Pondering on Death and Preciousness of Life
By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
Many people have asked me whether the Kilimanjaro trip, jumping from planes, scuba diving, backpacking on glaciers, or riding motorcycles to the highest rideable road in the world in the Himalayas, etc., are exercises in defying death. (See also my complete pictorial biography.) My wife, at times, has described me as cautiously death defying. Reflecting on this question, what seems to emerge is that I clearly do not attempt to thumb my nose in defiance of death. In fact the opposite is true. I carry a bone-deep awareness that death cannot be outrun or conquered. Most of my life I have held death very close to my heart and my consciousness, and I have had the opportunity to be very intimate with death. In fact, I have been there; my body/life literally eking out all life sustaining juices from the last heartbeat of a heart that has stopped when I got a heart attack at age 50. I think choosing those activities that may appear to be “death defying” is part of my intimate relationship to death. Having already stepped over the threshold, I refuse to be enslaved by death and its emissary, fear. I choose a life fully lived.
I know that “death happens” because historically, my relationship to death has been punctuated by events, such as:
- As a young 20 year old officer, I witnessed my first soldier dying from a single bullet to his heart.
- As I traveled through East Africa, I witnessed the bodies of hundreds of migrating Wildebeests and Zebras who collapsed en route to the next water hole. The image of their, once beautiful, powerful, animal bodies rendered lifeless cannot be erased from my memory.
- Also, in East Africa, I remember spending time in the Somali desert, watching tribesmen polluting the only source of water in the area with seeming disregard for the lives of their children or the quickly approaching destruction of the community.
- Death was all around me during the 1973 war. There were bodies of animals, as well as soldiers, from both sides. I faced my own death straight in the eye when I was wounded and evacuated under intense fire in the last waning minutes of this war.
- Before I was wounded one of my buddies and I took our time crossing the heavily bombed bridge across the Suez Canal during the ’73 war. We slowed ourselves down by making death wreaths to place on each other when we were killed, believing our death was eminent. Although from my vantage point today I see this as a rash decision, at that time we were trying to ignore death in order to use our last moments to connect with each other and to celebrate and commemorate each others lives.
- My mother kept the concept of death alive for us as children when she continued to remind us that “Trees Die Erect!” She refused to slow down and retire. She was conscious and deliberate in her conviction. I saw her live and die by this statement, which we engraved on her grave stone.
- At the age of 50, I suffered a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. I was clinically dead for 90+ seconds. (I am still so disappointed that I did not see any white light or other near/post death visions – What a lost opportunity).
- My heart attack and my one more brush with death did not stop me from continuing to play my favorite sport of basketball, traveling, hiking, climbing and pursuing many other exciting challenges, such as summiting Kilimanjaro, backpacking onto the glaciers in Alaska, revisiting scuba diving, and jungle trekking in Malaysia.
- At age 62, I was inspired to go and explore the highest rideable road in the world in the Himalayas at 18,380 ft. with my son, Eitan (19), on … motorcycles. Driving the narrow, rugged, rocky roads with vertical cliffs of thousands of feet (most often with no rail-guards), speeding, over-loaded trucks, and endless huge potholes, and water crossings all turned out to be an unparalleled challenge of facing death in each and every one of the hundreds of blind corners on the roads.
- Before I went backpacking in Alaska, I asked my family over dinner whether it was time for me to walk on the ice, as the old Eskimo legend is told, and feed myself to the bears so my sons can hunt the bear to feed the tribe.
In other words, I know death; I hold it close to my consciousness. While I did take calculated risks as I jumped from planes as a paratrooper, rode my motorcycle in the desert, fought in battle, drove safaris in Africa, backpacked and camped on glaciers, and dove to the bottom of the oceans, none of this was in the spirit of defying death. It has been, instead, in the spirit of being more “in life” and to remain freshly thrilled by all of its possibilities. I know death is nearby and that I, like anyone else, can die any minute. We all live in the shadow of death, and I often glance at the obituaries in our local paper to remind me of that. I use my relationship with this deep experience as a reminder to live life fully with all its richness and its suffering; I want to live it with all my energy, and I want to live it now. People who know me have often heard me say, “Life is too short”. All the adventures I have embarked upon were in the spirit of that statement and are about living life to its fullest and living every day as if it were one’s last day.