The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What is the Closest...?

One of the readers suggested that the real question is: what did you learn from your mistake? Good thought. In my case, I realized that my entire paradigm of “balance” had to be out of whack if I made a mistake like that. Somewhere, my instincts were just flat wrong. Looking back now, I realize that it wasn’t my instincts that were wrong. It was that I wanted what I wanted, and could rationalize my way to behaviors that satisfied my selfish desires. Simple as that.

My heart has led me wrong less often than my head. However, I’ve seen some pretty wild screw-ups when people follow their hearts, as well. That’s why I pay most attention to the behaviors, attitudes, etc. which are in alignment with body, mind, and emotions simultaneously. People say: “what about spirit?” My observation is that I’ve seen people do horrendous damage to their bodies, relationships, and careers in the name of “spirituality.” Moreover, if someone says they have a spiritual calling to do something, there is no logical argument, even if what they are doing is literally murderous. Delusion can mask as spirituality, easily, because of the fact that there is no way to measure the truth or falsehood of someone’s spiritual beliefs. You can measure whether those beliefs are logical, or doctrinal, or whatever, but ultimately, all real matters of spirit are only tangential to life on earth.

So…you can REALLY screw up your life here chasing what may or may not be on “the other side.” On the other hand, if you simultaneously concern yourself with the root of the tree—body, career, and relationship—the flowerings usually seem to include those behaviors and attitudes which most spiritual disciplines describe as spiritual: honesty, compassion, discipline, etc.

So I go that way. When I screwed up my marriage, I was clearly “off the path.” I had two real choices: blame my wife (and believe me, I had plenty of support from friends who thought I should do just that) or take responsibility and grow the #@$$ up. I chose the second path. It was painful, but more rewarding by far.
The debate last night wasn’t a knock-out for Hillary. Which means that her candidacy is probably over. I read a lot of comments from self-proclaimed Feminists about how this is proof the Patriarchy is alive and well and venomous. Well, if nine women had been running, and one man came in and beat them all, they’d have a better point. But she beat the hell out of the other men, and lost to one other. That doesn’t prove anything, really.

But I’m equally certain that if Obama had lost the nomination, there would be plenty of black people saying “see? Racism is alive and well and venomous…” while ignoring the millions of white people who voted for him and worked to elect him. Saying that would be ignoring the fact that just perhaps Hillary was smarter and /or ran the better campaign. It would smack to me of a bit of sexism.

Likewise, discounting his accomplishment as simple sexism strikes me as whiffing of racism. Isn’t there just a chance that he is just smarter, and/or ran a better campaign? By denying their right to individual differences, not letting them be two human beings, that is a bit of sociological reductionism that…well, is the kind of thinking used by every racist and sexist.

Now, if ten times the more qualified woman was beaten by (what one perceives to be) the less qualified man, that certainly is a better argument. But again, Hillary beat a variety of white males, some of whom had more legislative experience than she.

You know, I can’t swear that, if the position were reversed, I wouldn’t be tempted to complain. I hope I wouldn’t, but can’t swear to it.
Today’s question is: what is the closest you ever came to dying, and did it make any difference in your life? For me…hmmm. Probably when I was trying to get from Vancouver Washington to Los Angeles to see a dying friend. I was driving on the I-5 in the middle of a horrible snow-storm, and hit an ice patch, doing a 270-degree spin. A giant Big Rig was coming up behind me, and I sat there in the car watching it lock up the brakes and slide right at me, and there wasn’t jack shit I could do. I have no idea how it managed to stop on that icy road, but it did, not two feet from the driver’s side door.

I decided then and there that the best thing I could do to honor the dead or dying was to live to the full. And turned around and went home.


Brian Dunbar said...

what is the closest you ever came to dying,

Through a series of dumb choices (none of them mine) myself and three other Marines were on the ground, armed with rifles but no rounds, as two sentries and a then unknown bad guy shot at each other in the dark.

I could hear the snap of the bullets as they whizzed by overhead.

and did it make any difference in your life?

I think so; it was the first time that I knew could die. Also the first time that I knew in my soul that people who were in charge of you could make reasonable mistakes that got other people hurt.

I made out my first will a few weeks later.

Pat Logan said...

The closest I ever came to dying was when I went hiking with my soon to be spouse and decided we would go over a log to the other side of a raging river instead of going to a safer area to cross.

I slipped halfway across.

If I hadn't caught myself they would have never found my body.

Made me a whole lot more grateful. And smarter, too.

Anonymous said...

As a kid I lived along side a highway which had been blasted though rock. The highway was about 150 to 200 feet below the street I lived on. The highway had brick wall up tp a point and then a rocky slope led from the top of the wall to another street that my friend lived on. I used to climb over the fence and then climb the rocks as a shortcut to friend's house. One day I did this after a rain an the slope was slippery and I ended up losing my footing and rolling down the cliff. If I had gone over the edge I would have died but I got lucky and about 10 ft. before the edge I hit a large boulder. I broke my arm and my ankle but lived.
I guess from this I learned not use that shortcut anymore.

