I posted this on LinkedIn this week and thought I would share it with you. I was asked to write about what inspires me. I think “inspire” is perhaps not the right word given the tragedy I describe here. It was unspeakable. This is how it has shaped me, ever since. It held the fundamental lesson of life – one I should have known but just didn’t quite get till then.
I used to have a recurring nightmare: I was a passenger on a plane that plunged downward in a sudden death-spin. I would awake from the dream breathless and stare at glow of the bedside clock till I was certain I wasn’t dying. The nightmare repeated with haunting regularity.
Then a crash really happened – but I wasn’t on board.
Vietnam Airlines Flight 815 crashed at Phnom Penh airport on September 3, 1997. I was a correspondent for Reuters in Cambodia at the time, and I covered the story.
It was monsoon season, and the pilot tried to land during heavy rain and low cloud cover. The plane missed the runway, struck a stand of palm trees just beyond the airport and exploded in a rice paddy. Everyone on board – 66 people – was killed except for one child pulled from the wreckage.
There wasn’t much left of the plane except the tail, which stuck up straight in the field like a monument. The rest was shattered into smaller, unrecognizable fragments. An ambulance had slid into the mud at the crash site, its front tire submerged among the electric green of new rice shoots. There was no one left to rush to the hospital. Bodies were scattered, one nearly completely covered by a cloth. All that was visible was a hand, the fingernails neatly trimmed, clean and white like half-moons. I will never forget it.
I have thought of the poor souls on that flight ever since.
As I stood among their remains, something fundamentally shifted. There was sorrow, and there was also solidarity. I would be among the dead someday, and I saw that time would come as sudden and unstoppable and complete as the events of that rainy afternoon. Why bother fearing it in a dream? It would be my reality, just as it was theirs. But that last moment would matter little in the end. The preceding ones deserved the attention. Because every person on that flight would be remembered for how they lived, not how they died. As will we all.
Someone once told me that recurring dreams cease when you’ve finally received the message they are sending. After the horror of the real plane crash, I never again dreamed of an imaginary one. Perhaps I had finally gotten the point of the dream. It was not to wake up and realize I wasn’t dead. It was to wake up to the fact I was very much alive and to do something about that fortune with the unknowable but numbered hours left on the clock.
Steve Jobs said in his exquisite commencement speech:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Nothing is more inspiring to me than that thought. The fact of our inevitable end is not a nightmare. It is a wake-up call, as bracing and emboldening as a billion-bugle rendition of reveille. Rise and shine, it blares. Do that big thing in your heart now, right now, this minute, because you are alive and able.