At age 10, during a Purim holiday celebration (similar to Mardi Gras) where thousands of Israelis gathered in the center of Tel-Aviv to celebrate, an Israeli soldier mistakenly launched a phosphorous grenade into the crowd while intending to throw a colorful and harmless smoke grenade. The burning phosphorous struck both my legs and my hair, turning me into living torch. Due to the nature of phosphorous, which sticks to the skin and can burn without oxygen, it was hard to put the fire out and I ended up with third degree burns on my legs and a scar on my hairline and spent a month in the hospital. (For the rest of my life I could always resonate with the famous Vietnamese Napalm-Girl, who was photographed in 1972 screaming in torturous pain, after U.S. air-force reprehensibly, inhumanly and immorally dropped napalm on her village.) Oddly enough, my most vivid memories of this ordeal were having fun in the hospital riding a wheelchair on two wheels and spending time with my mother who had also received burns from the same grenade and was in the next hospital room.
Soon after, as a lieutenant and combat officer, just 19 years old, viewing life as a prism of possibilities, I found myself at the greatest boundary of all, that of life and death. For the first time, I held a soldier’s dead body in my arms. Simplicity and innocence vanished and once again a new perspective opened before me, a new consciousness. I felt so profoundly the preciousness, the fragility of life and the importance of living each day fully, with care and integrity, as if it were my last day on earth. To this day, I try to live that way.
While some boundaries are physical, existential, or spiritual, others are developmental, metaphorical, or metaphysical. I remember a time, during my military service, when three of us, all officers, were housed in a cement bunker. Late one night, we were all very tired and had turned in for a good night’s sleep. I was already in bed and, instead of doing the obvious of getting up and turning off the light switch, I reached for my handgun and shot out the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. While I accurately hit the bulb, which effectively turned the light off, the bullet ricocheted wildly around the cement walls for what seemed like a very long time, seriously endangered the life of all three of us. On my list of boundaries, this would easily rank as a highly reckless, stupid, and an utterly irresponsible way of pushing boundaries – and fate.
Towards the end of the 1973 war, my unit was finally deployed. We were assigned to cross a bridge across the Suez Canal and head north towards the revered city of Ismailia. At this point of the war the Egyptian army was highly concerned that if the Israeli Armed Forces crossed the Suez Canal, they would subsequently have a clear path to Egypt’s capital, Cairo. As a result, the Egyptian army was defending the bridge that my unit had been assigned to with all their remaining military might, relying on intense artillery bombardments, air force bombings, and anti-tank guided missiles to deter the incoming Israeli army. When we arrived, Israeli tanks, personal carriers and jeeps were on fire and literally flying off the bridge. It was an intense game of chicken between the Egyptian bombings and the Israeli military engineering unit, which was rapidly rebuilding and repairing the repeatedly hit and damaged bridge. Amazingly they were able to keep rebuilding despite the catastrophic losses they were suffering.
Then, I received my orders: we were commanded to cross this fiery strip and move deeper into Egypt. While the rest of my unit quickly jumped into vehicles and sped as fast as they could into the clouds of smoke that covered the bridge, my recklessness, bravery and perhaps my stupidity spurred my buddy and me to cross this death zone by foot. As fire and metal rained down around our unprotected bodies, we sarcastically argued over who would be the first to die, and who would get to put a wreath on the grave of the other at the prestigious famed national military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Halfway across the bridge I suddenly felt compelled to stop. A strange sense of calm and quiet came over me despite the deafening bombs and missiles exploding all around. Almost engulfed by the chaos and destruction, I looked up at the sky and extended a defiant middle finger to God, a gesture by which I was telling Death, “I do not fear you!”
This attitude of fearlessness towards death, which has harmoniously and consistently coexisted with my deep reverence for life, has revealed itself in multiple ways throughout my life, such as in my predilection for evacuating hospitals against medical advice, diving the magical but lethal Blue Hole, shooting the light bulb, challenge-riding a motorcycle at the Himalayas by 4,000ft drops and many other death-defying ventures. My mother vowed she wanted to ‘die erect,’ so perhaps there’s a strain of this mentality I inherited from her!