Marty S.

Kami said...

I started to bleed out the day after I came home from the hospital with my newborn son. I actually wasn't aware that I was in trouble but a dear friend was staying with me to help me with my child while I recovered from childbirth. I came out of the bathroom and she said I looked white as a ghost and that we were going to the hospital. I was docile from shock and complied despite the fact I felt fine if a bit woozy.

By the time we reached the hospital I was crashing. They zipped me into a room that seemed unreasonably small considering the number of nurses and doctors that needed to fit in there. They let my friend stand by because she seemed calm and they wanted me to be with my son. Two IVs wide open--one in each arm--and my veins had started to collapse. I remember feeling peaceful and calm and looking at my friend with my baby while IV fluid dripped off my elbows. She said something that made me smile but I couldn't tell what it was. I remember crying in pain at one point because of what the docs were doing but I didn't 'feel' it.

Later I found out a few things that changed my perspective a bit.

What my friend was saying was please Kami, don't die and leave me with this baby. Your son needs you. The Red Cross notified my husband, who had to go to do military stuff, that I was in trouble. He drove like a maniac on winding back roads to get to the hospital uncertain of whether he'd find me alive. He could have been killed trying to get to me.

Despite being a typical self-centered young lady I never really felt I was important to anyone except myself. My experience showed me in vivid detail that although very certainly life would go on without me, within my family/friend-kin group I fill an important, irreplaceable role. Rather than give me even more of a swelled head it humbled me. I needed to be responsible with myself because they would go to extremes to save me or take care of my responsibilities in my place at great cost to themselves. I also value my family/friend-kin beyond what I understood as value as a child. When I was a kid, it was all about the glowing feeling of love and companionship. As an adult that has stood at the edge of the beyond, it's about how we treat each other and take care of each other that really matters.

Mike said...

Last summer, we tipped a canoe. Not sure how close I really was to dying, but it sure felt pretty damn close at the time.

Steven Barnes said...

To everyone, but especially Kami, thank you.

Mike Ralls said...

I've been in a couple of car crashes that were pretty bad and where I thought I had a real chance at dying, and while I did experience that feeling of "Thank God I'm alive, every day is a gift!" it quickly faded.

Oddly enough, one time I thought I was going to die (but really was in a lot less danger than the car crashes) and that effected me deeply on a day-to-day basis and really made the "Make the Most of Every Day" part of my general outlook on life.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago, I thought I might have pneumonia, so I went in to get a chest X-ray. I went to a clinic that I don't usually go to. It was a Saturday morning and an emergency, so I couldn't go to my regular clinic, which was closed on Saturday. Anyway, because I was so sick, I was not my usual charming self, and managed to alienate some of the staff at the clinic with my attitude. One of the staff members was so upset that he pulled a very nasty trick on me. He took the X-ray of another person who had lung cancer and told me they were my X-rays. He said that I would have to discuss it with my doctor, but it didn't look to him like I had more than a few months to live. I spent that weekend sincerely believeing that there was a good chance I might die within a few months. Although I found out a few days later that I was going to be fine, it was still a life-altering experience for me. That experience was a major factor in my decision to retire early. I'll probably suffer some financial pain due to my decision to retire a few years before I'm qualified for the maximum retirement pay rate at my job, but I'm absolutely certain that life is too short to spend any more of it doing something that brings no meaning to it. I'll be comfortable enough. More importantly, I'll be free to structure my life in a way that brings me personal satisfaction. So, that guy at the clinic did me a tremendous favor, despite his evil intent.

Abel M.

Steve Perry said...

Geez, I lost count. I shoulda died half a dozen times before I left my teens, probably that many since.

First time was walking across a 2x6 board between two ten-story buildings, I was fourteen, and bulletproof.

Second time was getting shot at by an asshole who didn't know from gun safety.

I don't count near-misses in automobiles or driving motorscooters at thrice the legal blood alcohol limit ...

Last time I deliberately did something I knew might kill me was thirty-fve years ago, and it involved jumping from a balcony on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Hollywood to grab onto a casement window so I could sneak into a buddy's apartment. No idea if the window would hold my weight ...

That one cured me.

There must be angels that look out for fools and children, and foolish children most of all ...

Steve Perry said...

No, wait there was one more. Thirty years back, my buddy and I walked through the worst section of Baltimore one evening, unarmed. I wasn't even smart enough to be afraid. Nobody said a word to us, save trying to sell us dope. Must have figured we were crazy.

Pretty much we were.

Shawn said...

I cannot honestly claim a single time. The one that I was aware of during adulthood involved slipping while mountain hiking off-trail, and did not seem to cause a major change in my life, aside from reinforcing my existing beliefs about living to the fullest and minimizing the risks involved in risky activities.

There were enough times in my teenage years when I thought I was close to dying (untreated asthma attacks and having a foot 3/4 chopped off, among other things) that these lessons were already learned fairly well.

Kami said...

Thanks Steve B. for starting this thread. It felt good to share.

mjholt said...

