Monday, June 13, 2005

Near Death-Part I

I want to leave the lake for a while and talk about something more uplifting, such as the first time I almost died.

I have named this post "Near Death-Part I" because, like the cat we adopted from feline Death Row more than ten years ago, I have found myself in a number of near death scrapes over the years. You might even say I am prone to such scrapes. Such scrapes can be learning experiences, but only if you pay attention.

Those who grow up around water tend to have a healthy respect for water, just like those who grow up around guns tend to have a healthy respect for guns. As you know, I grew up on a lake (there's that lake again...), and learned fairly early on in life to respect deep water and rivers. Which makes more odd the fact that one perfect day almost twenty years ago, on a sandy beach off the shores of Oahu, I found myself surfing for the very first time.

I would like to say that there was a rational reason for me to be "surfing" on a beach deservedly reputed to be one of the most dangerous in Hawaii, one in which persons were routinely rushed to the hospital with nicely suntanned and broken backs, but I can recall no rational reason for this escapade. I was in Hawaii. I had done triathlons in Hawaii, so how hard could surfing be: carpe diem, right? So, there I was, surfing with a buddy, a fellow midwestern travellor likewise unable to find his ass with both hands, at least as regarded the nuances and the dangers of the Pacific Ocean.

My pal had given up after a few tries. I was still working at it, with minor success. I was tired in short order, and starting to get frustrated, so I just rested on the board for a few minutes. I saw a huge wave coming and--this may be the point of the story--a very distinct feeling came over me to look back on my friend, who was on the beach. As I turned around, I could see him screaming and waiving his arms, pointing to the right. I looked in the direction he pointed. And there I saw an outcropping of coral reef, no less than 10-12 feet from my board, looking like giant pinecones the size of volkswagons . I panicked, took another look at the wave bearing down on me, and managed to paddle about three strokes away before the wave hit me. Before it hit me hard.

I might have done a full somersault under water before hitting the tip of the first volkswagon, which nearly impaled me, just above the belly button. I blacked out momentarily and the momentum of the wave gave me one more knock, leaving me prone on the floor of the ocean. I was then in about six feet of water, and managed to stumble to the shoreline, stomach bleeding and stinging from the saltwater, my considerable pride momentarily in tatters, and the real Hawaiins on the beach shaking their heads at me, muttering in disgust.

I had barely missed the worst of the pinecones. If my forehead, rather than my belly button, had hit the reef, I would have been very dead for a very, very long time. If I hadn't had a distinct feeling that I needed to look back at my friend, well... we wouldn't be having this conversation right now, would we?

The philospher Robert Nozick--one of my favorities, we will discuss him often in these pages-- says that what we think of as "faith" is really not "faith in God," but "faith" in our reactions to our deepest experiences, or the signal events from our lives. Applied to the event I have described, the question raised by Nozick's point might be: did I hear a distinct voice, or did I hear (merely) the barely audible shout of my pal on the beach that day? Under the circumstances of that day, this is a significant question, is it not?

As we walked away from the beach that day, at a time in my life in which the notion of distinct feelings of this kind seemed absurd, I was distinctly more rattled by the sudden, unmistakable urge to look back toward my friend than the scrape with death itself. In this sense, the wounds on my stomach and the scars they later became were the beginnings of spiritual wounds, and then spiritual scars.