After a few days of cautiously moving towards enemy lines in the 1973 war, our military unit became the target of artillery shells. Some fell to the left of us, some to the right, some in front of us where we were headed, and some behind us, where we had been an hour ago. In a curious, fascinating, and yet terrifying pattern, the shells began to gradually close in on us in a perfect lethal circle, closer and closer on all sides. As our unit paused under a grove of high palm trees, the shells began falling so close to our group that it became obvious that the artillery weapons were being systematically directed by someone or something that was aware of our location. Was there an unseen aircraft tracking us, a satellite, or an eye in the sky?
As we frantically tried to figure out who/what was doing this we peered at the sky through the fronds of the palm trees above and suddenly spotted what in some military jargon is called a “monkey” — a perfectly camouflaged Egyptian soldier sitting atop one of the trees, trying to blend in with the thick canopy. We instantly realized that he was the one providing his fellow artillery soldiers miles away with the exact location of our unit. Within a milli-second, about 20 to 30 solders aimed and rapidly shot their M-16’s automatic guns at him. By the time he hit the ground he had several hundred bullet holes in him. Needless to say, he did not suffer much. A couple of distressed, frightened and enraged soldiers even shot a few more rounds into the lifeless bleeding body.
I looked at this bullet-ridden corpse and experienced an upwelling of admiration, respect, and even awe, for this man who had directed his artillery on our unit… and in the end, on himself. I considered how he had been deliberately and consciously ready to face death in defense of his country, just as I had been a couple of days prior while crossing the bridge of fire. My feelings of identification and admiration were not shared by my fellow soldiers. In fact, a fellow officer rushed toward the body and took the bayonet off his gun, both as memorabilia and as an attempt to humiliate the enemy. I was unexpectedly overcome with rage and hatred towards this man’s lack of acknowledgement of the bravery of the monkey. I instinctively wanted to protect his body, and at the bare minimum, have our unit spend a few seconds around it to honor the complex relationship that we had with our enemy. I did feel hatred towards the threat he had posed to myself and my soldiers, yet I also was touched by his sacrifice and courage. I was very aware that I could have been the one to be riddled with bullets just a couple of days earlier on the bridge.
In effect, this is what we soldiers are about: walking the tightrope of potential sacrifice while defending our country as heroes. Yet, I suspected that the monkey, like me, had not viewed his defiance of death and willingness to sacrifice as particularly brave or heroic. Rather, his act was a way to embrace life in its fullest. Ironically, saying ‘Yes to life’ meant also saying ‘Yes to death.’
We survived, at least physically, the crossing of the bridge over the Suez Canal under rain of fire in the 1973 (Yom Kippur) war and the close call with the monkey aiming the artillery on us. Getting closer to our target city of Ismailia, my buddy and I were driving a jeep on a mission in coordination with a sister unit when we lost our bearings and shockingly found ourselves behind enemy lines. There, suddenly and unexpectedly we arrived at a most horrific, eerie sight. In front of us were the widely scattered remains of an Israeli army jeep which had literary evaporated, annihilated into thin air when struck by a lethal Egyptian anti-tank missile. We also stumbled upon the tiny dog-tag, all that was left from an Israeli soldier whose body, like most of the parts of the jeep, had vanished into the same thin air.
Realizing that the jeep we were driving was situated exactly where the evaporated jeep once stood was a surreal experience. We knew that in no time, at any given moment and without warning, we too could vanish and annihilated just like the passengers of the other jeep. We exchanged looks of awe mixed with wonder and horror. As we silently and with full presence inched our way back to our unit, we struggled to metabolize the very real possibility of our instantaneous annihilation and death. Thinking of being evaporated in an instant felt very different than considering dying by a bullet. This really drove home how we had neither control of our destiny nor predictive power as to what might be awaiting us. I truly got it how life, and its continuance, is such a mystery, and ultimately, such a gift.
In the waning minutes of the Yom Kippur (1973) war, I once again found myself at the aweinspiring boundary between life and death during the Battle of Ismailia when I was seriously wounded after most of my left calf was blown off and I collapsed in complete and utter silence. The silence, as I put together months later, was partly due to the fact that I lost my hearing when the intense enemy bombing ruptured my eardrums. As soon as I collapsed into this zone of silence and injury, as if someone had literally pulled the rug from underneath me, I told myself, “I lost my leg because I should have not gone (or walked) to a war that I did not fully believe in.” (Later in life I followed up on this interpretation and explore in depth the constructs of the ‘metaphor of illness’ or the meaning of dis-eases.)
