Flirting with the abyss

A benign trip to hospital offered a stark reminder that consciousness hangs by a deathly thread

Artillery Row

“Ooh, it’s starting to kick in, that’s nice,” I purred as the drugs began to take hold and I beamed at the various strangers in their hospital scrubs gathered around the gurney.

“Like a nice Rioja hitting the spot,” the anaesthetist said.

“Funnily enough I was drinking a fair bit of Rioja wine before I came back for this!” I replied as the smile on my face expanded exponentially. But before I could regale the hospital team with talk of the Camino de Norte pilgrimage through northern Spain I had been on before I got an unexpected call saying my Covid-19-delayed ear surgery was back on, the drugs got to their primary purpose.

“Well, we’ll say goodbye now,” the anaesthetist said.

Going under general aesthetic is like a form of euthanasia

But I’m just warming up! I was about to say before the abyss closed in. This was my second relatively recent experience of enforced unconsciousness—I had the same operation done on the other ear nearly two years ago—and once again I was left marvelling at the strange, almost mystic quality of the experience, with its Jungian hints of the mysteries of the psyche and how it relates to death. Going under general aesthetic is like a form of euthanasia, from which you are fortunately brought back.

It all highlighted to me how easy it is for one’s consciousness to just be switched off—a truth revealed devastatingly to relatives of Covid-19 patients who had to be anesthetized and put on ventilators that were turned off after the fight was lost—in essence, how easy it is to die. I suppose I’ve been mulling this over long before Covid-19, ever since my British Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, in particular, an ambush on a hot sweaty night during 2004 in the city of Al Amarah.

I had taken my tank troop’s worth of three crews in a dismounted role to bolster a company of infantry at a beleaguered outpost known as CIMIC House in the city centre. It was where the Conservative MP Rory Stewart did a stint in 2003 as Coalition Provisional Authority Deputy Governorate Coordinator for Maysaan, and my troop arrived at the start of a period of sustained enemy attacks during which CIMIC House gained the reputation in the British press as a latter-day Rourke’s Drift.

The day of the ambush began with a morning briefing by the company commander for a company-level night-time fighting patrol through a dodgy part of town on the other side of the Tigris River. The main area of interest lay between two junctions on the military mapping known as Green 4 and Green 5, where insurgents based themselves and from where they launched mortar attacks.

I considered my family, as desperate soldiers have done throughout the ages at the end

As the patrol entered the suspected area shortly after midnight, I felt a palpable change in the atmosphere even though the city remained dead to the world. The only sounds came from the rhythmic pace of combat boots crunching along the ground. A small petrol station illuminated by a solitary light left on against the surrounding darkness looked like an Edward Hopper painting. The long line of the patrol turned onto an alley to approach Green 4, with my section bringing up the rear. Half-way down, shots suddenly rang out from behind us. My section dashed for cover. I darted around the side of a parked tanker truck, grateful for such a solid defensive position. My satisfaction was short lived.

Bullets began hitting the truck’s tank—on my side! But the enemy were on the far side of the truck. It didn’t make sense. To my horror, I realised the rounds were coming from the rest of the patrol ahead of us firing back at the enemy and clearly oblivious to our existence in between. I spun to the left, away from the sound of the bullets, only to hear the bullets eating the metal there. Spinning back to the right, I encountered the same malicious sound. After pirouetting on the same stricken spot, the clanging of the radio on my back joining the sounds of the bullets against the lorry, I sank to my haunches, both to reduce the size of the target and out of sheer despondency.

I desperately gripped the radio pressel to warn—beg—the rest of the patrol to cease fire. But the net was jammed with contact reports, soldiers giving target indications and irate sergeants telling those soldiers to get off the net to allow others with more pressing information to transmit. I kept on pressing the radio pressel to send out a burst of radio waves to break through the chatter. Press, release, press, release, press, release—nothing! Each time only that damnable chatter. God damn the infantry. One moment they were all surly and recalcitrant—not without justification, admittedly, given what a hard job it was—and then they were all loquacious at the worst possible time.

I couldn’t help pondering how the amount of sex I had had appeared a pitiful innings on which to end

All the while the bullets kept coming. Short of burrowing into the ground, there was nothing I could do but await what seemed the all but guaranteed early and dubious end to my military career. A random assortment of thoughts related to loss meandered through my head. I was reminded why I had chosen to join the cavalry and soldier in a tank. I considered my family, my mother especially, as desperate soldiers have done throughout the ages at the end. I also couldn’t help pondering how the amount of sex I had had up to that point appeared a pitiful innings on which to end. I’d hoped for so much more from life… Then the bullets suddenly stopped. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t care. I was alive. I scampered up the alley to re-join the patrol.

In Afghanistan there were far more examples of the frailty of the human body and the life force it bears. But sustaining life is perilous enough outside war zones too, as I discovered living amid the poverty of the Horn of Africa, and even in America where the minimalist welfare safety net and lack of universal health care makes American life far more Hobbesian than the brochures and adverts let on.

“Civilised life, you know, is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly,” commented the writer and dystopian sage J.G. Ballard. “The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and we are deeply shocked when reality is torn down around us.”

