Once you begin drowning, your mind stops being yours in a human sense. The drowning mind shifts into a very basic mode—a state that prioritizes primitive survival protocols over any kind of higher-level reasoning.
In these final moments, your mind returns to a relatively simple state. So simple in fact, you probably won’t even appear to be drowning. “Instinctive drowning response,” the mind’s primal reaction to the realization of drowning, was surfaced by Frank Pia, Ph.D. in the early 1970s.
“Except in rare circumstances,” Pia explains, “drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary, or overlaid, function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.”
During instinctive drowning response, you won’t even be able to use your arms to signal for help. Instead, your arms will flap up and down in a surprisingly calm and inconspicuous manner. To an untrained eye, you’ll appear quite normal—just like those around you, or perhaps just like someone calmly treading water.
This process can last up to 60 seconds. After that, you slip beneath the surface.
But even then, your body won’t give up. As your vocal cords detect incoming water, they spasm involuntarily—a condition known as laryngospasm. In a last-ditch effort to save your lungs, your vocal cords will constrict, sealing your airway—diverting most of the water into your stomach.
If you’re lucky enough to be pulled to the surface and resuscitated within a few minutes, there’s a good chance you’ll be fine, especially if the laryngospasm kept your lungs dry. But absent help, you’ll quickly become unconscious (if you haven’t already). Brain function stops after a few minutes of oxygen depravation.
* * *
I’ve never drowned myself. All I know is what I’ve read—and imagined. But the more I think about it, the more I think that the final moments of a drowning victim’s life aren’t his worst.
I’m convinced the worst part of drowning is right now—the fear of it… the conscious mind’s simulation of the process of drowning. This uninformed, and hence fearful mind, imagines a frantic fight to stay above an infinitesimal line at which the bottom-most layer of our atmosphere sits on the top-most layer of water—that dividing line between the future, rising up infinitely high overhead and the deepest, darkest depths below.
These are not pleasant thoughts, and so it seems logical to drown them out of our consciousness into some other place—out of sight. But alas, not out of mind. We carry the fear of death with us everywhere we go.
This is a fairly new development in human history.
In Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, Philippe Ariès explains that in medieval times, “death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, [which] offers too marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name.”
Symbolically, when Ophelia drowns in Hamlet (1603),
… she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element…
Death was a medium into which people passed frictionlessly and almost instinctively. This attitude spread well into the 17th century as well. According to Ariès, “The spectacle of the dead, whose bones were always being brought up to the surface of the cemeteries, as was the skull in Hamlet, made no more impression upon the living than did the idea of their own death. They were as familiar with the dead as they were familiarized with the idea of their own death.”
You might even say that cemeteries were the original suburbs of older cities. When I had a chance to visit Paris’s largest cemetery, Père Lachaise, that’s what it felt like to me—walking around the streets of a large suburb of the dead.
But clearly, for most of human existence, death was something that virtually every man and woman had become accustomed to seeing since the dawn of their earliest memories. Death was a very accepted aspect of life because it was everywhere among the living.
It wasn’t until very recently in human existence, that our final moments became associated with alien-spaceship-like hospital rooms far removed from nature—filled with tubes, blinking lights, and the jarring sounds of machines. Before the 20th century, people rarely even left their homes to die. Death was something that happened quickly, and often it occurred in natural surroundings.
“In the 20th century,” Geoffrey Gorer writes in The Pornography of Death, “there seems to have been an unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more ‘mentionable,’ particularly in the Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more ‘unmentionable’ as a natural process.” In other words, death and sex traded places in the psyche of the western world.
Gorer wrote that in 1955, but the last sixty years have only punctuated his observation.
People live longer today than ever before—a lot longer. In medieval times a newborn would be expected to barely reach her 30s. Life expectancy crept up slightly in the centuries that followed, but in the 20th century, it soared into the 70s.
Because of longer lifetimes, it would appear that we’re now as distant from death as we’ve ever been—and we are—but only in the most objective sense of time.
