Early childhood, while mostly confined to the haze of our initial memories, is full of profound milestones. Our first words, first crawls, and first steps being the big events which spring to mind. However, hidden from the doting eyes of our parents are the psychological milestones, the ones where we are enlightened to the outside world. The realisation there are places outside the house we explore on all fours, lands beyond the oceans of our island home, and that the people playing peak-a-boo with us have thoughts and feelings too. But by far one of the most groundbreaking milestones, which none of us likely remembers, was the moment we consciously discovered life is not immutable and our time here is not infinite. The ticket we bought for this Earth is one way.
As a child and early teenager this concept remained a terrifying specter hidden at the corners of my psyche. While other children had the boogie man to stir their fears, mine was just a question. Is endless sleep all that awaits on the other side? Such a notion would immediately provoke panic attacks in my early childhood. Usually followed by a hasty lunge for the bedside lamp, fumbling for a good book and escaping back into my movie-like perspective of life, free from the harsh, first-person view that is reality. While distraction was my weapon of choice against the mere thought of that great unknown, others have come closer to it than we can possibly imagine.
Near-death experiences are a phenomenon that have long been studied to decipher their effects on the human brain. Specifically, how they manifest as the experiences of those unfortunate enough to entangle briefly with the other side.
Even more fascinating, however, are the perspective-shattering effects this commonly has on the lives of these people, who come from all walks of life, both religious and non-religious.
Near-death experiences, while having increased with the aid of modern medicine, are not just a modern occurrence. Documentations of these events have been found in the ancient populations of Egypt, Rome, China and many others.
It is almost undisputed that such instances are life changing. One study suggested that people’s change in attitude did not diminish even ten years after a near-death experience. This has included, among other things, an appreciation for life, self-acceptance, concern for others, concern for social and planetary issues, and even an appreciation for death itself.
Not all near-death experiences are positive. While some encounter complete peace, vivid and euphoric visions, or the cessation of all pain, others return with harrowing stories of being in a dark unfeeling void or ripped apart by grey, clawing hands. One woman claims to have left her body only to be told by a group of space-residing entities that everything had never existed and the life she had imagined was a farce, a mere joke.
It’s natural that each experience has a different outcome. Some take it as a call to action to change their ways, with fear as the driving catalyst. This instinct has been dissected in literature. The ominous monologue of Jacob Marley from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, burdened with the chains he formed for himself from a selfish life is one image that springs to mind. Others have near-death experiences that motivate them to live life with nothing to lose. A common denominator of most near-death experiences is their ability to leave people more compassionate and altruistic, and less interested in physical things such as material goods, power, fame and competition.
While Dr Bruce Greyson, one of the world’s leading experts in near death experiences has stories of career military men turned to pacifists and cut-throat businessmen moving away from stock exchange floors to hospitals, classrooms or churches after brushes with death.
Make no mistake, these are extreme and novel examples of how people react to near-death experiences. Despite this, they illustrate how these encounters unshackle us from irrelevant attitudes to pursue more meaningful lives.
This philosophy has its modern adaptions, with an app that sends you a notification at a random time of the day chirpily reminding you that your time on this planet is finite. Granted, such a morbid daily reminder isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Despite this, it doesn’t take a near-death experience to unlock the power of understanding our own mortality.
When faced with the brief and frail nature of our existence, decisions like switching to a university degree you actually want to do, making an impact you actually want to make, and forging relationships in life you actually wish to have, are made surprisingly easy. So, when life next beats you down with its inconveniences large and small, conflicts, trials, and tribulations just remember one thing – whether from a divine creation or at the hands of evolutionary chance, you and I are statistically the luckiest cells in the universe to be experiencing the right here and right now. Don’t forget to make the most of it.
Those far more talented than me in the literary space have already contemplated this great and unanswerable question. So, I will leave you with the words of author Isabel Allende – “Just as when we come into the world, when we die, we are afraid of the unknown. But the fear is something from within us that has nothing to do with reality. Dying is like being born: just a change.”
Harry Bass is a Business and Law student who has been studying at QUT since 2020. When Harry isn’t juggling university, work, a bit of landscape painting and the odd windsurf on Moreton Bay, he enjoys writing poetry and illustrative fiction. As a fair-weather writer, Harry enjoys experimenting with different genres, subjects and themes.