Imagine the scenario if you can, if your mind will let you go there:
You are two miles underground in a coal mine. Somewhere between you and the earth’s surface, a freak explosion ignited a fire that burns unabated on the flammable walls of the mine shaft. Your emergency supply of oxygen is running down, forcing you to inhale from the precious pocket of air around you –which the fire rapidly consumes and replaces with carbon monoxide. You try to conserve your oxygen, using only the bare minimum for respiration, hoping the fire will choke itself out before it chokes you. But each breath gets more difficult and more poisonous; your eyelids start to sag. Your mind grows hazy and your body limp, and you are starting to feel in your heart of hearts that you will not leave the mine alive –that soon you will go to sleep and never wake up again.
In the midst of this awakening to death, you reach into your pocket and find a blank piece of paper and a pen. You are still lucid enough to know that you have one last chance to communicate to everyone –your friends, family, loved ones, perhaps everyone—what you most want them to know as you prepare to breathe your last. With the fading vision of your outer eyes straining to see –and every memory and thought and dream and soaring idea you’ve ever had passing by your inner one—you set the pen to the paper and….
….what do you write?
This was the reality facing Martin Toler, Jr., a foreman at the Sago Coal Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia, as he and 12 of his comrades were trapped by an infamous fire on January 2, 2006. Each of the men probably handled his own last moments of reckoning in a manner no less profound or significant to the God who was bringing them Home –but it was Mr. Toler’s note, scribbled on the back of an insurance form, and later photographed and published worldwide in newspapers and websites, that touched the world so deeply.
“Tell all I see them on the other side,” said his note. “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep.” And at the bottom of the note: “I love you.”
When I first saw a picture of the note on front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer, it gave me chills. There is something about the way Mr. Toler used the past tense to describe a future event that makes it seem like it was written by his ghost. The Toler family was very gracious to allow the Associated Press to photograph this extremely personal letter and share it with the world, giving us all a glimpse into the mind and heart of a dying man, into a life which we all share through our universal Being. As they so often do, the ageless words of John Donne come to mind:
“….No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Miners have always been a hardscrabble bunch, and none more so than those who dig for our coal. Until technology improved enough to develop adequate respiratory aids, it was not a question of “if” the ultrafine dust created by coal mining would clog a miner’s lungs and kill him at a fairly young age –the question was “how young,” or whether a calamity like the Sago Mine explosion would get him first. Safety regulations have also sought to lessen the risks of mining for a living, but even now, every miner goes into the ground knowing that he/she may never come back out, that any number of problems, malfunctions or outright disasters could turn his place of work into a deathtrap.
It used to mystify me how people could so easily place their lives in grave danger, where the balance between life and death is so fragile. Eventually, something of the Truth got through my skull, something that told me, “From the perspective of the ego, your limited sense of self, all life is dangerous and fragile. No one gets out of this mine shaft alive.”
This ultimate existential conundrum –the realization that no human activity is safe, up to and including breathing*—can either drive a person to extreme paranoia and beyond the brink of insanity…or it can make us surrender, throw up the white flag and give up this clinging to “a vapor that appeaseth and fadeth away.” In doing so, we learn that we never really were that vapor, that no man ever was an island; in ceasing to identify with the temporal, we unwittingly find the Eternal. The result of this transformation of the mind is that the conundrum simply ceases to be: there is nothing to fear, and no one to fear it anyway –only God is.
The cessation of the fear of death, therefore, comes from embracing it, not just when it happens, but NOW. All else is bound to fall into place. Thus the universal imperative of all major religions that expresses some variation on “While living, be dead, and be completely dead –then do as you will; all is well.”
I then thought that transcending the fear of death was the sine qua non of the spiritual life, and anything else that religion brought to the table was superfluous. I was even tempted to write this piece in a way that said “anything that produces this level of peace and transformation that we see in Mr. Toler’s note is OK.” But this too has been proven wrong to me. Our earthly activities still matter; the way we treat each other and our world still matters. One cannot fully surrender the self, and embrace the Life that transcends death, while cursing this Life as it manifests in our neighbor. Suicide bombers do not fear death, nor do they care what bloodshed their violent end will beget in pursuit of the paradise they have been promised. Bible-believing Christians can assure themselves of personal salvation and of the literal truth of the prophecy in Revelation, then pray to their Savior to come down and get on with it already, knowing that this would bring torturous, unmitigated suffering to all non-Christians and the animal kingdom.
In short: when fear rushes out, God, who is love, must pour in. If love does not enter the equation, this is a clear sign that the fear has merely been used as legal tender in exchange for an egocentric promise. The most monstrous atrocities imaginable can be committed by any fearless “religious” person who has traded his/her capacity to feel “involved in mankind,” for whom the bell tolling for another does not toll for thee.
This is why the final part of Martin Toler’s words seemed to move me the most, and complete for me the sense of a man getting ready to leave this world: “I love you.” Sometimes the simplest words say the most.
The AP article that included the note quoted his brother as saying Mr. Toler was “a very religious man,” and I have no doubt that he was well acquainted with “the other side” of which he wrote. Did Martin Toler intend to write just to his family and friends, maybe the members of his church or his community? Probably. But that is the funny thing about words –once we speak or write them, they are beyond our control, and we have no idea the myriad ways they will be gathered and spread from here to who knows where: by the media, by the internet, by legend, etc. Jesus of Nazareth opens his mouth in Palestine 2000 years ago, and speaks to a hundred million people reading an adaptation of His words on a Sunday morning. Martin Toler Jr. writes his last will and testament on scrap of paper in his pocket, and touches the heart of a simple truck driver making his rounds in the Susquehanna Valley.
So never doubt the importance of what your last words will be –and never forget that any words you say or write could be your last. One day the bell will toll for thee. Be ready: know that it already does.
Martin Toler Jr., brother, I will see you on the other side too…..
* “Oxygen is the ultimate toxin,” says Michael Trush, a toxicologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Oxygen combines with food to produce energy, but our bodies also produce oxygen radicals—atoms with an extra electron that damage biomolecules, DNA, proteins, and lipids. “We are oxidizing all the time,” says Trush. “The biochemical price of breathing is aging.” Which is to say, we rust.” –Cathy Newman, “Pick Your Poison: 12 Toxic Tales, via National Geographic