One of the joys of travel on a Sunday is the ability to read the New York Times Sunday edition cover to cover. Since rabbis work on Sundays, my duties usually preclude this, and I dole out the sections over the course of the week. A few weeks ago, however, I found myself on a plane headed to Philadelphia to attend the board meeting of my rabbinical association (I am currently an at-large board member), and so had the luxury to read through the entire paper.
One column that week in the Sunday Review section that caught my eye was by the writer Meghan Daum: “I Nearly Died, So What?” Without even having to read the article I was drawn to the starkness and power in the title, and guessed at the content. The author would recount a near death experience, then struggle to find meaning around it.
And I was correct. Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, recounted how four years ago she developed a severe case of typhus brought about by flea bites, which resulted in complications including liver failure, meningoencephalitis and others. She was in the ICU in a medically induced coma for several days, received numerous transfusions and IV antibiotics and had a spinal tap. Her chances of living were not good, and if she did survive, there was a strong chance of permanent damage.
As she writes, “Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. Nor did I have brain damage. I do have tinnitus and some very minor hearing loss. When I complained about this to my neurologist, he told me that I shouldn’t be complaining about anything, given the “miracle” of my survival.”
With her physical challenge behind her, she wrote about the next emotional and spiritual challenge, facing the constant inquiries from friends and family as to how the experience changed her. In responding to these questions, she put them in context to her own experience a year prior asking the same questions of her mother who was dying of cancer, trying to find some form of narrative or wisdom to put everything in context.
Now, confronted with the questions based on her own experience, she was not so sure. While grateful not to have died of course, she did not feel different, nor did her behaviors and attitude change so much. And furthermore, she challenges, the questions themselves are perhaps unfair. We as Americans, she notes, seek redemption and happy endings, and want to tie up difficult events and crisises into neat packages. That, she notes, is misguided; redemption may not come. As she closes the article, “I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.”
This article struck a deep nerve in me because I have wrestled with the same question: “I nearly died, so what?” As I have shared, two years ago I woke up to a pounding headache the like of which I had not had before. After not being able to communicate clearly, the paramedics were called, I was whisked to the hospital and after a spinal tap given a diagnosis of bacterial meningitis. I was in the hospital for five days, half of which was spent in the ICU, and sent home with a regimen of IV antibiotics. Clearly my ordeal was not as severe as Daum’s. The similarities lay in the fact that meningitis could be fatal or leave permanent damage—I, too, escaped both.
And I was faced with the same questions about meaning making and redemption. For me, the questions came less from outside than inside. As a religious person, committed to a spiritual life, I believe in the idea of transformation and redemption. So I continued to ask myself, now what? How am I different? How can I change my life to warrant this second chance? How am I better? But I keep coming up empty and slipping into old habits.
Am I just buying into false notions?
Yes and no. The notions weren’t false, but the common way of thinking about them is. We are not wrong, as Americans or humans, to look for redemption and meaningful narratives. We are just wrong in where we commonly look for them.
Daum notes how her friends and family wanted to give meaning to the episode because they sought “closure.” Closure, for one, doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as closure on any event in our lives. We can learn this, for example, from our Jewish traditions around death; Jewish mourning practices teach that one never stops mourning. The intensity wanes, of course, but after the immediate period of shiva (the seven days following a death) and shloshim (the first month of grief), we still observe yartzeit, the yearly anniversary of the death.
There is no closure in healing, either. While I am past the illness that almost killed me—plus the two neurosurgeries I had to address another, unrelated, problem—I think about them every day. The scar for my IV port and my surgeries are visible, and I see them constantly. Every time I get a familiar twinge or pain I am transported back to that moment. Whenever I forget a word or something, I wonder if the meningitis didn’t do something permanent. And whether we carry physical scars of emotional scars from having gone through an ordeal, we are constantly in a process of healing.
But just because there is no closure does not mean there is no redemption. We just need to think about redemption differently. We tend to, in our popular imagination, think of redemption as an event, an immediate transformation in the face of challenge. That idea is repeated in our popular culture; it is what we expect and look for, as Daum notes.
But redemption is not an event, it is a process. We are continually coming to terms with and making meaning from the events of our lives. (Daum’s article comes four years after the events which prompted it). The questions can not be immediately answered, nor may they ever be completely. But every moment of life lived after the escape from death is a possibility for renewal and meaning making. Redemption will come not because of the near death experience itself, but because of the fact that we continue to live, and wrestle, and seek to improve.
Perhaps the distinction comes from different theological narratives. Perhaps our popular “American” notion of redemption is influenced by the Christian narratives of redemptive events—the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.
On the other hand, the normative Jewish narrative of redemption is the story of the Exodus from Egypt as told in the Torah, when the enslaved Israelites were freed under Moses’s leadership. That story is less about a particular event than a journey, a process. And even after the leaving of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea, the redemptive journey wasn’t finished as the Israelites spent the next 40 years in the desert trying to get the Promised Land.
The process of redemption does not come all at once, it happens step by step. It happens in small moments, not in grand gestures. Plus, we don’t know the impact of our experiences some times until much later after the fact. Were we transformed by a near death experience? Maybe, maybe not. But more likely, we don’t know yet.
We are, and will continue to be, in process. The question, “I nearly died, so what?” is a good one. But it is, and remains, an open question.