This essay was originally published on Thought Catalog in March of 2014.
Have you ever thought about how easy it is to die these days?
Think about it. We’re living in the golden age of violent and unnatural deaths. A sort of morbid Renaissance.
Sure, there have always been plenty of great ways to kick the bucket. When our cavemen ancestors weren’t getting clubbed over the head and having their food stolen by bigger, stronger cavemen, they were getting trampled by mastodons or carried away by giant birds. When our more recent relatives weren’t dying from cholera or the plague or something equally awful, they were getting shot to death in duels because, oh, I don’t know, they disagreed with their neighbor about how the government should collect taxes.
Still, I can’t shake this feeling that we might be living in the most dangerous time ever. Yeah, there are rules now. You can’t really kill someone and get away with it because you’re in a higher social class than them (except in Florida). We have medicine. Antiseptics. Antibiotics. Surgery. You’re not as likely to die from a rough strain of diarrhea. No one’s going to leave you for dead because you broke your ankle.
But think about the world we live in on a day to day basis. Think about how dangerous it is. We’re rocketing down highways in metal shells at 70 miles per hour. We’re scaling massive skyscrapers, supported by only a few steel elevator cables that could snap at any time. We’re on trains that are only a small malfunction away from derailing and careening down a hillside. We travel in planes that could tumble out of the sky at any moment. We put pretty much anything into our body as long as it promises to give us energy or taste good or help us lose weight — even if we can’t pronounce any of its ingredients. We ride roller coasters that hold us in with only a rubber lap bar as we speed around gravity-bending turns.
None of these are particularly likely to kill you, from a statistical standpoint, but at the same time, maybe they are. It happens every day in small doses. The chemical balance is off in a batch of energy drinks and two people die. A bridge collapses and a handful of people drown. A car company puts out a model with faulty brakes and some poor woman crashes into a tree. A man is walking down the street talking on his cell phone when it suddenly explodes against his temple. We walk on glass floors and think, “Holy crap, how do I not just fall right through?” but then one day, someone does. We all know the running joke about alarmist newscasts — “Can tying your shoes actually kill you? A new study says Yes!”
Isolated incidents that pile up.
We don’t often think about it, but I think we know. On some level, we’re aware that our life is very much in the hands of corporate decision makers who have to make elevators safe but also cheap enough that there’s a profit in it. Or that our safety depends on some piece of machinery whose components are manufactured overseas by people making pennies a day and who probably deeply resent us, and rightfully so.
This should scare the living Christ out of us. But it doesn’t.
Why not? Why don’t we hole away in our homes and never come out?
Because it’s all become so commonplace. We’re numb to it.
Want to fly from New York to LA in a single day? Boring. What else ya got. Get me there in thirty minutes and now you’re talking. Want to video chat with someone across the globe on your cell phone? Snore! I mean, why is the footage so grainy, anyway? Make the screen bigger, but also make it less bulky in my pocket, and also make it easier to type on, and also make it look cooler. Oh, and make it a watch!
We don’t think about the dangers. We don’t think about how insane it is that most of us own a machine that can take us a mile in less than a minute. We don’t think about the sheer enormity of most buildings and what it takes to make them possible. We don’t think about what the fuck kind of chemicals might be inside a Pop Tart because it’s delicious and who cares.
But it does affect us sometimes.
You know that feeling you get when you’re almost run off the road by a tractor trailer? When your heart pounds against your chest and all the color drains from your face? Or that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when your airplane dips a few feet — and you start thinking about the mechanics of how you’re actually going to die when it crashes? Because you know your brain isn’t just going to turn off and let you drift into the light — maybe you’ll burn to death while you choke on thick, black smoke. Maybe your femur will snap on impact and shoot up through your skull. I don’t know. But that’s what you think about when you feel the plane jolt.
Those are little reminders.
Those are the reminders of how fragile we are. Especially now. Now that we’ve figured out how to harness the energy from splitting an atom and use it to both build and destroy worlds. Now that everything around us has electricity coursing through it or metal arms pumping fuel or spinning engines liable to spit out shrapnel if they come untracked.
And I think we need those reminders.
Doesn’t it seem like the air is a little crisper when your car rights itself after hydroplaning on the freeway? Aren’t people’s faces a little clearer, voices a little louder after you think you hear a gunshot but it’s really just a truck backing up? Don’t you feel, somehow, more awake?
Look, this shit is terrifying. There’s no getting around that. But if you’re constantly thinking about all the different ways you can die in a typical day, you’ll go crazy. Some people’s brains become consumed with this stuff. Those are the people that refuse to travel, refuse to ride elevators, refuse to leave their homes. What kind of a life would that be?
We should live in awe. Not fear.
We should think about how all these weapons in disguise are what make the best parts of our lives a reality. They allow us to do things that should be, by all reasonable measures, impossible. We can sleep under the ocean in a submarine resort. We can fly to the moon. We can travel to any remote part of the world without dying of dysentery. We can push the limits of what’s possible every day.
Never forget how amazing that is. And if it takes one of those heart-sinking, throat-closing, dry mouth, wide-eyed, blood-pumping, fist-clenching, pants-soiling near-death experiences to remind us how good so many of us have it, then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.