Years ago, I was sitting in a diner with a client, coaching him to become more successful in life. I was talking about my personal philosophy and explain my approach to my life when he said, “I wish I had died like you. I think that’s the answer to my problems.”
He went on to explain that I was the second person he’d met who suffered a near-death experience, and our approaches to life were remarkably similar. “I just wish I could see life like you guys do.”
I rebutted the argument, of course, explaining that many people far more accomplished than me have managed to make the most of their life without having to face death first.
I also pointed out that I have unfortunately faced death three times - a bee sting, a car accident, and a robbery with a gun to my head and the trigger pulled - so I must me an exceptionally slow study.
A complete idiot.
But his comment has always stayed with me, probably because it allowed me to see the trauma in my life in a slightly more positive light.
Recently, I was listening to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when something occurred to me and reminded me of my diner conversation from years ago:
When I was 22 years old, I was lying on a greasy tile floor in a McDonald’s in Brockton, MA at midnight, with a gun pressed against my head. A masked man was counting back from three, and when he reach zero, he told me that he was going to shoot me in the head and kill me. This was a man who I knew had already killed people in other restaurants in town, so I was absolutely certain that I was going to die. In those final seconds, I felt all of the fear and anger in my body roll over to regret - a regret for a life unfulfilled. A life wasted. The gift of life unrecognized and unappreciated for what it truly was.
I tell a story about my experience that you can watch here:
It occurred to me while reading Dickens that in a lot of ways, what happened to me was not unlike what happened to Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come shows Scrooge the results of his life if he continues along his chosen path. Scrooge sees what a cruel and miserly existence will bring, and as a result of witnessing this portrait of the future, he changes his ways.
He alters the course of his life.
I was given a similar gift on that tile floor. While my portrait of the future was far less specific or dramatic than Scrooge’s, I was given the opportunity to experience the regret of a life unfulfilled. I was afforded the opportunity to feel the pain of loss, shame in knowing you’ve squandered your opportunity, and the fear of having done so little that you will be quickly forgotten.
It admittedly wasn’t the way I would’ve preferred to receive this wisdom. The decades of post traumatic stress disorder that have followed have not always been easy, and as I told my friend in that diner, not everyone needs to see a vision of their future in order to make the most of their life.
Lots of people are just better than me.
But it was a gift of sorts. A view of the world that few ever get to experience, and oddly entirely different than the near-death experiences of my bee sting and car accident. In both of those cases, I actually stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating for a moment, but I never saw it coming. I had no time to contemplate the extent of my life, because I didn’t know that it might be coming to an end.
Shock is a blessed thing until it kills you. It takes away all the pain and all the fear.
In fact, in both cases, I didn’t know how close I had come to death until well after the fact.
I was also 12 years-old and 17 years-old at the time. I’m not sure how much regret I would’ve felt even if I knew what was happening. Not much is expected from someone those ages.
But I was 22 when I faced that man and his gun, so perhaps I was ready for the lesson. I was also in need of it. Having been kicked out of my home after high school with few prospects for a future, I couldn’t afford to wait another moment to turn my life around.
It wasn’t a coincidence that after the robbery, I became relentless and have been relentless ever since. Within a year, I was attending college for the first time while working full time at one job and part-time at another.
In addition to my studies, I was serving in student government, writing for the school newspaper, competing in statewide debate competitions, serving as President of the honor society, and organizing volunteers on campus for Habitat for Humanity.
I don’t know how I did it all other than to say that after facing homelessness, imprisonementment, and death. nothing has ever seemed as difficult.
I was relentless.
So I’m left wondering if Dickens had similar thoughts when he wrote A Christmas Carol. I know what as a young boy, he worked in a shoe blackening factory under incredibly harsh conditions. During that time, he also watched his father go to debtors prison, along with his younger siblings (which was customary at the time). While in prison, Dickens’ grandmother died, leaving enough to settle his father’s debts, but it must’ve been a brutal existence for a 12 year-old boy.
Perhaps he received the same insight as I received that night in McDonald’s. Perhaps he was given a gift of sorts - an understanding of a life unfulfilled, maybe through his own struggle or maybe through witnessing the struggle of his father.
Or perhaps he was just a better person than me. Maybe he didn’t require the brutality of factory work as a child to want to be something someday.
The more likely truth, I think.
Either way, I wish for you an understanding of the fragility of life and the importance of making every day count without requiring a visit from the future. My wish for you in 2019 is to be relentless in all that you do without requiring an act of violence to get there,
My hope is that you’re better than me.
Fear not. It’s a low bar.