A brush with death

Just before Christmas I nearly died.
One Saturday I was feeling fine – rather stressed, but physically fine. Sunday morning I couldn’t urinate. Sunday evening I was in hospital. Monday evening my temperature was soaring, my pulse racing, my blood pressure falling through the floor, and I wasn’t breathing well. I was in a stae of severe sepsis – what my mother calls “blood poisoning”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the stage I reached has a mortality rate of 50%. Fortunately I recovered; my infection responded to the antibiotics, and I had wonderful care at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Recovery was slow, and I still don’t feel completely well.
It turns out that there is nothing like nearly dying to focus the mind on what you should do while you’re living. We’re all going to die sometime; if I’m lucky I might have another 40 years or so, although how many of those will be quality years is unclear. What should I do in the next 20 – 30 years? What do I need to do now so that when in the future I am on my death bed I will be able to lie back satisfied and think “yes, that was a worthwhile life”?
It wasn’t just this near death experience that made me think about the meaning of life, although it has focussed my mind on it. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with how I should live my life, and how I should spend my time.
Someone once said something like “No one ever said on their death bed ’I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” (I think it was the American rabbi Harold Kushner.) I suppose though it depends what sort of office you’re talking about. Hillary Clinton might well end up saying “I wish I’d spent more time in the Oval Office”. It depends on your job in having an extremely good job: I am an academic, a Professor of Psychology.
For many years I even said “I don’t make any distinction between my work and my life”. My reasoning was that (most) academics are pretty much working all the time. You go on vacation (or “take annual leave” as it has now become) and you read a psychology book – are you now working on holiday? You think about a problem in the bath, answer a student email while sipping a glass of wine at midnight, you read a short article Christmas Day while waiting for the turkey to cook – you see the problem about defining work, holiday, and non-work.
Unfortunately some of fun, for me at least, has gone out of the job, caused by increasing bureaucracy and attempts to quantify academics’ time with the noble aim of ensuring that the public aren’t being ripped off. Of course the public should be able to sleep safe in the knowledge that university dons are earning their pay, but you, the public, can rest asure that there isn’t a widespread problem: we aren’t on holiday for half the year, because there’s always research to do, new teaching to prepare, PhD students to supervise, and administration to catch up on. A recent article suggests that many academics work considerably more than 50 hours a week. And now we have to account for our time, by filling in forms and keeping track of what we do. Mechanisms with names like TRAC determine how government money is allocated on the basis of these timesheets. Workload models proliferate, mostly giving us 1768 hours a year to account for – even though we might work more than 2500 hours! And they all suffer from the problems above: what exactly is an academic’s work?
For these sorts of reasons I no longer think that my work is my life. And certainly my job isn’t. The life of an academic has changed over the last 30 years, largely for the worse I think, and it is now full of countless meetings, evaluation, meetings, and forms to fill out. I don’t find that part of the job much fun (and I doubt if I am alone).
So now I do distinguish between my job and my life. It’s still a great job and better than most others. And there are still many parts of the job I love (writing and teaching enthusiastic students, for example). But after a brush with death I cannot find meaning in my job alone.
The mortgage has to be paid, but is it possible to do so while living a meaningful life? And where is this meaning to be found?

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

10 thoughts on “A brush with death”

  1. I’m very glad to hear you’re on the mend, Trevor, and I wish you a speedy recovery. I’ve received intimations of mortality too (not because of my own health but because my wife died suddenly at a young age). It redoubled my resolve to use my life to be as creative as possible. In my case that means writing and I think from what I’ve read from you, it might be so with you, too. How about getting it down on paper?


    1. I agree with what you say about writing. I’m going to post on this topic in coming weeks. Writing hits all the right buttons: it’s creative, it’s self-expression, it’s permanent, and it creates a legacy.


  2. Hello. Nice article and food for thought.
    Less than two weeks ago I had what I can only describe as a cancer scare. And it certainly scared me. A sudden lump in my neck which had no other symptoms in line with an infection or swollen lymph node had me and my GP very conserved. I had bloods taken and the following day I recited a message saying the gp had to speak with me urgently. Because of a delay in getting the text I did not manage to contact the gp until the following day. The text however had come from from a Dr Clark and on looking her up the only Dr Clark in glasgow was a specialist in oncology and blood cancer in glasgow. As it turns out it was simply a coincidence and I was told it was a different disorder which presented with none of the typical symptoms.

    Perhaps it was hypochondria on my behalf but given how worried my doctor was and that anti biotics had done nothing to help the previous week I was convinced this lump was a sign of blood cancer which typical life expectancy is 3 to 4 years with treatment. There are other reasons I suspected this but I will skip these now.
    So that night when I missed an urgent message from the oncology and blood cancer expert in glasgow I had a moment of realisation that I could be dead in 3 years. For me the greatest fear or pain was the hurt for those that I would leave and for those that depend on me.

    I wondered what the point of my life would have been and I came to think that there is no point over and above what we ourselves apply to it. Once we are gone our self imposed purpose dies with us. Or actions may continue to have an effect in the world. But does that does mean there is a purpose. No more than a ball striking another ball has a purpose.

    I think that as humans part of our survival and intellectual evolution has made us ask what caused that track to get left in the dirt, how did that round shaped thing role along, why did that fruit taste good and that one not…
    Now that we live in a time where we have the luxury of free time that is not spent hunting or mining or fighting, we continue to ask the same questions but now of life and the universe.
    But I suppose what I am trying to say is, that we are mistaken in doing so. Just because we ask the question “what is the purpose to life”, does not mean there is an answer. And I fully belive and belived even as I was facing the prospect of 3 years left to live that there is no purpose to life other than that which we assign ourselves.


    1. I’m glad it was only a scare, unpleasant though that must have been.

      I seem to be reaching the age where some of my friends are getting ill, or dying. At least my episode was reasonably acute, and eventually I should be fairly normal again. It has made me think about how I should spend my time though. I agree our purpose is what we ourselves assign, and that comes down to how do we choose to spend our time?


      1. ”Our purpose is what we ourselves assign?”. Not so sure of that Prof. Harley. Have you considered that the purpose of our lives may be to further God’s (my name for our Creator) will, as represented by His Son’s example to us as recorded in the Bible? One may or may not believe in ”all that crap”, but the fact is (as I perceive it after years of not intelligent thought), that without something concrete like that, our lives are indeed meaningless. I don’t think the whole construct of the Universe can possibly have been created for no purpose (which could conceivably be the case if our lives are meaningless, as there is no solid evidence of other life out there, only probabilities & possibilities). So the meaningfulness that could follow form that, beyond using our own creative powers for our own good, may include for example doing good things for other people; always trying to lead as useful & honourable life as we can; always doing our level best not to hurt others in any way; always trying to promote the concept of benign Creation; definitely NOT letting our work define us; minimising as sensibly as possible our use of scarce planetary resource.


      2. An interesting point of view. There are many benefits to being religious, and it does shift responsibility for purpose in life. For me though it involves buying into too much. However I am now pleased if others can find comfort in religion (in the broadest sense), whereas in the past I used to be ardently anti-religious. I do though think that the Universe is here without any purpose – which is not to say that sentient beings cannot find their own.


  3. Good day,
    I just came across this blog and want to thank you for your delving into the deeper meanings of the what and why of life.


    1. Many thanks for your approval! I hope to produce weekly blogs on the subject, slanted towards the effect of mental illness on meaning.


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