I was evacuated under heavy fire, and to my deep distress found myself in an armed vehicle, which I knew to be an easy target for the enemy’s lethal shoulder missiles. What was strange about the morphine-induced delirium I experienced during this evacuation was that I became less worried about being blown up by a lethal Egyptian shoulder missile than I was about being part of an imaginary ‘cosmic play,’ in which I was the sacrificial lamb to my peace-loving parents who were simultaneously and paradoxically against the war while proud of their ‘sacrificial hero/wounded lieutenant son.’ Years later, in an attempt to make sense of this bizarre but intriguing experience, I devoted considerable time to exploration of what is known as the Medea Complex, or the unconscious wishes of parents to kill their children as manifested by the 25 years (one generation) average of war cycles in modern times.
Another memory from the 1973 Yom Kippur war: we are deep in the desert and artillery shells, with their lethal downpour, were raining down all around us. Each exploding shell created a crater in the sand. I was standing at the edge of one of these craters, covered with dust from the latest explosion. Obviously, my instinct told me to run for my life, to run as fast as I could away from that crater before the next shell struck, but my military training repeatedly ran through my head telling me that ‘two bombs never fall in the same place.’
Accepting that premise meant that this new crater was the safest place around and therefore I should jump into it, against all my instinct. In the confusion of life and death, it was the fight between intuition and the brain – instinct vs. rationality. I jumped into the crater, which probably saved my life. I have, since that day, always wondered how many times in life we stand at the edge of craters needing to weigh our instinct against our rational inclination; our impulse against the logical choice. Indeed, life presents us with situations where a crater may even sink us into the earth, but where the seeds of creativity may flourish. (Listen to an audio recording, describing this junction)
In addition to my scientific activities (age 26-27), I also drove safaris in Kenya and Tanzania across the vast savannahs and landscapes of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Nakuru, and Lake Turkana. The parade of life and the seemingly endless herds of lions, giraffes, zebras, elephants, wildebeests, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, and buffalos were everywhere. To this day, I vividly remember the hundreds of seasonally migrating zebras and wildebeests that did not make it to the next watering hole. This significantly influenced me and much of my psychology work as I thought of the interconnectedness of life and death and how often thoughts of mortality unconsciously influence our actions and thoughts.
Apparently, the Tanzanian mosquitoes did not seem to recognize, respect or appreciate the antimalarial pills I was taking in Kenya . As a result, I contracted Malaria in Tanzania in 1977. Synchronistically, it took place at the East Africa Institute of Tropical Diseases where I visited a researcher friend. It was a profound and odd 7 day experience of nonstop shifting between extreme feelings of freezing and overheating. It took almost 9 months to recover and regain my full vision.
I learned a great deal about different attitudes towards life and death during the time I spent in remote areas of the Somali desert. I watched in bewilderment as tribesmen let their only source of water in that desert area be polluted with a seeming disregard for their own lives or the consequences: the inevitable, rapid destruction of the community. These new realizations regarding different cultures’ varying attitudes towards life, death, destiny, community, responsibility, survival, and spirituality initially baffled, confused and, at times, upset and depressed me. Later on, they humbled me and irreversibly impacted me for the rest of my life. I have learned not to assume anything about other cultures and to always stay anthropologically open, deeply respectful and able to honor and approach cultural diversity with a sense of awe.
I continued my work, exploring the roots of war and promoting peace, which led me to literature that discussed the meaning of the fact that the average frequency of war is 25 years, which corresponds to the span of a generation. The theory posited the puzzling and odd idea that war may be the unconscious wish and impulse of parents to kill their children, or what is also known as the Medea Complex. I asked my mother her thoughts on this idea and did not hear back from her for a couple of months. Then one day, I got a package from her with probably all the available literature on this obscure topic. She noted that compiling this literature was one of the most difficult challenges she had ever faced. That was the last correspondence I had from her as she died soon after from her second heart attack in November 1982 at age 68. Mother repeatedly told us that she neither wanted to slow down in old age nor have a prolonged death. So on her gravestone we engraved her own words -“Trees Die Erect”.
