The risks of living and dying
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
-Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, 2011
“A man [sic] who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
-Charles Darwin (1809-1882), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, 1887
Life teaches you lessons when you least expect it. It was Easter Saturday, 2011 in my home town of Sydney, Australia. A colleague and friend, Joanne, rang to say that the day before, on Good Friday, another very good friend of ours, Alan, had died unexpectedly. Alan was a serene, reflective kind of guy in his 50s, fairly fit, slim and healthy—popular, and well-liked. Joanne and I had once or twice co-taught a course with him and he was a very skilled educator, respected by undergraduate and postgraduate health and medical students alike.
Alan had been chopping wood for a fire on Good Friday afternoon when he felt a little unwell. He thought maybe it was indigestion or that perhaps it was muscular, brought on by the exertion. He told his wife that he would have a nap before dinner.
When she called him to come and eat, he didn’t answer. That was unusual. Upstairs, she then discovered him, tragically, still in bed—dead. He’d had a heart attack. Colleagues and students at our University—well, there is no other word for it: we were devastated.
The very next day, while I was still more than a little shocked, absorbing these sad tidings, another colleague, Bill, an anesthesiologist and expert in patient safety, called with news of his own. Bill was well known for his love of flying. He owned a micro-light airplane which he flew whenever he could: at weekends, to and from conferences, and while on vacation. The day before, he had decided with a friend to go hang-gliding,
During hang-gliding, the pilot rests his arms and legs across a frame in a prone position, within a safety harness. Bill was already up in the air, at around 1,200 feet, when he looked down and suddenly realized he was not buckled in to his leg straps. So he was being kept up mostly by the bar across his torso, near his armpits.
All that safety training came to the fore, I guess, because he managed not to panic, and descended, gliding to the ground. As he reported these events to me, he finished with the phrase “Once you got to the ground, you had to laugh.”
My response, which came from concern for him, but sounded rather self-righteous when I thought about it later, was to snap, “No, Bill. You have to follow procedures so that this doesn’t happen again. Surely an international expert in safety knows that.” Despite my self-judgement that I’m an agreeable, easy-going, open extrovert, I can be sharp-tongued.
After the holiday break, I went to work and in the afternoon had a faculty meeting with another colleague, Peter. We shared our shock about Alan’s death, and I told him about Bill. He fell silent for a while. Then, he said he had a story of his own.
That Easter weekend, Peter had been scuba-diving in Queensland, in northern Australia, just off the Great Barrier Reef. He’d only returned to the University, flying in from his break the night before. From his account, the day was picture-perfect. Warm, blue, crystal-clear seas, fantastic tropical fish, golden sands—a magical day, as it often can be at that time of year in Australia. His diving group had encountered the occasional reef shark, but no white pointers or hammerheads—nothing very dangerous.
At the end of the day, the scuba-diving friends were chatting on the beach, animatedly swapping tales of what they had seen, when someone noticed a little turtle, newly hatched, struggle out of the sand and begin its journey to the sea. As Peter recounted his story, in my mind’s eye, I imagined this as one of those natural history documentaries on the National Geographic channel.
Just then a couple of late-afternoon seagulls started to make their way towards the hatchling, beady-eyes drawn to a dinner-time snack. The scuba-divers had a choice. Should they let nature take its course, or should they deter the seagulls? Their hearts ruled their heads and they immediately decided to help the baby turtle, shooing away the gulls, and creating a pathway down the beach.
They were successful. The turtle reached the sea, and swam ten, fifteen, twenty yards. Boy, did they feel good. And as they watched the little fellow swim out into the clear turquoise sea, a reef shark broke the surface nearby, taking the turtle in one swift, brutal movement.
I remember the days following that Easter being an emotionally intense time. I felt terribly sad about Alan, and at the same time, very relieved about Bill’s narrow escape. And for some reason, the story about the little turtle’s demise kept playing over and over in my mind, too.
Over the following week, as I prepared to teach my masters students—I was running a course on improving the health system—my unconscious mind kept turning over. I suddenly realized that embedded in these very real, and life-altering events, was a message for the students that was well worth reflecting on.
We all live life facing all sorts of risk factors—and of course, the target subjects in the three Easter tales of the unexpected, as I came to think of them, had various risk profiles and all faced a range of possible outcomes. It occurred to me in one of those “aha” moments that these cases could fit into a risk-outcomes matrix that I couldn’t recall having seen before. One dimension of the matrix is risk, and the other, outcome. I drew up a Microsoft PowerPoint slide, which looked like this:
We would need to include some measures of the risk and outcomes, I thought. The simplest way is to say you can face high or low risk, and secure good or bad outcomes.
Where did Alan, Bill and the turtle fit in? Think about this for a moment.
Alan was low risk but received a very unlucky, in fact tragically bad outcome after doing the domestically normal task of chopping wood. Bill was the opposite: he was participating in high-risk hang-gliding, but got lucky with a good outcome. The hatching turtle was at high risk, was able to secure a good result at first from scuba-diving supporters, but ultimately sustained a bad outcome.
And here’s the twist to this tale—something I asked my students to grapple with: What’s in the fourth quadrant? Again, think about this.
My answer? Most of us, most of the time. Those of us with risk factors that are relatively controlled—in other words, those of us who aren’t climbing Everest, or working as an astronaut on the International Space Station, or living in extreme poverty, or fighting in Syria, or weighing 300 pounds—have low risk, good outcomes every day. (In fact, many people even in these high-risk categories are going to survive into the foreseeable future).
Every Easter I make a conscious effort to reflect on the events of that particular year. I remember Alan’s life, and think about his family; I give a commemorative sigh of relief for Bill, and I let myself feel a brief pang for the fate of that little turtle.
Maybe we should all indulge in such reflective moments more frequently. We are not Alan, Bill or the turtle … today. So, smell the roses. Count your blessings. Enjoy living in the moment. Most of us don’t do that enough. We should.
Cave, Stephen (2012). Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization. New York: Crown Publishing Group.