The closest I came to being killed was 30 years ago when my then husband in an alcoholic blackout tried to kill me. I had come home from a meeting (don't know what group, but he had not gone because he said he had to work) and he woke up carrying his pistol (a P-38 semi automatic), but he couldn't get the safety off, so he slugged me and dislocated my jaw. I am alive today because I ran. Running is the better part of survival. He was 85 or 100 lbs heavier than me, nine inches taller, and he could bench press me to the ceiling (in happier, playful days). We were divorced a few months later (that was a horrible experience, too).

I fell down a ravine when I was about 8 years old, that was at the edge of the Puyallup River, but I remember it as a lot of fun, and no harm could have come to me. Like Steve Perry said, "bulletproof."

I was in a bad auto accident and for a couple of thoughts long I was sure it was the end, then I walked away. That gave me a high for days.

mjholt said...

I am extremely touched by your experience. You were so close to dying. Then to come to the place of knowledge you achieved is yet another level of living.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

mjholt said...

I didn't answer the question
did it make any difference in your life?

That has several answers:

1. I have a greater appreciation of battered people. I never ask the question, what did you do to deserve that because it was asked of me by my mother.

2. I realized complete parent/child separation from my parents in that I understood that my experiences were not their experiences and they could not imagine parts my life.

3. Most importantly, I learned to trust my fear and my gut. I truly believe that fear is a gift and I do not battle it. I now go with the fear and figure it out later. If I am afraid, and my gut says get out, I'm gone.

Dan Moran said...

I've asked 4 black women the question about race v gender -- 3 of them told me race was more difficult; one by a lot, two by a little. One black woman told me her gender had been more difficult for her, by a lot. One bisexual latina I asked told me it was her gender, by a lot.

Today I was in the lunch room at a client's down in El Segundo and found myself sitting with 16 working-class women who did telephone support -- so I polled them. They were:

- 7 black
- 4 white
- 4 latina
- 1 asian

I got a total of six different responses to my poll --

Has your gender or race been more difficult for you, and by how much?

Race, a lot
Race, a little
Neither or not applicable
Gender, a little
Gender, a lot
Mind your own business

Adding in the four black friends and one Latina woman I'd asked, here's what I've got so far --

Black women - race by a lot - 4
Black women - race by a little - 2
Black women - not applicable - 1
Black women - mind your own business - 2
Black women - gender by a little - 1
Black women - gender by a lot - 1

White women - race by a lot - 0
White women - race by a little - 1
White women - not applicable - 0
White women - mind your own business - 0
White women - gender by a little - 1
White women - gender by a lot - 2

Latina women - race by a lot - 0
Latina women - race by a little - 1
Latina women - not applicable - 0
Latina women - mind your own business - 0
Latina women - gender by a little - 2
Latina women - gender by a lot - 2

Asian woman - mind your own business - 1

It's an interesting cross sample -- and meaningless, obviously. The only non-heterosexual in the study (as far as I know; I didn't have the temerity to ask the women in the call center) cites gender as worst, by a lot, and in her case I know why.

Out of 21 people only one person selected the neutral option -- a black woman. I wish I'd started with her, I might have changed the structure of these questions -- said, roughly that being black hadn't been a disadvantage, being female was sometimes a disadvantage and sometimes an advantage, and on balance it was all a wash: "Look, just being a person is hard."

It's too small a sample to be meaningful (and let's not discuss the awful way the data was gathered) -- but I do get more black women thinking being black is harder, and Latina and white women feel being female is harder. For what it's all worth with such a trivial sample size.

Sometime soon I'm going to try to get this poll up at Even that won't solve anything, all online polls suffer from self-selection, but it's an interesting set of numbers regardless. Maybe some smart person out there will do a real study.

Dan Moran said...

I've lost track how many times I've come close to dying. At the time what I took away was mostly that I was lucky and immortal, which is as useful a lesson for a young man as you might think.

Later I learned I'd been stupid for being in those situations in the first place, and that was useful because it enabled me to stop doing the stupid things that put me in situations where I might die ... but it wasn't the near-death experiences that taught me those things, just the passage of time.

I've rarely if ever Learned Something in the standard issue storytelling sense of the word. Mostly experience + time has been what's taught me -- if that.

Steven Barnes said...

The hardest thing in dealing with a battered woman is getting them to take responsibility for what happened. The problem is that responsibility is associated so strongly with guild, blame, and shame that it is almost impossible to detach one from the other. Responsibility is "the ability to respond"--the ability to take your power back and create a context in your life where THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN AGAIN. This is what keeps you from being a serial victim, and is absolutely necessary to have a happy, healthy life. It's rough, and I learned this from Dawn Callan, the finest women's self defense instructor I've ever known. A human being who won't take the position that "I'll die--or kill--before I let myself be treated like that" literally emits a signal attracting predators. We need to teach all our daughters this truth.
Dan--thanks for asking the questions. And the answers prove nothing except that it is damned difficult to quantify the pain of others...and perhaps the only real answer is for race and gender to be considered equal challenges for our society.