“He said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today.”
— from What the Doctor Said by Raymond Carver
Close to Death
I woke up in the hospital.
The doctor told me I’d been in a serious car accident (“they cut off the top of the car to get you out…”), and that I’d lost a dangerous amount of blood internally—he told me that he couldn’t predict how things would turn out. My life wavered on that fine margin between life and death. Then all went dark again before they took me into surgery.
Close to Life
I awoke in the hospital.
Twelve and fifteen years after my car accident, I again found myself in the hospital—these times for the miraculous births of my children. I wept as a witness of the miraculous advent of life.
In the days and weeks following both my accident and the births of my sons, I saw life in a clearer way. My heart was tender, my soul was open, and I felt more intensely. I wanted to hold my loved ones more closely, to speak to them more intimately, and to appreciate more fully the wonders—and the astounding fragility—of life.
When Have You Awoken?
If you’ve faced the solemn precipice of death or witnessed the wonder of birth, you’ve likely felt the world change too. Or perhaps you’ve received a phone call from out of the blue, and you’ve come face to face with the mortality of someone dear to you. In an instant, the ground underneath you has shifted. As John O’Donohue has expressed, “All you know has just been rendered unsure and dangerous. You realise that the ground has turned into quicksand. Now it seems to you that even mountains are suspended on strings.”
The miracle of birth and the shock of death often wake us up. We realize how precious life is, and how quickly and unpredictably it can slip away. We feel a compelling desire to make the most of our opportunities, our talents, our love. Ideally, we want to become more generous, forgiving, and loving. The advent or end of life can beckon (or hurl) us into an acute sense of clarity of what it means to truly live.
How might we bring this same sense of being truly awake to our daily lives?
Without continually being confronted by experiences of birth and death, “small awakenings” are one way to become more fully alive to a sense of wonder and gratitude in your life.
The first step in a small awakening is to honestly consider how life would be different without the people, ability, or love that is currently present for you. What if those blessings were no longer part of your life? This isn’t an exercise to help you “channel your inner Eeyore” or a push to dwell on gloomy scenarios. It’s just the first step in this process. Take a moment to reflect on these questions with an open heart:
- What if your loved ones were taken from you tomorrow?
- What if you lost your sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, or taste?
- What if you were never able to talk to a dear friend again?
- What if you lost your sense of humor, your sense of perspective, or your appreciation for beauty?
- What if you could no longer breathe on your own?
- If your life is currently very difficult, consider this: what if you couldn’t even read an article like this—what if you didn’t even have access to inspiring, challenging, or uplifting thoughts?
By considering what life would be like without your current blessings, you are prepared for the second step in “small awakenings”: Pivoting your attention to more fully appreciate what is currently part of your life. You can open your eyes and see more clearly the wonder, possibility, and beauty that is presently around (and within) you. As Max Ehrmann encouraged, “In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”