04/01/2015 06:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Someone Is Murdered on Your Backpacking Trip

2015-03-31-1427784729-1057592-NathanMuellerandJeremy.jpg Photo by Nathan Mueller

The first time I saw someone killed I was 25 feet away.

I was in my early twenties and the two things I remember most, other than the actual event, was the uncontrollable shivering and the pack of cigarettes my brother and I nervously chain-smoked trying to calm down.

We were in Albania, We had only arrived that morning at 5:30, and we had only arrived at that location because a bus had abandoned us in the middle of what looked to be endless farmland. We were lost as far as location but that was the least kind of lost we worried about. We did what I assume all people do in our situation. We walked to a four-way-stop, my brother closed his eyes and proceeded to spin around with his arm pointed out, stopping only after he was too dizzy to continue. He was pointing east; I think. It was hard to know, as the sun wasn't even up. We walked for a while and civilization slowly emerged from the fields as we found our way to downtown Tirana.

Two cups of coffee into what was shaping up to be a beautiful morning it happened. It was a noise as disruptive as its result. I remember my brother asked if it was a backfire as we instinctively ducked for cover. From the look on his face I knew, he knew it wasn't. The question was the natural reflex of an optimistic and innocent soul; a last attempt to believe the loud noise had only broken the silence.

Foolishly, I got up to look around a vehicle. There he was. He was clearly dead. Not like a person in the movies. No, he was more than lifeless. It felt like he had become a vacuum sucking the life out of the world around him. As I saw the shooter across the street my body instantly filled with adrenaline. I felt a shockwave hit me inside. As that shockwave reverberated within me it broke my notion of the world and rattled my belief in humanity. This all happened in a split second, but in a reality much more real than the world around me I felt the world changing. I began to shiver and it wasn't the cold or the caffeine. Physiologically I guess it was the adrenaline. It was my body's response to every part of me but the physical being disrupted and shaken.

I wish I could say I acted heroically but I neither ran nor leapt into action. I froze, a captive of an internal battle.

The gunman must have stood still for a second; to this day I think he was expecting something. I heard a brief but distinct pause. In that moment I am convinced he expected to feel some kind of release that maybe never came. Standing over his victim, the murderer turned the gun around and shot himself in the chest. He was on the ground twisting in pain so violently he began rolling down a grassy slope. The murderous shot he had fired moments before had painlessly snuffed out a life in a split second but somehow he didn't allow himself the same luxury. No, for him life had clearly been a tortured existence and however tragic and however truly violent, he chose to leave the world much the same way he had been living it.

Within seconds the threat was gone but I still shook. The world around us, probably 50 people, pretended to return to life as usual. Who knows, maybe they did but for me, life was forever altered. I wish I could say it was the last time I would witness something so profoundly violent but it wasn't. The world I had known had been cracked open and a new beat, a raw center, a duality I could not rationalize had emerged.

This was the moment I realized a core is subjective and reality is truly a construct. The context I had surrounded myself with organized the world around me and shaped my thinking and experiences. I had created necessary filters to try and make sense of a world too big to fully grasp. Unfortunately, the necessity of these filters couldn't protect them from being shattered in a second.

Up until that point the world had been undeniably beautiful and hopeful but at that moment it was undoubtedly violent and meaningless, and yet it was the same world.

This is the day I understood there is more than one world. There are constructs on top of constructs. I was on an adventure to find life and meaning and yet I found understanding all the different contextual layers of the world is a violent pursuit of creation and destruction within ourselves.

I started to learn about depth that day. Depth like most meaningful things is earned. It's simply the sum of the highest of highs and darkest of lows. It's coming out the other side and still being open for more. It's realizing hope is not the answer to a horrific circumstance but hope is courage itself. It's not the answer to anything but it is the fuel for a fighting soul.

Originally published by @natejmueller as "The Assassination of a Soul" on Medium