Call it the Lord Jim Effect. Like the hero of Joseph Conrad’s great novel, most of us go along most of the time thinking we know ourselves pretty well. Then something happens — a new experience, a new friend, a crisis — to open our eyes to a previously overlooked piece of the puzzle that is ourselves. Someone I know gives an account of how that recently happened to him:
“It was hardly as dramatic as the events in Conrad’s tale of a man’s harrowing voyage of self-discovery, but it was dramatic enough for me. As all the world knows, Washington, D.C., was socked with two major snowstorms — blizzards, really — within five days of each other early in February, and the city largely collapsed. (God help us if there’s ever a nuclear attack or anthrax scare or something similarly horrible.)
“The snow began falling on Friday and was still coming down hard on Saturday afternoon. My neighborhood in Northwest Washington was covered with a thick, white blanket. There were no pedestrians or vehicles on the street. People had wisely retreated to their homes for the duration and were praying (if they prayed) that the electricity wouldn’t go out. Even the local archdiocese issued an announcement that the Sunday Mass obligation was lifted. In other words: Stay home!
“Looking out my window in the mid-afternoon, I saw that the limbs of the Japanese red maple in our front yard were bent to the ground under the weight of the snow, as was an overgrown boxwood up near the street. Both were in danger of serious damage. Time for Harry Homeowner to go to the rescue, I thought.
“So I put on my heavy coat, scarf, cap, and high boots, and grabbing a broom (for knocking off snow) I went outside. The first thing I discovered was that the snow was a lot deeper than I’d realized — up over my knees, in fact. But I managed to mush through it to the red maple, and there did a reasonably adequate job of snow removal.
“Now it was the boxwood’s turn. It was only ten yards away, but remember: This snow was just short of impassable. I got to within a couple of yards of the boxwood and then — O Lord! — I overbalanced and fell down.
“I fell backwards, in a half-sitting, half-leaning position. Falling into deep, soft snow, I wasn’t hurt. But to my uneasy surprise, I couldn’t get up. My feet were out in front of me, and when I tried to push myself into a sitting position my hands went down through snow without touching the ground. Slowly it dawned on me that I was stuck.
“What to do? Get help, of course. But as I said, there were no people or cars on the street, and it was a good bet that there weren’t going to be any. I didn’t have my cell phone with me. My wife was in the house, but the house was shut tight, and my wife is hard of hearing anyway. I experimented by calling ‘Help! Help!’ a few times, but that got no response. And if she didn’t see me around for a while, she’d naturally suppose I’d gone to my basement office to work and not wonder where I was until it was time for dinner.
“So I started to think. Now, here is what I find interesting: At no time did I feel panicky or upset. Mostly I was annoyed at myself for having done something dumb. I was pretty confident that I would get out of this situation, but I didn’t know how. At the same time, I knew there was a chance I wouldn’t get out — and if I didn’t do that soon, given the falling snow and temperature in the low 20s, there was a chance I wouldn’t get out of it at all. Imagine the humiliation of freezing to death in your own front yard!
“Did I think religious thoughts during those moments? Yes, but only up to a point. I thought of my guardian angel — something I rarely do, I confess — and directed a prayer to him that, if not elegant, was certainly from the heart: ‘Angel of God, my guardian dear, get me out of this mess!’ And, aware that I might possibly die rather soon, I thought something along the following lines: ‘Well, if this really is the end, it will be interesting to see what comes next.’
“You will have observed that I didn’t die. After an embarrassingly long time, I finally thought of a way out of my predicament. I suppose I might have thought of it much earlier if I’d had more practice falling down in deep snow. It involved squirming out of my semi-reclining position and getting onto my knees, thrusting the handle of my broom down through the snow until it reached solid ground, then grasping the handle and pulling myself hand over hand onto my feet. Once on my feet, I managed to struggle through the snow back to the front door. Not surprisingly, I was glad to make it.
“I’ve never had a near-death experience, and I don’t expect to have one. I imagine this particular experience — at risk of freezing to death on my front lawn in the middle of a blizzard — is as close as I’ll get. As a way of learning something new about myself, I admit, it wasn’t quite up to the standards of Lord Jim getting into that lifeboat as his ship appeared ready to sink. But two things about it stuck in my mind just the same.
“One is that I didn’t panic. Maybe I would have done that if things had gone on much longer; but the fact is that they didn’t, and so I didn’t, and in that I take some pride. The other is that, looking at what I believed to be the possibility of death, I didn’t feel anxious. If anything, I was comfortable with the prospect of dying and — if I may put it that way — going home at last. I only hope it’s like that when the real thing finally comes.”