A Brush with Death

By his own admission, the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne was obsessed with his own mortality. While still a young man, his best friend died of the plague; his father succumbed to kidney stones; and a younger brother was killed by a flying tennis ball. (This was before tennis balls were made of rubber). Small wonder that Montaigne would be haunted by the capriciousness of fate. “With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes,” he wrote, “how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat?”

Paradoxically, it was Montaigne’s own brush with death that caused him to reconsider. He was thrown from his horse in a collision with another rider and was all but given up for dead. He lay senseless for hours, and when he finally came around he began to vomit blood. Once he recovered his faculties, he was in terrible pain, and it was touch and go for several more days. Yet during those first few hours when he was closest to death, as Montaigne later recalled it, “I was suffering myself to glide away so sweetly and after so soft and easy a manner, that I scarce find any other action less troublesome than that was.” The hard part for him was not dying but rather coming back to life.

I had my own brush with death as a young man while riding in as a passenger in a car that skidded out of control on a rain-slicked highway. The car veered into oncoming traffic, lurched back across several lanes of highway, careened up an embankment and flipped over, coming to rest in a smoking heap by the side of the road. Miraculously, no one in the car was seriously hurt. However, there were long moments watching helplessly as the car skidded sideways into oncoming traffic when I was certain we were all dead. Strangely, there was no panic, no agitation of any kind, only a mild sense of surprise: Oh, so this is what it’s like to die. I would later understand what Montaigne meant when he wrote about gliding away sweetly in so soft and easy a manner. Had we collided with anything on that rain-slicked highway, this would have been the final note of my life.

I had always been a bit puzzled by my strangely languorous reaction to the prospect of immediate extinction. Like most people, I was accustomed to a rush of adrenalin in dangerous situations. Occasionally, however, I would read about people who reported an almost dream-like sense of detachment when facing sudden death. Among them was the famous African explorer David Livingstone, who was attacked by a lion he had wounded. “Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat,” Livingstone later recounted. “The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife.”

We now know that the onset of death is often accompanied by a flood of endorphins, a neurotransmitter unknown in Livingstone’s day – or, for that matter, at the time of my own near-miss more than 50 years ago. Endorphins act in the body as an anesthetic and as a tranquilizer, which would account both for the dreaminess Livingstone reported and the absence of pain. He speculated that “this peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death."

The role of endorphins in end-of-life situations is easily reconciled with belief in a benevolent Creator but is harder to explain in terms of evolutionary theory. Biological traits supposedly arise because they aid in the survival of the species. A rush of adrenaline, for example, might have helped Livingstone fight off the lion so he could pass his genes on to future generations. A rush of endorphins, by contrast, merely softens you up for the kill, thereby contributing in some small way to the extinction of the species.

Perhaps there is some obscure evolutionary advantage in knowing when the game is up. In the meantime, however, we might reasonably assume that a benevolent Creator – or at least Mother Nature – might have some larger purpose in mind beyond mere survival of the species. For Montaigne, our mortality must be understood in the broadest possible context, measured by the light of eternity. Nature’s message to us is thus: “Go out of this world…as you entered into it; the same pass you made from death to life, without passion or fear, the same, after the same manner, repeat from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe, ’tis a part of the life of the world.”

Michel de Montaigne, Essays
David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa

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