In the millenial year of 2000, I suffered my first heart attack and cardiac arrest at the age of 50 (100% occlusions of LCA) and crossed the boundary of life and death (flatlined) for 90+ seconds. I remain disappointed that I neither saw a white light nor God, a truly wasted opportunity. With a stent in place, I have increased my focus on my “bucket list”. In that same year, my father died, but unlike my mother, he went slowly at the ripe old age of 84.
As Eitan and I were training for the Kilimanjaro climb, many friends and acquaintances confronted me. They wanted to know why at the age of 57, after having suffered a major cardiac arrest, I was so keen on risking my life with this climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro alongside my 14-year-old son. After growing tired of the questioning, and what felt like narrow-mindedness, lack of imagination, and subtle guilt-inducing harassment, I started responding with, “You are absolutely right. I may die on the mountain! However, can you think of a better place to die than on top of the highest, most gorgeous, stand-alone mountain in the world?”
When people continued to challenge me about having my 14-year-old son with me on this venture, supposedly risking my life, I came up with this response, which I told the ‘concerned/questioning ones’: “If I am to ‘glamorously’ die on top of spectacular Kilimanjaro, I will be cremated there, and my ashes will be placed in a Tanzanian ebony box. Eitan will bring me down the mountain and back home in this beautiful small carved memento.” This ebony box story was repeated whenever I was confronted or accused of being irresponsible by friends, colleagues, and guest at dinner tables. While Eitan did not seem to be flabbergasted, distressed or upset by this story, many other people did.
The final twist to this story came at 18,000 feet, where I became disoriented and suddenly unable to breath and experiencing severe heart pains. This was a clear sign of (another) potential heart failure. Instead of asking Eitan who, according to plan had carried my nitro (Nitroglycerin), to stay nearby and be ready to hand it to me, I found myself believing my absurd story and (yes, sincerely) telling myself “There is no better place to die…” Miraculously, I survived, in spite of myself.
In August 2012 my son, Eitan (19), and I (62) went to the highest ‘ridable’ road on earth at 18,380 feet above sea level – in the Himalayas on … motorcycles. The two-week adventure turned out to be one of the most physically and mentally onerous experiences of my life. Driving the narrow, rocky roads often bordered by cliffs falling thousands of feet (with no guard rails), blind corners, reckless, over-loaded trucks, long days of riding through endless potholes, and water crossings turned out to be an unparalleled adventure and realization of a dream.
The enormity and grandeur of the Himalayas are incomparable and so are the centuries-old sacred Buddhist temples and monasteries we visited. Sometimes it felt like we were riding the clouds. The trip evoked in me such humility and helped me come to terms with physical and age-related limitations (age 62). Ultimately, once again, we looked death straight in the eyes (or at least around every blind corner). And, of course, it also intensified a special connection with my son. In contrast to my experience, Eitan found the trip joyous and quite easy.
Alongside the question of ‘what is next in my life?’, I ponder ‘how do I want to die?’. I know that I neither want to die ‘erect’ (i.e. in my prime) as my mother did, nor do I wish to go through the lengthy, painfully slow journey that my father took in the final period of his life. My young son, Ilan, insightfully said one day “Aba (dad), you will not die on top of Kilimanjaro nor on the glacier in Alaska nor among the sharks in the deep ocean. You are mostly likely to die slipping on a banana in the local Safeway.” When it comes to death, I love the scene of Little Big Man where Chief Dan George announces “Today is a good day to die” and wanders off into the woods. The “Right to Die” law that was passed in California in 2016 gives me some choices or control regarding the way I may choose to die, which is a relief. I found appealing the story of a terminally ill California woman who invited friends from all over the country to a ‘farewell party’ – a jubilant celebration of her life and relationships. After two days of partying she retired to a room where, with her doctor and a few close people, she took the drugs that ended her life. Personally, I also wish to die among my family and friends but I am also resign to not knowing how I will spend the last days or last minutes of my life.