Pop Culture Released - Dec 24, 2018
One cold winter evening, I drove from New Hampshire to a small town in northern Maine. On my way back at about midnight, I skidded on an icy curve and spun my Volkswagen gently but firmly off the road and into a snowbank.
As I sat in the car getting colder by the second, the gravity of my situation struck me. It was twenty degrees below zero outside, and I had nothing other than the sports jacket I was wearing. There was no hope of keeping warm in the car while it was stationary, and there was little hope of being picked up by another car. It had been twenty minutes since I had passed through a town, and not a single automobile had passed me in that time. There were no farmhouses, no cultivated land, not even telephone poles to remind me of civilization. I had no map and no idea how far ahead the next town might be.
I was faced with an interesting existential choice. I would freeze if I remained in the car, so I had to decide wether to walk forward into the unknown in the hope that a town might be around the next corner, or to walk back in the direction from which I had come, knowing that there was certain help at least fifteen miles back. After deliberating for a moment, I decided to take my chances with the unknown. After all, isn’t that what they do in the movies? I walked forward for about ten steps and then, without thinking, pivoted decisively and walked back the other way.
After three minutes, my ears were freezing and felt as if they were about to chip off, so I started to run. But cold drained my energy quickly, and soon I had to slow again to a walk. This time I walked for only two minutes before becoming too cold. Again I ran, but again grew fatigued quickly. The periods of running began to grow shorter, as did the periods of walking, and I soon realized what the outcome of these decreasing cycles would be. I could see myself by the side of the road covered with snow, frozen to death. At that moment, what had first appeared to be merely a difficult situation began to look as if it was going to be my FINAL situation. Awareness of the very real possibility of death slowed me to a stop.
After a minute of reflection I found myself saying aloud, “Okay, if now is the time, so be it. I’m ready.” I really meant it. With that I stopped thinking about it and began walking calmly down the road, suddenly aware of the beauty of the night. I became absorbed in the silence of the stars and in the loveliness of the dimly lit forms around me; everything was beautiful. Then without thinking, I started running. To my surprise I didn’t stop for a full forty minutes, and then only because I spotted a light burning in the window of a distant house.
Where had this energy come from which allowed me to run so far without stopping? I hadn’t felt frightened; I simply didn’t get tired. As I relate this story now, it seems that saying, “I accepted death” is ambiguous. I didn’t give up in the sense of quitting. In one sense I gave up caring; in another I seemed to care more. Apparently, letting go of my grip on life released an energy which paradoxically made it possible for me to run with utter abandon toward life.
From “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey (copyright 1974). Despite exposure to temperatures twenty degrees below and wearing only a light jacket (and without hat and gloves), he suffered none of the ill effects of frostbite.
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