It is possible to walk through the land of the dead and live to tell the tale.
All it takes is a breath.
As anyone who’s sat at the bottom of the swimming pool knows, it isn’t long before the body demands air.
First, it’s a dull ache in the pit of the stomach. Then a moan, rising and filling the chest. A few seconds later and it pushes at the neck and face. Alarm bells start to ring.
Wait a little longer, and every nerve begins wailing and clanging; eyes bulging; veins wide blue and bursting through the skin in a desperate hunt for oxygen.
That is where most of us give in.
But beyond that — across the wailing river of blood — there is calm.
Any of the world’s four dozen professional free-divers can confirm it.
The body slips into a different realm, and we find that we don’t need to breathe at all.
It’s the same calm that was there before the Universe took its first breath. And the same peace that will meet us with our last.
Just remember to come back while you can!
The human race has a fantastic propensity for killing one another.
We’re so good at it that we’ve even come up with stirring stories to kill each other with. They help us get it done and live with it later; Historically speaking, at least.
If you tell these stories just right, you can get thousands of people to join you in the slaughter, even if they don’t understand why.
Aren’t stories wonderful?
Here are the most popular stories we use to kill each other:
- They’ll do it to us if we don’t do it first
- They’re animals who eat babies
- We’re saving them
Use them prudently. These stories have a habit of escaping the narrator and taking life on their own.
Recently, I experienced some nerve damage that threatened my livelihood.
A trifling thing like a tingly pinky finger may not seem much of a threat; to a writer, it was existential.
Bad typing habits and slouching over a desk for ten hours a day for seven years had taken their toll.
The left hand was colder; the left side of it numb. Every time my pinky rapped against the keys, jangling pins and needles would fizzle up to my elbow.
It was clear that unless something changed, this problem was only going to get worse.
Not writing wasn’t an option. That would mean Death.
The only thing to do was to learn how to write. Again.
The first week of writing with a new keyboard layout was painfully slow. The second was pretty rough too.
Going from typing as fast as you can think to 15 words a minute is like running backward on one leg.
But it got easier, as all trials do.
And that suffering now will make it easier later too — hopefully, until all my bones grind to a halt.
The words “Jesus is coming” are scrawled across the grimy cardboard hung over his chest.
Passers-by squeeze themselves around his eager cries and shaking fists, intent on shutting this loud, dirty intrusion out of their day.
Nobody wants to listen because whether they realize it or not, deep down, we all already know that “the end is nigh,” at least on an individual level.
And whether we’re expecting to meet St. Paul on a cloud or slip into a blissful eternal nothingness, the reality is the same. That unignorable, unknowable finality is what drives us to do anything — or prevents us from doing anything.
The fear of it drives us to survive on a physiological level. When that’s covered, we devote our efforts to surviving beyond the grave, in whatever way we like. Most often, we survive through other people.
As my turn comes to squeeze past the pavement prophet, I get lucky. He spins and leaps away to berate those walking in the other direction. One young woman lets out a small yelp of surprise.
As I barrel away I glimpse the other piece of cardboard, slung over his shoulders with a knotted rag.
It reads, “Look busy.”
This week, the 202nd KaizenBen blog post was published.
There’s a story behind the 25,202 number, which we’ll save for another day. But I’ll give you a hint and tell you that I’ll be ninety-nine and a half years old by the time the 25,202nd blog post goes out.
If I haven’t kicked the bucket, that is.
With any luck, the commitment might drag a few more undeserving years out of me, and I shall drop dead moments after hitting ‘Publish.’
It’s pretty sobering to see your life reduced to a handful of digits.
25,202 blogs left to write.
25,202 days left to live.
For most things, that’s more than enough. But until that moment, the days had seemed countless.
It wasn’t until those immortal snakes danced across my notepad that fateful morning that I realized: it wasn’t very long at all.
And only 24,999 left to go!
There was a rollercoaster that got us very excited when I was a kid.