We have forgotten just how easy it is to die and then suddenly have to confront it

One of the main illusions for modern society is our deluded relationship with death, whereby we have forgotten just how easy it is to die and then suddenly have to confront it, often handling the encounter in bizarre ways. This denial proves a problem because death, or at least engaging with its reality beforehand, engenders a somewhat counter intuitive life-affirming quality. When you know how easy it is to die—as people living in the past grasped far better than us because death was in their faces so much more—you cherish and value life more keenly. But the fast-paced modern world, accompanied by materialism, consumer culture, and all the rest, has evolved to utterly distract us from death and the reality of how easy it is for life to be snuffed out. Admittedly, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is beneficial to be taken away from pondering something as seemingly morbid as death. The irony, though, going off the evidence of contemporary society’s deaths of despair and suicide rates, is that the more we forget about the truth of how close and easy death is, and wrap ourselves in what we hope are reassuring distractions, the more we appear to be left unsatisfied and unable to find affirmation and meaning in life.

“We rush impetuously into novelty, riven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness,” the father of analytical phycology Carl Jung wrote his 1962 autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. “The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves, and thus we help with all our might to rob the individual of his roots and his guiding instincts, so that he becomes a particle in the mass, ruled only by what Nietzsche called the spirit of gravity.”

Our turning away from death marches in step with the post-Christian secular world emerging

The current unsettling sense of being a particle in a mass buffeted by the gravity of Covid-19—and our governments’ responses—has gone a long way to reminding us how far we have strayed from what our forefathers sought: meaning in life, a desperate and profound search that was grounded in and predicated by a much more honest acceptance of and engagement with the inevitability of death. Increasingly, our warped modern existence emphasizes two simple but brutal equations: (1) knowledge of death = appreciating life; (2) ignoring death (while focusing on self-indulgent distractions) = neuroses and anxiety.

“I have frequently seen people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life,” Jung wrote. “They seek position, marriage, reputation, outward success or money, and remain unhappy and neurotic even when they have attained what they were seeking. Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon. Their life has not sufficient content, sufficient meaning.”

As Jung alludes to, it cannot be a coincidence that our turning away from death marches in step with the post-Christian secular world emerging, in which increasing reverence is paid to brute rationality, empiricism and science while less and less room is permitted for spiritual mysteries and vagaries of the soul. The likes of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky went to great lengths to warn us of the perils of such trends, and the results have indeed been ruthless.

There appear increasing numbers of people who are susceptible to, in the words of Ballard in his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women, becoming beholden to a “life support system” that involves “force feeding a diet of violence and sensation” into our numbed brains. How much of that is down to the Internet and social media rewiring our world—and minds—or to 9/11 and its horrendous legacy, constituting the ultimate moral injury on a societal level that we remain in denial about, or to our denial of death, or to a combination of factors, is an increasingly pressing puzzle.

I’m not saying it is as simple as embracing death means your life gains meaning, but the former seems at least a necessary foundation upon which to build the latter—at which point, as ever, I turn to my favourite James Baldwin quote (and which I would quote, if I could remember it, to anyone who compelled me to take a knee for the Black Lives Matter movement or to assuage my proclaimed white privilege):

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

The American writer, who was black and gay—not the easiest combination with which to navigate the first half of the 20th century in America—wrote in his 1962 New Yorker article “Letter From A Region Of My Mind” that went on to form half of his landmark book The Fire Next Time:

It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

Such thoughts might compel one to think beyond just taking a knee in the context of racial tensions, to taking a knee, or both knees, in a church, or anywhere for that matter. It’s been reported how in March and with the onset of Covid-19 and lockdowns, Google searches regarding prayer, and how to pray, surged to the highest level ever recorded. There are other contexts for taking a knee. After escaping Clytemnestra’s net closing around me behind that truck and sprinting up the alley, I came across a group of soldiers kneeling around a map laid on the ground lit by red torchlight. The company commander was talking earnestly into his radio, instructing the CIMIC House operations room to send out its quick reaction force of three Warrior armoured fighting vehicles to take the patrol back to safety, thereby enabling us all to avoid death, at least for another night.

In addition to a two-man turret with a 30mm Rarden cannon, a 26-tonne Warrior vehicle came with a rear compartment that was designed to take about seven soldiers in full battle kit. Getting a company-sized patrol squeezed into three warriors entailed a human version of the Tetris computer puzzle game in each rear compartment. After wriggling my body into the melee, I found myself lying face down and spread eagled over a phalanx of bodies beneath me. My face was crammed against someone’s sweaty armpit, someone’s knee pressed into my groin and rifle barrels poked into various parts of my body. I didn’t care—this unorthodox taxi ride was getting me back to safety, away from being stuck behind that truck.

With a sudden lurch the Warrior accelerated away. Strangely, it couldn’t have been more comfortable, as I swayed and bobbed atop that mass of smelly soldiers. I’d returned to the darkness of the womb as the compartment shuddered rhythmically to the vehicle’s motions. My eyelids drooped and I floated away. At CIMIC House I awoke to two soldiers grabbing my feet and tugging me out, back to the land of the living, and to the challenge of what it means to live and then eventually have to die.

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