Friday, May 16, 2014


We love the image of the conquering hero, carried triumphant through the streets, and behind him we place the slave to whisper, "Remember, thou art mortal."

I have my own whispering slave, and I think each of us does. It's how we clip our own wings, and turn our strength to weakness. Mine waits until that moment when I see someone struggling and step forward to say, "Hey, do you need a hand with that?"

And then it hisses, "This is how Ted Bundy killed people."

My voice of mortality says no good deed goes unpunished.  It points out that altruism is probably not an individual evolutionary advantage, though the complexity of human relationships often makes it a social one.  It tells me I'm statistically more likely, running towards trouble, to be hurt or killed than those who run away from it.

There have been times in my life that I thought "I have made a decision that may kill me."  Maybe I got back on the road when I was probably too tired to drive safely, maybe I worked my way out onto the unsteady path before considering just how deserted the trail was and how far that drop went, maybe I called out that guy harassing women on the corner without knowing if he had friends, or even just a knife and a grudge.

The truth is that we never know until it happens which will be the decision that confirms the mortality.  Maybe it's as simple as 'I keep meaning to get that mole checked out, and putting it off.'  Or just stopping for the yellow light instead of gunning through the intersection, so that five miles down the road we cross paths with the speeding truck.  When you really consider it, every single decision you make every day could be the one that makes you mortal, and there's no way to know.

Kind of paralyzing, no?

When I first came to this understanding, this pure helplessness to predict a safe course, my impulse was to curl up in a dark quiet room and do absolutely nothing.  But then I came back to that thing I said earlier, about being statistically more likely to be killed running towards trouble than away from it, and I realised there was a qualifier to it:  by the trouble.  Running away from trouble, especially when they're other people's problems, only decreases the chance that particular situation will harm you. It can't make you safe.  You are never entirely safe.

The statistical likelihood of death is 100% for me, as it is for everyone else.  I will die, and in hindsight I will be able to see the choice or set of choices that led to the circumstances of my death.

This would suggest that the ideal course in life is to make every single decision worth dying for.  To live a life of such epic courage and adventure it gets its own soundtrack.  But I don't have that option.  Bills must be paid, tires must be rotated, sinks must be scrubbed and the laundry never stops needing to be folded.  It's hard to maintain that level of significance in every choice, to wash the dishes as if your life depended on how you did it, because it just might.

I release the small decisions, the ones of fate and chance, the 'do I cut through the parking lot or wait at the light?' the 'do I wear sandals or tennis shoes?'  It's good to weigh risks on decisions, but it's not reasonable to spend your life calculating detailed risk assessments for every left turn or breakfast taco.

Instead, I listen for the voice, for that hissing whisper just behind my right shoulder.  I interpret that voice as my subconscious alerting me to choices that define me, choices that give me a chance to *earn* my mortality and its rewards.  Yes, I tell it, Ted Bundy used people's kindness to prey on them.  But kindness keeps the mechanism of human interaction moving, and a life of choosing to be kind instead of afraid is worth living.  Yes, love leads to grief and loss, and it can end in betrayal, but in the life I want to lead that's a risk you have to take.  I may have few opportunities to live an epic life, but I have many many chances to live a pattern I'll look back gladly on creating.

I'm still often painfully aware of my mortality, but I've stopped resenting that whisperer, because in trying to clip my wings, it's inadvertently pointing out opportunities to fly.

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