One weekend, my friends and I mooched the entrance fee from our parents and set off down to Staines.
X No Way Out was at the top of everyone’s list. The queue stretched back up the M3 to Hampton Court Palace; a vast crowd, chattering away in the bright summer grey, flashes of blood-red stanchion posts the only sign it was a queue and not a block party.
When our turn finally came, we groped our way to the carts in the thin orange light. As soon as we strapped in, the lights went out and we were catapulted backward through the dark to throbbing bass lines and the occasional spray of lasers.
It was awesome.
And not unlike life:
Hurtling through time facing the wrong way, twisting over and around fate’s peaks and valleys, clenching the hand of the person next to you and screaming all the way.
Knowing that no matter how bad it gets, it’ll always change; enjoying every single second because it’ll all be over in a flash;
And ready to queue up for eternity, just to do it again.
It’s not like we can lie around doing nothing and enjoy it forever.
At least not without spending a lot of money on drugs.
Sure, it’s nice to hit the beach or the lakes and do nothing for a bit. But after a few weeks, a tight emptiness forms in the guts, followed by a dull nagging in the back of the skull: shouldn’t you be doing something with your time?
Maybe some people are lucky enough to be born truly carefree, with no fear of the rapidly approaching Big Nothing. The rest of us have to distract ourselves by doing stuff.
It seems that we work to death one way or another.
May as well do something you enjoy. May as well get really fucking good at it, too.
Maybe then, it will barely be work at all.
You might not know Wilko Johnson is but he was a pretty cool dude back in the 70s.
His band — Dr. Feelgood — was so cool that it inspired some people you probably have heard of: Paul Weller, The Who, The Jam. The list goes on.
Back in 2013 he was diagnosed with cancer and the Doc gave him a double-fistful of months at most.
He said, “It was like my life was complete. The idea that death is imminent makes you realize what a wonderful thing it is to be alive. By the time I’d walked home, I was almost euphoric.”
Wilko then did what any self-respecting punk guitarist would do. He turned down chemotherapy and went on tour.
“If it’s going to kill me, I don’t want it to bore me,” he said.
Wilko is still touring today — more than seven years after his date with death. That raging punk rocker just wouldn’t put down his guitar and die.
We are vividly alive.
Take a moment today to enjoy it.
In 2011, a mother and her son walked 300ft along a wire no wider than your thumb, 121ft above the ground — with no safety net.
It was an emotional moment for them both.
The woman’s father, The Great Karl Wallenda, had plunged to his death from that same spot 33 years earlier. He was 73.
If you haven’t heard of him, Karl Wallenda was the acrobat.
He and his family formed The Flying Wallendas, who created many of the acrobatic feats performed today. They were renowned for pulling off the most daring stunts while dangling hundreds of feet in the air — without a safety net.
Earlier that day, he was asked his terminal question: “Why?”
Karl is quoted as replying, “Life is on the tightrope, and the tightrope is the only place to be. The only place I feel alive is on the wire. Everything else is just waiting.”
Life is a balancing act. Our job as humans is to shuffle out along that wire every day and perform our best, knowing that one day we will fall. And walking out there anyway.
Because that thrilling fear that comes from doing something uncommon — that’s being alive.
That’s what it’s all about.
The rest is just waiting.
I don’t dream much, but every few years I have a dream that sticks with me; as vivid as if it were real.
The other night I had one, and in it, I died of COVID.
At first, it was all running around as one does in dreams, trying to figure out what was going on; why nobody would talk to me.
And then I realised — I was dead.
That was it—no more Ben.
All I could think to myself was, “THAT’S IT. You’re DONE. All you’ll ever have done is what you’ve done already.”
And it was sickening.
I was angry.
I’d done nothing, and now I couldn’t do anything about it.
It was all over, and I had just gotten started.
Boy, was I happy when that alarm clock woke me up.
Happy to be alive!