Storytelling at Work
August 15, 2020
Down to the Very Last Breath


Now that I am 74 and increasingly realizing, in my bones and my joints, that I am mortal, I would like to take the next few minutes, if I may, to share, just a little bit, about the preciousness of life -- something I've always sensed, but didn't know, for sure, until the moment I almost died at 21.

Looking back to that time, 53 years ago, beyond the massive trauma of it all, I understand, now, what a great gift I was given, tough love from the universe, shock therapy for the soul.

I will spare you the back story and just cut to the chase.

Caught in a rip tide, I was drowning. I was going down for the third time, gulping water as I climbed an invisible ladder to nowhere, gasping. My strength was gone, completely sapped. I had nothing in the tank. Nothing. At that moment -- only one thing was clear. I was just about to die. This was the end.

As that realization entered what was left of my mind, I looked to the shore and read the epitaph a stranger would write: "You will die here and people will remember you as the person who died here." That was it -- my entire life reduced to a single sentence -- me a cautionary tale on the back pages of the local newspaper.


As I looked to the shore, unhinged, I heard a word I had never heard before in a language I did not know, volcanic, pristine, pure, as if the earth, itself, had a voice.

"EXISTALZ! EXISTALZ!" it exclaimed, symphonic in its resonance -- my life, or what passed for my life up to this point, nothing more than a cartoon.

Only this moment was real. Only. This. Moment -- the one that would soon be my last, every cell in my body awake. What a joke! What a joke! And it was on me! Never before I had been so alive, so conscious, so completely awake, and it was all about to end.

And then? A moment I will never forget, one I will never be able to explain or honor from the sacred place from which it emerged -- a moment that brings tears to my eyes, here, now, as I write these words to you. Something took me over completely -- something far beyond who I knew myself to be -- something absolutely primal and all powerful. If infused me. It shook me, took me, gave me life, breathed me, pulled the strings that moved my arms and legs. I was not aware of it. I had no mind, no thoughts, no plan, no sense of where I was or where I was going. I had nothing, nothing at all. But something had me.

When I opened my eyes, I found myself in water only three feet deep. And so I stood, as if for the first time, and when I did, I stumbled to the shore and screamed the only word I knew. "HELP! HELP! HELP!" And why? Because the friend of mine who I'd been swimming with was still out there, alone... or so I thought.

"HELP! HELP! HELP!" I screamed again.

But there was no one on the beach, no one. I was all alone. It was just me... and the sky...and the sand... and the void.

And then... appearing from who knows where, I see a young woman slowly walking towards me. "HELP! HELP!" I scream in her direction and point to the ocean. But no one is there. No one. Just waves and foam and a lone seagull overhead.

In that moment... in that stark, brutal, incomprehensible, irreducible moment, I died a thousand deaths. Yes, I was alive, but my friend was gone. How could this be?

And then? We saw her head above water. That's when the young woman standing next to me and her boyfriend dove in and pulled her out, alive.

For the next two hours, we could not speak. All we could do was kiss the ground and sing children's songs: Happy Birthday to You... Jingle Bells... Row Row Row Your Boat and whatever else we could remember. That's it. That's all we did. Sing.

As the sun went down, we made our way back to the car and began slowly driving home. Three minutes later, we saw three hitchhikers by the side of the road and stopped to let them in. As they entered, they were complaining, letting us know they had just walked a mile, on this beautiful summer day, without a ride.

Speechless. We were speechless. We had nothing to say. Not a word.

Upon returning home, I made a vow I would never, ever, for the rest of my life, complain about anything -- that I would live the rest of my days in total gratitude, happy for simply breath alone. And that, my friend, is exactly what happened. For the next three days, I lived in a state of absolute grace and gratitude for everything in my life. The air. The breeze. The birds. The ground. The trees. My arms. My friends. The sky. My breath. And everything in between.

And then? On the fourth day of my God-intoxicated state, right after breakfast, I walked outside and noticed that the front right tire of my car was flat. I kicked it. I punched the air. I cursed. That's when I understood just how much work I still had to do to close the gap between my vows and the realization of just how sacred this life truly is. Every. Single. Breath.


Photo #1: Ian Espinosa, Unsplash
Photo #2: Li Yang, Unsplash
Storytelling for the Revolution

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at August 15, 2020 02:10 AM


Thanks Mitch, I too when I was 21, 46 years ago, had a near-death experience of nearly drowning in Maracas Beach in Trinidad only that when I stood up I was fighting to breathe because I swallowed water down the wrong track and I was flailing my arms in a cry for help trying to scream to the numerous people that were on the beach but only anguish I was able to emit till after about 20 or 30 seconds which felt like a lifetime the surge of air came in or went out and I gained my wherewithal. No one even noticed me in my distress and so I just walked up on the beach and sat on my towel among my friends and this is the first time I am telling what happened on that scary day.

Posted by: Chris [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2020 01:26 PM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
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Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
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Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
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Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
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If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
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When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.