, omnipresent issue we prefer not to think about. I've decided mortality is sort of like digestion. We may carry on eating three meals a day, oblivious to where the food goes, until the day we have food poisoning or a wicked stomach flu that brings the issue squarely in front of us.
When we must face losing a loved one, surviving a scary accident, or even having a near death experience, suddenly, everything lurches up -- and nothing else matters. The outer world becomes dull and gray, while the intensity of our pain, grief and suffering slams our consciousness into a state of focused paralysis.
Recently, I attended a conference in Boulder at Silicon Flatirons called "Sci-Fi and Entrepreneurship -- Is Resistance Futile?" Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group, and co-founder of TechStars, was part of a chat session with Q&A. One of the most poignant moments of the conference ended up having nothing to do with sci-fi or entrepreneurship. An innocent question about "morality in business" turned into a sneaky and profound discussion on how to manage our mortality. Feld reflected about the funny misunderstanding in his popular blog, "Feld Thoughts."
I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I've been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it's all over. And I'm ok with it. But last fall I realized I wasn't. I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.
My personal "space jam" on mortality of late has been filled with eerie coincidences. Two months ago, I had a book on my bedside stack, sent by a colleague, called, "The End of Death: How Near Death Experiences Prove the Afterlife" by Admir Serrano. I am a voracious reader, and kept meaning to pick it up, but it wasn't relevant in my world at the moment.
Coincidentally, around that time, my daughter and I were invited to attend a lecture by Dr. Eben Alexander, neurosurgeon and bestselling author of the book "Proof of Heaven." I found Dr. Alexander's book extraordinary -- and was excited to see him in person. My precocious 15-year-old was struggling with a sudden death of a distant grandmother figure that played an important role in her life , so I encouraged her to go. In a room of over 500 people, I believe she was the only teenager there.
We listened to Dr. Alexander's extraordinary story of being a classic Ivy League surgeon and world expert on the brain. Like many scientists, he believed stories of the afterlife or visions from the beyond, was nothing more than airy fairy neuron-firing fantasy. That is, until he nearly died from rare bacterial meningitis that left him essentially brain dead for seven days. He knew any vision or memory was medically impossible; yet he experienced a vividly profound near death journey. He miraculously awoke, made a full recovery, and has become a firm scientific voice that the afterlife is real.
Near the end of the talk, my daughter asked if we could leave early, as one of her best friends, Andrew, was waiting for her at our house. I agreed, and we left on a frigid, icy night to make the treacherous drive back home. On the way, Andrew sent a text message that it was getting late, and he had to leave. We came home and thought nothing more of it.
We found out the next day that after leaving our home that snowy night, around the time we were pulling into our driveway, Andrew was the victim of a fatal car accident not three miles from our house.
The coincidence of it all was too much. A stomach flu of the collective soul ensued. We were stricken, shocked and blindsided. Our family, and the entire community, were devastated with grief that such a young life could be here one minute, and gone the next. This young man was a rare light who was truly beloved, and his funeral packed nearly 800 friends and family to share their grief and love for him. The gift of Dr. Alexander's talk that night, with the understanding that Andrew was still here, but in a new place, was like spiritual chamomile tea that served my daughter an emotional life preserver.
Naturally, I then devoured Serrano's book on "The End of Death," which was similarly filled with truly remarkable stories of real patients returning from a near death, as well as thoughts that we simply complete our tasks here, and move onto another place. I decided called Serrano directly to talk about my stomach flu battle with mortality. He was my chamomile tea. We had a lively conversation about why making sense of these tragedies is so difficult, and why we have such disorientation about what happens to us after we die.
Serrano also began as a skeptic about any sort of life after death, yet drew evidence after working with thousands of people who had "NDEs" or Near Death Experiences -- including several blind patients who were able to accurately see and recount the faces, colors and scenarios of what was going on around them while they were near death and "out of their bodies." His core insight: "If you discover now that you are immortal, your life can change dramatically for the better."
Serrano explained, "When we look at life from a physical point of view, this life is all there is. We are focused on the material, don't think of ourselves as spiritual beings, and forget we don't cease to exist when we die. The spiritual body is imperishable."
Some may think of the afterlife as some sort of sci-fi movie reel, some align with religious promises of heaven, and some think we rot with the worms. How about you? When has your mortality hit you like a stomach flu? What has been your comforting chamomile tea? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.