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Asking 'Why?' When I Should Have Died

“Why?” That is the question that we all ask.

The “Why” is often asked, in the universal sense, when we contemplate the meaning of life, how time works, or anything about the Kardashians. But it is more often asked in the personal sense as we try to figure out why we went through something that is mentally irreconcilable, why we experienced a situation or hurt that came out of nowhere, or why we continue to care about what’s happening with the Kardashians.

The big “Why” is an important question when it orients our motivations and purposes, but it can just as easily become a distraction when the chances of us finding an answer are slim. Asking the right questions brings focus and clarity, and can help build resilience through challenging circumstances.

July 6th, 2000 was the day that I should have died. Therefore, July 6th, 2020 is a significant anniversary for me. Because it was twenty years ago that I started to learn the importance of asking better questions.

In early 2000, my now wife and I had just started dating. She invited me to join her and her dad backpacking for a few days in Colorado. I loved to backpack and thought it would be a great adventure for me and my new girlfriend. So, we loaded up my SUV and drove to Colorado to join her dad who was already there fishing.

The hike to our campsite was hard. We ended up taking a route that required a lot of climbing steep rocks and maneuvering through dense forest. After an exhausting day of hiking, we ended up at our campsite and spent a few days by a beautiful lake. Besides finding out that Shannon was an incredible fly-fisherperson, I don’t remember much about the actual camping trip though.  

On July 6th, we packed up our camp and started heading out. After a few hours of hiking out from our site, Shannon and I ended up taking a slightly different trail from her dad. Shannon and I were following a deer trail out. Eventually, we came to a spot where I could see that we might need to double back. From this point forward, I can remember every detail of the following hours as vividly as if it happened yesterday.

...I started to learn the importance of asking better questions.

As we hiked, I noticed that about ten to fifteen yards ahead of us that there was a cliff. We weren’t close enough to tell how big of a drop, but it was obvious that it was big enough that we shouldn’t hike it. As we turn, I slip on the wet grass below me. There was a small trench with a runoff that led to the edge of the cliff. It was hardly visible, but a significant enough stream that after falling, it was able to carry me away. Despite being a short distance to the drop-off, it was long enough that I was picking up enough speed that grabbing whatever I could get ahold of wouldn’t stop me. I still I shot off the cliff at full speed. 

The drop off was about 50 feet. I initially landed standing straight up. Then I bounced and tumbled an extra ten feet or so before stopping. I remember standing up quickly and throwing off my backpack before falling to the ground in absolute agony. Shannon finds her way down to check on me before running for help. By this point, I was completely paralyzed below my waist. I laid there, immobile and alone, for a couple of hours before she returned and we could wait for rescue together.  

Rescue eventually showed up. After hours of horrible pain, the shock was starting to subside, and the pain was becoming unimaginable. They were able to give me morphine and sat with me until I could be helicoptered out. Due to nearby fires, the regular rescue helicopter was unable to get to me. Eventually, a Blackhawk arrived to transport me to the closest hospital.

I was completely paralyzed below my waist.

Despite the 50-foot fall, there were no life-threatening injuries. However, I did break my back with a compression fracture on three lumbar vertebrae, I broke my pelvis, tailbone, wrists, and ankles, and I was bruised from head to toe. For the next few days I worked hard with a physical therapist and physician. I was in a back brace, but they had me moving around pretty quickly. And just to add a little excitement to the story, I came to find out that I had landed in an active mountain lion den.

I spent a little over a year in a back brace, was in a wheelchair for three months before moving to a walker and then to crutches. My ankles are still shot. I had reconstructive surgery on one of my wrists just two years ago. And the final nerve damage from my spin and tailbone have slowly repaired.

For years I tried to apply meaning to the experience. But there was so much pain, like actual physical pain, associated with the experience that all I would tell people when they asked me about the experience was, “my ass hurt.” But as time passed and the impact of the injuries became better understood, I have been able to reflect on it more philosophically.

Throughout my life, there have been countless times that I could have died. That was the day I should have died. I try and often fail to remember that I am fortunate to have had the past 7,300 days. The lessons I have tried to apply are the need for authenticity and gratitude. But despite not getting there yet, I am still fully aware that each day is a new opportunity that I shouldn’t have had.

Whether the reason I survived was divine intervention or just dumb luck isn’t the right or most important question. The questions we choose to ask take courage. “Why” questions, when asked with discipline, can uncover motivations and biases.

But “why” is too often asked desperately. It is a question that we ask out of frustration and disillusionment as we drown in confusion. (Why does Kourtney Kardashian seem to have such a hard time getting along with her sisters?)

“Why” questions, when asked with discipline, can uncover motivations and biases.

“Where do I go from here?” is a question that Nones have learned to ask instead. Navigating out of our own personal experiences, we appreciate the value of a deep dive into the “why”, but we have found that our development and growth are more centered on actionable questions. The “Now what?” question is more exciting anyway.

Craig Morton is a contributing writer for American None. He has a Ph.D. in Higher Education but is famous for being a Master of the Grill.


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