Does a near-death experience make you a better person? This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off since my pulmonary embolism. Initially, it hadn’t occurred to me that a PE was a big deal. But the research that I’ve done since suggests that these things aren’t unserious. My seen-it-all ex-army GP, for example, was properly impressed. As too have been the various people I know whose friends and relatives have died of them, one a 23-year-old girl who succumbed after breaking her ankle while walking on the moors. So yes, as my fellow ‘survivors’ keep telling me, I should be grateful for my lucky escape — and perhaps see it as a heaven-sent opportunity to put my life into perspective.
What I can’t work out at this stage, though, is whether the experience has really changed me — or whether I’m just inventing it because I feel it’s what I ought to do and I’m a bit of a drama queen.
One effect is that I’ve been dedicating a lot more time to playing Call of Duty, Saints Row 2 and Medal of Honor on the Xbox. The Afghanistan sequences in the latter are just amazing, especially when you’re in a US infantry unit moving up a valley swarming with Taleban, and you cover one another, keeping the enemy pinned down, being careful to conserve ammo because if you don’t you’re stuffed a bit later when you have to hold out in a crumbling outpost against hordes of RPG-toting al-Qaeda.
In the past I would have felt guilty about this spectacular waste of life. Now it causes me no qualms whatsoever because a) I’ve decided that it’s an important form of therapy, and b) I’ve remembered how very much I enjoy playing video games and, now I realise how precarious existence is, it seems quite wrong to deny myself so vital a pleasure.
Same goes with the kids; just simple stuff like making sure I spend more time slobbing with Boy in front of whatever crap TV he’s watching when he’s home on school leave. Previously I scarcely dared do this, for fear of being accused by the Fawn of being a lazy bastard. Actually, though, if you want to commune with teenage children, this is pretty much the only way. It’s not like they’re going to say: ‘Yes, please Dad!’ when you say: ‘Fancy coming to walk the dog?’ And though you don’t say much to one another while watching TV, you do definitely bond in that companionable near-silence. So not only do you get to catch up with funny old stuff you might otherwise never have watched, such as Two and a Half Men and Malcolm in the Middle, both of which I highly recommend. But you also get to be a really good dad: the kind I now wish I’d been to the Rat when he was growing up, because then I’d have got to play a lot more video games and watch a lot more trash TV in my mid-thirties, rather than just in my early fifties.
Work: this is another thing I’m feeling healthily ambivalent about. Though I’m still perfectly happy being a journalist, blogger, gun-for-hire, I no longer think it would be the end of the world if it all went tits up and I had to do something else. Podcasting on a more regular, professional level, say: I’d probably be quite a good shock jock. Or teaching: my brief stints at Malvern and Radley were among the most satisfying things I’ve ever tried. Or just writing more books, which is, after all, what I most wanted to do in life before I got distracted by the adrenaline-buzz immediacy and regular-ish income of hackery.
If you don’t want to die young — and I really don’t — I think this ambivalence is important. Anxiety, fear about your job, about where your next work is coming from, is an absolute killer. It can be so all-consuming you might as well not exist, because it ruins even those moments when you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself. It makes you desperate, needy and afraid to say no, which isn’t exactly conducive to great self-esteem. ‘He ate shit because once you hit 50 what other option do you have?’ I’m not necessarily sure it’s what I want as my epitaph.
Another thing: I want to know more, read more, see more. Like, the other evening, I began dipping into The Iliad. (Not in the original Greek, obviously, that being one of the many skills I regret having failed to develop.) These weird, intense, vivid characters at once so familiar and yet so alien because — unlike us — their values haven’t been tempered by the Romans, Christianity and the Enlightenment. This is the stuff that you should be filling your head with, this is what makes you a rounded human being. Not to mention the edge it will give you while watching future episodes of University Challenge.
But is it the pulmonary embolism exper-ience which has brought me this rush of wisdom — or is it stuff that hits you anyway round about mid-life-crisis time? I don’t know, not least because, despite all that research, as I mentioned at the beginning I still feel a complete imposter as a ‘survivor’. It’s not like I got machine-gunned to within an inch of my life leading a platoon in Afghanistan. I just got very ill for a few days.
Maybe it doesn’t matter though where it comes from. I know what I’m about to say is right because loads of much more sensible people have said it before me in the days I was too busy to listen: all that really counts in life is family, friends and health. Oh, and Medal of Honor, obviously. Happy Easter!