Hollywood and the New York Times Bestseller list would have you believe there’s only one type of coma: the dramatic, out-of-body variety. When you’re trying to sell movie tickets or books, white light and near-death experiences are handy weapons to have in your arsenal.
Unfortunately, my own monthlong coma was more of the garden variety. I didn’t meet Jesus. I don’t remember hearing the voices of my loved ones. I experienced less than a darkness: It was an absence, empty of stimuli.
Upon waking, I was distressed to learn my coma was apparently empty of meaning, as well.
Waking up left me with a lot of questions. “Where am I?” and “What happened to me?” came first, followed shortly after by the deeper question: Why? Why had I gone through this crisis only to be brought back to life in my physically weakest state and with a newfound fear of the profound darkness into which I’d been plunged?
Losing my religion
I grew up with a deep evangelical Christian spirituality. The churches I attended as a boy fell under the umbrella of “nondenominational” Christianity. That meant services took place in strip-mall storefronts and boxy new constructions. Speaking in tongues was not unheard of, and I was constantly reminded of God’s presence and his severe will for my life.
My faith gave me purpose, and I loved that. But as I grew older, all the rules accompanying that faith started to trip me up. There was a strict delineation between sinners and saints, and one could fall into the former category with even the most unconscious slip: one word not spoken in love, resting on one’s laurels instead of sharing the gospel with unconverted friends, or partaking in any of a litany of vices — from the obvious (drinking and drugs) to the more mild (unclean thoughts).
What eventually pushed me away from that spirituality was the lack of curiosity I felt within it. When I sought specific answers to questions from my life, people merely quoted scripture back to me in response. I wanted a belief system that felt rooted in actual experience, whether it involved traditional faith or not.
Thus, in my teens and twenties, I went through periods of agnosticism, deep questioning and dormant faith. I never managed to fully own the mantle of atheism. It felt too certain to me. But often I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of my questions about the meaning of life and the existence of the universe, and the lack of satisfying answers to those questions. The search felt too exhausting, so I would set it aside for extended periods of time.
By age 30, I had a soundbite for the best summation of my faith I could manage: I believe there is a Mystery at the heart of the universe, and I want to live in harmony with that Mystery.
Then this gigantic, disharmonious event happened, and as I began to process it, I quickly became angry with God.
Shouting into the void
All of my loved ones and even some of the hospital staff told me my recovery was a miracle — but was that just a euphemism? Did God bring me back to life, or was this miracle simply a result of chance and improved medical care? If God was real, wouldn’t I have seen a light, gone to heaven (even temporarily) or heard a deep, comforting voice revealing truths to me?
Was I brought back to life for some specific purpose? What was I supposed to learn from all of this?
Shouldn’t I have gotten something, instead of this giant blank?
Like I said, I had a lot of questions.
I sought detailed, definitive answers to these questions — not platitudes. I wanted either to be told I was a 21st-century messiah returned to Earth to save the world through stand-up comedy, or I wanted confirmation that I was a flukily-evolved microorganism who didn’t stay dead this time — but nonetheless would die for good someday. If the latter turned out to be true, I supposed, my only purpose was to soak up as much suffering as life could throw my way.
So I started going to therapy.
The meaning(s) of life
The therapist I started seeing in the hospital knew there were no direct answers to my questions, but he encouraged my search. “Why can’t you make asking these questions part of the meaning of your life?” he asked.
That opened something up for me. I realized I’d lived with these questions my whole life, so why couldn’t I recognize that my questioning was an inherent feature of my personality, and simply asking was a part of my purpose?
My favorite poet is Rainer Maria Rilke, and I love his “Letters To A Young Poet,” a short book of his correspondence with a young man named Franz Xaver Kappus. In one of the letters, Rilke beseeches the young Kappus:
… be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and … try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
When I first read that passage, I had loved the idea of living the questions. But I never understood it as deeply as I did when I returned from the brink of death.
The same therapist also recommended Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist who suffered the horrors of Auschwitz. His book is part memoir of that time and part explication of his theory of logotherapy, which is founded on his circular yet deeply insightful belief that the search for purpose in life is in fact one of the purposes of life.
In one particularly revealing passage, Frankl writes:
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
This idea flipped my questioning on its head. It made me the responder to the questions of each individual moment rather than the questioner of some grand force beyond myself. To quote one more great man, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt in the documentary “We Jam Econo”: “What’s to be done where you’re at, and how’re you gonna do it?” Did I need to take a shower, eat something, go to a doctor’s appointment or do my physical therapy exercises? I’ve found “What?” and “How?” to be much more productive questions than the wailing, “Why?!”
A prankster God
Before returning home to Chicago, I went to church with my parents.
Some may mock the idea of religious people sending their “thoughts and prayers” in response to a tragedy, and for understandable reasons. Actions trump words — but if there were any people whose prayers I actually trusted to get things done in real life, they were the members of my parents’ congregation. Through their network of affiliate churches and ministers, word of my situation had spread across the world. It’s no exaggeration to say I had at least tens of thousands of people praying for my recovery.
As a result, I felt a little bit of pressure as I entered Tri County Assembly of God, the same church where I’d attended youth group in high school. I imagined all eyes were on me and every part of the service was secretly about me—particularly the sermon, which was about planning for the future. As someone who’d narrowly escaped destroying his future, the message seemed pointless. The revelations I experienced in my reading and therapy hadn’t fully erased my post-coma anger and cynicism, and I felt like I was being pranked. Was this a religious reboot of “Punk’d”? Was I the first subject of “Church’d”?
The pastor spoke about the fleeting nature of life and the necessity of trusting God in the face of uncertainty. To illustrate this point, a verse from the book of James appeared on the big screens flanking the stage. I’d done some serious Bible study as a kid, but I didn’t remember ever having read this verse before. Yet there it was. From inside that heavy book I thought I knew so well came a distillation of my deepest question — immediately followed by a blunt, oblique answer:
“What is your life? You are a mist.”
Life is real. Death is real. I could not escape the biological realities of living in a body. I had caused my coma by neglecting my health, and through some mysterious means (miracle? extremely competent medical care? a little of both?), I came back. But if I am a mist, wondering why I’ve been sprayed onto this earth is less important than getting everything around me as wet as possible.
One enduring question
I’m not trying to espouse any particular theology. I simply find my life enlarged by asking questions. The question to which I keep returning touches on the concept of God’s will.
When I was a kid, God’s will was always negative. It was always “don’t do this,” whether “this” was smoking cigarettes, drinking or looking longingly at bikini-clad girls on magazine covers at the grocery store. In the months after my coma, I began to think about my own will and the will of my family. I never wanted to end up in a coma, but I had put myself there. My family never wanted to take me off of life support, but they almost had to go through with that decision.
So my question is simply this: What if? What if there is a Something, a something as big as Carl Sagan’s and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s cosmos and yet personal enough to have seen me in my coma and said, “Not yet”? Just what if? It’s not a question that begs a definite answer, and that’s why I like it.