The Transformative Power of the Post-Mortem Life.
On June 8, 1970, my mentor at Brandeis University, Abraham Maslow, collapsed and died suddenly from a massive heart attack. He’d had a cardiac event nineteen months earlier and knew that his risk of another heart attack was considerable. Earlier that year, in an interview published in Psychology Today, Maslow expressed gratitude for the time he had been given: “My attitude toward life changed. The word I use for it now is postmortem life. I could just as easily have died, so my living constitutes a kind of extra, a bonus…. I may just as well live as if I had already died…every single moment of every single day is transformed.”
On September 8, 1994, Chicago Bulls basketball player Bill Wennington was booked on a flight which he missed -- USAir flight 427 – which crashed on landing in Pittsburgh, killing all 132 people on board. He told me that he was transformed by the experience. He developed more humility, put even more energy into being a better husband, father, and teammate, devoted more time to his charities, and became less bent out of shape by the “small stuff.”
My own brush-with-death experience was brief and much less dramatic, but at the time felt devastating. Approximately ten years ago, I developed stomach pains. An initial test suggested cancer of the pancreas. An acquaintance of mine who was my age had recently died a painful death from the same disease.
Suddenly, the angel of death was resting, not so gently, on my shoulder. I was terrified. I thought about my family and friends whom I would never see again. Fortunately, subsequent tests ruled out any serious pathology.
The experience was a wakeup call. Having been granted a reprieve, never again would I see each day as anything except a great gift. I promised myself that from that day forward, I would live life from the deepest part of my being. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to have a near death experience to spend our time more wisely by serving others, finding new things to be grateful for each day, finding the divine spark in each person, performing frequent acts of kindness without expecting anything in return, appreciating small pleasures and holding onto joyful experiences.
As we get older, it is impossible not to be more deeply aware of the fragility of life. As Chip Conley stated in his contribution to my recent book, GETTING WISER: 101 Essential Life Lessons and Inspiring Teachers, “The older you are, the more you want to put your life of experience and perspective to work to positively impact future generations.” Inspired by Chip, my goal is to acquire as much wisdom as possible to pass it onto the next generation.
Thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi stated, “Travelers, it is late. Life’s sun is going to set. During these brief days that you have the strength, be quick and spare no effort of your wings.”
Michael S. Lewis, M.D. is an award-winning author and photographer who has published seven books. He is a former orthopedic consultant to the Chicago White Sox Baseball team and the Chicago Bulls Basketball team, with whom he won two championship rings. His most recent book is GETTING WISER: 101 Essential Life Lessons and Inspiring Teachers. His website is www.michaelslewismd.com.