Last time I promised to try to tell stories, rather than pound into people’s brains my take on everything. The total of what I’ve written so far can be accessed by looking at the blog category “for the new book.” Continuing that theme:
Hole in the wall:
In my life, I’ve survived three near death experiences unscathed. The closest call occurred in a little French city, Beziers, and will be discussed later, but first I want to clarify what I mean by “near death experience,” and share my very first one with you.
By my meaning, a near death experience (an NDE) need not include a tunnel with light at the end, an out of body experience, or a discussion with a guy inviting you to come with him into another realm. In other words, you don’t have to have been physically on the brink of death. You don’t even have to have been injured. By my meaning, you just have to realize how close you (just)came to being killed.
“Just” because the experience tends to be very fleeting, and in that brief time one either embraces it or ignores it. So, for example, you may narrowly avoid a head-on collision, realize it, but think almost nothing about it the next day. Whether one embraces it or not makes all the difference in whether the event rises to a level of significance in one’s life
If you embrace it, you can gain very valuable insight into what really means something to you.
The first time I had such an experience was years ago, when I thought I might drown. It was surely the least serious of all the NDE’s I’ve had, but it taught me two important lessons:
I was at a little beach called “Hole in the Wall,” so named because the sea had carved an arched passageway through a cliff between two small beaches, the more remote of which was used by nude sunbathers. On this particular summer day in or around 1971, there was a storm just out to sea making the surf so high that one couldn’t cross through the arch to the more private beach. It was hot and clear, but very windy. The accessible beach was thick with people, though the violent surf deterred most from swimming.
I had to pee, so, lacking a private place to go, I waded into the water just far enough to be able to urinate unnoticed. I was only about thigh deep, and hadn’t yet begun my task, when a large wave swept me off my feet. Startled to be suddenly swimming, my attention shifted to the next wave, which I caught for a nice ride toward the shore.
When I stood up, though, I could barely reach the ground and couldn’t maintain contact as the relentless surf struck again.
With the next wave, I got an even better ride, but this time couldn’t touch bottom at all.
Sculling my arms to keep head above water, I thought to myself, “That should have done it, it was a good wave. Try it one more time.”
Then my more cautious side asserted itself, speaking emphatically inside my head, “No, George, call for help now–while you’re still not tired!”
Even back then as a strong young man, I had a healthy respect for the part of myself that addresses me in that tone of voice.
I called for help.
Because the bottom dropped off so sharply from the shore, I was only about fifteen yards from the crowd on the sand. People could easily hear me. Several stood and looked out at me, puzzled, and a few even began to walk down closer to the water.
“Help!” I called again. From their expressions I could tell that they were thinking, “Is this guy serious?” I understood instantly why they wondered. Despite having yelled at the top of my voice, I didn’t sound the least bit convincing. I had called out in a rather polite, “would you mind giving me a hand” kind of tone, as if I’d left my keys on the beach or something.
I was alarmed by the idea that they might not believe me. I could drown here! As if my lungs, diaphragm and larynx had made a snap decision on their own, I cried out again, but this time with no restraint in my voice at all.
Now there was no mistaking it: I needed help. The sound of my own voice, so totally authentic in its plea for help, scared the hell out of me.
There was only one other swimmer in the water and he heard me this time and swam over, stopping about ten feet away. Treading water, he asked, “What’s the matter?”
In what must have been an incredibly panicky voice, I replied, “I’m not panicked yet, but you’ve gotta help me. I can’t get to shore.”
He explained that I was in a rip tide but if we swam parallel to the shore we would get out of it and could then swim in. He moved closer, cautiously took me by the elbow, and calmly escorted me on the route that would get us out. In about twenty minutes, I was safely on shore again–but totally exhausted. I was very glad I’d not waited for one more wave, and especially so when Cole, my rescuer, told me that he’d intended to catch the next wave in himself and wouldn’t have been in the water much longer. Cole was an off duty lifeguard and I’ve often ruminated on how lucky I was that day.
At the end of the drama, however, I still needed to pee–now desperately. Needless to say, this time I didn’t let modesty stop my doing it on land in clear view of anyone who wanted to watch.
So, What are the two lessons I claim to have learned?
The first is not to wait until you’re already tired before calling out for help. Had I not called when I did there would have been two problems: Cole would have been out of the water by the time I did call out, and I might have been too tired to have successfully swum out even along the right path.
The second is that you have to be believed if anyone is going to take the chances required to offer assistance, so call out like you mean it. When people were looking at me with the “is this guy serious” expression written all over their faces, there was no way they were going to take personal risks to offer help.
And how do I see these lessons being applicable to our situation today?
We seem to have moved past the first barrier. Environmentalists are frantically trying to get the public’s attention. We see ourselves losing touch with the beach as extinctions, acidification of the seas, overpopulation, rising ocean levels, climate change, the consumer economy, etc., etc., drag us out to sea. We’ve made our first calls for help.
But, so far, they’ve mostly been timid. “If you’ll just recycle your bags and maybe change to alternative energy, everything can still be alright,” we seem to be yelling. Conventional wisdom, and most publishers, insist(s) on every book forecasting dire consequences end with an upbeat tone.
It’s exactly as if we’d left our keys on the beach and needed some nice non-environmentalist to retrieve them for us.
But that’s not how it is, folks. We could all drown out here! We’re all trapped in the rip tide.
We need to show some panic in our voices. Scientists are going to have to commit to something which has always been very hard for them. They’ll have to let go of the “95% level of confidence” terminology when talking to laypeople. It’s an integral part of what science is, and must not be abandoned when speaking amongst ourselves. But when talking to the untrained, ambiguity does’t get committment.
To get the average person to endure any of the massive changes that true response to climate change is going to require, the general public needs to hear real concern from the subclasses that have the expertise to make the calls. When the calls are clear, as “95% confidence level” is, make them. Make them forcefully.