By deferring death considerably, we set our thinking minds free to roam unimpeded on significantly longer time scales. But instead of finding more blissful lives, devoid of constant death, we wandered into a unprecedentedly morbid psychological time-scape. Unlike virtually every other living creature, “this is… our curse,” as Steven Cave says:
It’s the price we pay for being so damn clever. We have to live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen one day surely will, the end of all our projects, our hopes, our dreams, of our individual world. We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse.
Slowly, but very surely, we traded death for the fear of death.
* * *
Putting aside religious views, once we die, we can no longer produce things on earth. Death is the ultimate deadline-in-common. We’ll all face it, if at singular and unknown times.
The very word deadline arose in the context of death—and a rather despicable one at that. One of its earliest mentions occurred in the trial of Henry Wirz, a Confederate officer who was executed for war crimes committed at Camp Sumter such as these:
… Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts,… Wirz instructed the prison guard… to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line”…
If death is the ultimate deadline, then every imagined deadline between birth and death is like a miniature moment of mortality in our lives. A deadline might represent the death of a project, for example, or perhaps an unpleasant but necessary task. And just like death, the pleasant feelings obtained by deferring a deadline are ultimately overshadowed by the lingering worry about meeting the deadline again.
On the most elemental level, a non-deferrable deadline gives us a more acute sense of the death of time.
A cornerstone of Einstein’s Special Relativity is the proven fact that the gravitational force of large objects slows the passage of clock time. Metaphorically speaking, I think death has a similar “gravitational” effect on psychological time—in other words, time as we perceive it. As we near death (consciously), it exerts more and more pressure on our field of awareness—slowing down the present so that it doesn’t constantly evaporate into the past before we even knew it was there.
Our own death is like our own black hole in the universe—our singularity—that infinitely dense but infinitesimally small moment when our psychological time stops.
The equivalence principle states that gravity’s effect on time can be reproduced precisely by the inertia of a moving object. In other words, as far as the universe is concerned, the space-time effects experienced while standing on the surface of a large object like the earth can be recreated by an upward-moving rocket that exerts the same degree of pressure on your feet. Time behaves the same in the presence of both.
If death and black holes are the respective end points for psychological and clock time, then deadlines are the large, but less extreme, gravitational fields of awareness that we pass by on our journey to death. Put another way, I believe that much like man-made moving objects can reproduce the clock time effects of gravity, man-made deadlines reproduce the psychological time effects of death.
In short, deadlines have a way of focusing us on the present. Everything scheduled after the deadline becomes exponentially less important as we approach deadlines. Productivity soars in the final moments before a deadline and can often exceed the cumulative work accomplished in the weeks before it.
Like the mind of a drowning victim, which simplifies and begins to focus on the present—albeit in a very primitive way—death and deadlines have a way of making us forget about the future. If death is right in front of us, there’s nothing on the other side to worry about. All the fears of the future, created by our wandering minds, stop. The future becomes so sublimely irrelevant that our entire existence becomes rooted in the present.
In this way, consciousness of death is the quintessential life hack. Anne Lamott gives great advice in her book Bird by Bird:
To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours. So instead of staring miserably at the computer screen trying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” Then I can decide to read Wallace Stevens for the rest of the morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. Any of these will begin the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories. I might want to write on my last day on earth, but I’d also be aware of other options that would feel at least as pressing. I would want to keep whatever I did simple, I think. And I would want to be present.
Much like the future doesn’t exist in the mind of a very young child (try explaining the difference between six months from now and six seconds from now to a toddler), consciousness of death causes the future to matter much less for adults, who lose their sense of presence when death seems so far away.
Steve Jobs famously mentioned death as his own personal motivator when he addressed Stanford’s 2007 graduating class:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Jobs understood that only when we accept death’s certain victory, no matter how far off, do we feel free to finally tell the wardens of our own imaginary Camp Sumters to fuck off. And when we do that, life becomes the succulent meal awarded a dead man walking.
More than ever, I’m certain that death is the very best thing we have in life. It should be a deep, conscious spring from which all fountains of motivation are fed. It should not be allowed to sink into the depths of our subconscious to become an inexhaustible fuel source for our egos.
As the members of our species extend their expiration dates farther and farther into the future, it will become both harder and more vital to remain conscious of death. But stay conscious of it we must; because to live is not to stand back from death, but to step toward it—to toe that dead line.