The one time in my life I was certain I was going to die I lived to tell the tale. I was a sophomore in college and was riding as a passenger in a car on the way home for spring break. The driver took a curve too fast in the rain and lost control. I remember looking out the front windshield from the back seat as the world slid sideways around us. The car jumped the median strip and hurtled on, still moving sideways, into oncoming traffic. Somehow we got back over the median strip without being hit, crossed the highway, again without being hit, and shot up an embankment on the other side. The car flipped over and came to rest in a smoking heap by the side of the road. We were so disoriented at first that we didn’t realize the car was upside down. The only injury occurred when the driver’s wife undid her seatbelt and hit her head on the roof of the car beneath us. We were all stunned by the fact that we weren’t dead.
Afterward, we were pretty shaken up, but my experience of the accident itself was quite different. There was a moment after the car spun out of control when I simply assumed that we were all going to die. I was not frightened, nor was I feeling brave. There was only an odd sense of detachment about the whole thing and mild surprise that there wasn’t more to dying than this. As it turned out, we didn’t die. But if we had, my life would have ended not with a bang or even a whimper but with an almost casual observation, Oh, so this is what it’s like to die.
Nearly 40 years have passed since my near-death experience, and I have reached a stage of life when death is no longer a remote possibility. Last year we had to replace our furnace, and the repair man assured us the new one was guaranteed to last 30 years. I did a quick calculation and realized the furnace was guaranteed to last longer than I probably would.
Death is not something I think about very much – not because I wish to avoid thinking about it but because the topic doesn’t really interest me. Nor do I spend time speculating about the next life, if there is one. I discovered long ago that the “me” that fears death and longs for immortality isn’t real. Death, if anything, brings relief from the phantom of self that haunts us throughout life. Die before you die, advised the Sufi mystic al-Hallaj. Once you have seen through the illusion of self, what remains? Only life, and that is eternal.