Death is the great equalizer, and neither wealth nor fame can alter our final destiny. We are but temporary caretakers of this world, stewarding what has been handed down to us in order that we may pass it along to future generations. Thus I especially appreciate the anonymous tissue donation to replace and reconstruct the torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) from my left knee.The operation to repair my knee with leftovers from a cadaver is an astonishing and somewhat morbidly fascinating miracle of modern medicine. I will never know who provided my new ACL or how they died, only that they were generous enough to allow themselves to be picked over for spare parts to help the living.
The surgeon repurposed a patellar tendon (connected to the knee cap), with a plug of bone at each end, to serve as a new ACL inside my knee. The tissue was frozen to -70F to destroy any living material that might be rejected and attacked by my immune system, making me the inheritor of a wholly dead, yet fully functional tendon. The doctor adjusted the tension with a permanent screw, so that the tendon (and my knee) would be neither too tight nor too loose.Firmly secured in place, the tendon is immediately functional, even though it takes about six weeks for the bone plugs to fully fuse with my own bones, and a good deal of physical therapy before I am out hiking hundreds of miles again. Blood vessels will slowly repopulate the tendon, theoretically repairing and replacing it cell by cell until there might eventually be no trace of the donor tendon. With arthroscopic surgery, using small instruments and cameras, there are only a few small incisions on the outside of my knee, and minimal scarring. It is a gift I hope to honor and pass forward by doing my best to make a positive difference in this world for others.
For better or worse, the temporary nature of life was deeply impressed upon me by the death of my father when I was twelve years old. Death became my “constant companion,” as Carlos Castaneda described it in his books about the teachings of Don Juan. Normal people seemed absurdly complacent, content to work meaningless jobs and fill idle time with hollow conversations about sports, celebrities, and television. Yet none of it seemed particularly important against the reality that death was poised to strike its final blow at any moment.Life is short — a few orbits around the sun, and its over. I learned to measure the importance of any potential course of action against the knowledge that death was stalking me, that there was limited time to act. Moreover, I saw that there was nothing in this world that I could take with me. In the annals of time, the individual self is dust in the wind, a short-term investment that inevitably and literally goes belly-up. Worthwhile actions, therefore, must necessarily reach beyond the self in the service of others. I have strived to pay it forward ever since, although it may not always seem that way from an outside perspective.
On the surface, many aspects of my life may seem self-indulgent and self-absorbed. I live in a nice house. I keep my office up to date with recently new computers. My name is blazoned across my books, videos, and hundreds of web pages. And I am frequently in the news, usually because I call reporters and invite them to come write a story about whatever project I happen to be working on. Yet, from my perspective, the self is never the end goal, but rather the means or tool towards the broader goal of making a positive contribution to the world.For example, when I undertook construction of my home twenty-five years ago, I sought to demonstrate that adopting a green lifestyle could be more economical than following a traditional route. I wanted to show that it was still possible to live the American Dream – to own a nice home without a mortgage — and to do so in a more-or-less green and sustainable manner. I wanted to avoid getting stuck in an uninspiring job and working the rest of my life to make rent or mortgage payments, and I needed a quality place to live, rest, and recover in my efforts to make the world a better place. Thus my home is, and always has been, a tool for me to serve others, and that is my approach to just about everything I do in life. I cannot claim to be overly successful in making a significant positive difference in the world, but that is the goal that motivates me in just about every aspect of life, from exploring alternative building methods to writing books, working on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, or teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to kids.
In terms of my knee, the gift I received will once again enable me to play, run, and engage in wildlife stalking games with kids in our Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) programs for public schools, and it will allow me to undertake backcountry adventures with young adults who seek a more intimate connection with nature. Above all, it will facilitate my being fit and healthy to continue working to make a better future for our beleaguered planet.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps none of it really matters. We are but one insignificant planet in the far reaches of an insignificant galaxy, out of hundreds of millions of galaxies, each one containing hundreds of millions of stars. A few more loops around the sun, and myself and everyone alive today will be maggot fodder. Kids seldom know the names of their great grandparents or anything about them, and even the work of architects and authors typically disappears after a few decades or centuries. Marble headstones on graves are but passing blips against the tick-tock of time.
Everything we do, good, bad, or indifferent, will be utterly forgotten in the not too distant future. Time will continue to march forward. Tectonic plates will inch around the world, making new continents. Our sun will slowly burn up its fuel supply and eventually swell to become a red giant, consuming our planet and everything on it. We will one day be reduced to stardust, just as we were stardust once before. And maybe that’s the point.The self is but a temporary illusion that masks the greater truth that we are all in this together. The hydrogen and helium that made up the early stars fused together to make the heavier elements that were blown across space and time to build new stars, new planets, new life, and our very bones, muscles, and skin. We are as much a part of the Heavens as this cadaver graft is part of me, is becoming me, is me, and in a cosmic sense, always was me. When we peer through the telescope to the ends of the Universe, we ultimately see ourselves. We are not mere passengers along for the ride, we are the Universe looking at itself. We are all One.
Our individual lives are intrinsically insignificant, except possibly in terms of this grand experiment called life, the living Universe, evolving, growing, learning, and perhaps becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. When we look beyond ourselves, we contribute towards a greater universal understanding and perhaps a Universal consciousness. At a time when life is imperiled on our planet as never before, it is more important than ever that we all work towards making a positive difference to pass the gift of life along to future generations.
Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit and numerous other books.
Challenge your preconceptions about reality:
Roadmap to Reality
This video shows an ACL reconstruction using an allograft or cadaver tendon, very similar to the surgery that was preformed on my knee. However, it is sped up to compress the entire surgery into just a few minutes, making it look like they are wildly and carelessly cutting, drilling, and operating on the patient. I am thankful that I did not watch this or any other surgery videos ahead of my own surgery!