Losing control: What I learned when I almost died

August 12th, 2020

The Saura people called that mountain Jomeokee: Great Guide. Rising abruptly nearly 2,000 feet and crowned by a ring of tree-topped rock walls, it has served for centuries as a navigational landmark.

Today it’s a popular site for camping and hiking. You might know it as Pilot Mountain in North Carolina.

My friend Rob and I decided to spend one of our college winter breaks camping there. Two days after Christmas we loaded his old Ford Fairlane with our backpacks and headed north from Atlanta, neglecting to check the weather forecast.

The dawn greeted us as Rob steered the car around tight turns ascending to the mountain’s summit. At a sharp bend in the road a sheer drop opened up to my right and revealed a stunning view of the sunrise over the distant valley.

I only noticed the absence of a guardrail when I heard Rob shout, “Oh sh*t!” Hitting an unseen patch of ice, the car slid out of control and began heading sideways — my side first — over the cliff.

My life flashed before my eyes. People use this phrase all the time, and I had always assumed that it was just a colorful way to express overwhelming terror or that maybe it referred to a sudden flash of memories. For me, not so much.

Careening out of control toward a precipitous — and perhaps deadly — fall, I understood with my pounding heart a deep truth about about human life. A truth that we frequently resist facing.

At every instant, our existence hangs by a thread. We are fleeting, fragile, vulnerable creatures. Philosophers and theologians call this kind of existence “contingent being.” At its core, our very being is dependent upon something — upon Someone — beyond ourselves.

Now as it turns out, we humans also have a natural and abiding need for security. The idea that the bottom could fall out from under our lives with the next breath is deeply unsettling. For the most part, we cope with life’s precariousness by seeking control.

Control is not in and of itself a bad thing. Of course, control can take toxic forms like perfectionism, obsessiveness and rigidity. By contrast, self-control is a virtue: we can cultivate a good work ethic, be a caring spouse and parent, watch our weight, get in ten thousand steps daily, and put away money for retirement.

But none of this guarantees that we will be given the opportunity to draw the next breath. Our spiritual challenge lies in recognizing how much and what we can really control.

As long as we seem to be in control, we can live under the illusion that we need only trust ourself. Our own know-how, willpower and grit can make us safe. But when we lose control, the illusion dissolves.

We meet ourselves as contingent beings and face another odd and disturbing truth about human existence. We are free to choose what we will depend upon.

Paradoxically, we must choose. We cannot escape being dependent. And yet, we can choose without much reflection, and we can choose what is ultimately untrustworthy.

When control eludes you, your own existence poses to you its most urgent, most radical question. Can you really trust the foundation that you’ve chosen to stand upon?

This question brings to mind for me the story of Peter walking on water.

Along with the other disciples, he was battling a storm at sea when Jesus came strolling across the waves. They were all shocked and more than a little frightened, but Peter stepped out of the boat to join his Rabbi.

Peter realized that walking on water was not in his skill set. Stepping out of the boat was a choice — with his very life — to trust Jesus enough to follow him wherever he led. Even crazy, risky, unsafe places. Places like reconciling bitter relationships, forgiving the unrepentant and even loving determined enemies.

Okay, so Peter sank and Jesus had to pull him to safety. This trust thing takes some growing into.

And that brings us back to Pilot Mountain.

The right side of the car slid off the road onto the shoulder. Rain and snow had thoroughly saturated the mud along the edge of the road, so the passenger-side tires plowed a deep rut and brought the car to a halt. We both exited on the driver’s side.

If you’re thinking that I’ve just told you my one-time conversion story, I have to disappoint you. This is just one of many turning points — large and small — in a lifelong conversion narrative. I’ll be spending the rest of my life, and maybe all of eternity, learning to entrust my life to God.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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