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Becoming possessed by Nut, the ancient Egyptian goddess of the sky, led to a sudden flash of understanding.
Warning: the following article discusses depression and suicidal ideation.
For a brief time in my life, I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy.
I was part of the first wave of servicemen who deployed for what became known as Operation Desert Shield. The biggest concern I had back then was not the deployment itself but rather being there for the birth of my son, who, by that point, was long overdue. The biggest concern for his mother was that by the time our son would be born, I would be long gone. With all the talk that had been going on in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait—the prospect of biological and chemical warfare—there were no guarantees that anyone deployed would not be at risk of not coming home. So, at her request, he was induced just so that I could hold him and then say goodbye. Hours later, I deployed.
The way I had left them behind stuck with me. In the brief moments I would have for sleep, I would feel the pain of being away from them, only being able to hold my son and his mother in my dreams. And when I would wake up, I would wake up in a panic from being torn apart from them again, waking to the feeling that I was just an expendable pawn in a game of chess being played by world leaders. Then came the moment when I had stopped dreaming about them and instead would find myself dreaming of working as if I had never gone to sleep.
Not even in dreams could I find my peace.
I prayed to God to make me numb and to save me from the soul-crushing depression that, one night, pushed me to take the precious opportunity I had for sleep and use it to go topside instead. I stood along the railing of the ship. I looked at the dark waters stirring below and thought that maybe my family would be better off without me. It would be better for them to collect any death benefits they would be owed than for me to come back broken, which I feared the deployment would do. I began to think that the excruciating pain would all go away if I were to just throw myself overboard. The feeling of drowning would be brief and passing, and it would be done, and I would be more than numb.
The impulse was instant, and what held me back from fully tossing myself over was the memory of my son opening his eyes to look at me for the first time, the memory of cutting the cord just after he was born, and the look in his mother’s eyes, filled with not only tears but also joy that together we had created this beautiful child.
I pushed myself away from the railing and, instead of going to my rack, I volunteered to take the time left over for my friend’s watch in the combat information center. I didn’t want those intrusive thoughts to get to me again, pushing me once more to go topside and stare at the darkness in the waters below.
I would fight the feeling every night until the day came when we were given permission to sail away from our area of patrol and head to Hurghada, Egypt, for reprovisioning. While there, we were to be granted a break from the frantic pace that had everyone feeling the same way as I was, but for their own personal reasons.
During our shore leave, we were given the opportunity to take a tour of Luxor—the site of Ancient Thebes. Before sunrise that day, those of us who had signed up boarded charter buses and were escorted by Egyptian security forces through the vast expanse of desert with mountainous backdrops and into the lush green area along the Nile River. By late morning, we had arrived. Once there, our tour group boarded a ferry and then another bus that took us into the Valley of Kings.
Our guide led us into the one tomb that was open for us to explore: Ramesses VI.
As we made our descent, the guide pointed out the graffiti that had been scratched and scrawled in Greek and Latin lettering by soldiers serving in ancient armies—men like us who were part of another foreign force. I had begun to imagine what these soldiers may have been feeling at the time. Were they thinking of the families they had left behind? The deeper we made our descent, the more I felt we were traveling back in time, with more etching and scrawling until, at the bottom of the passage, we entered the burial chamber and looked up at the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.
A bright and colorful painting of Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky, stretched from one end of the ceiling to the other.
With all the stress and fear in my life at the time, along with my day-in, day-out routine where I battled, with everything in me, the pain of being away from my newborn son—away from his mother, who I knew was battling postpartum depression and desperately needed my help—to see this sight of the sky goddess painted with such vibrant colors that I could see her moving, for the first time in my life, I understood my place in the universe.
With this sudden flash of understanding—this satori—all the pain of my separation from my family—all the depression that pushed me to almost throw myself overboard—meant nothing, nothing at all! For everyone, problems come and go, and we are born into the world and we will pass from the world, but the deeply immense beauty of this painting of Nut, the sky goddess, will exist for thousands more years, and for a brief second, I grasped the enormity of what eternity truly means.
Since then, whenever I think of that moment, I think of Teresa of Avila and her words.
Let nothing trouble you,
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains everything.
God alone is enough.
Later that evening, at dusk, our group returned to Luxor and entered the Temple of Karnak. We were surrounded by Scandinavian tourists, all looking up with us at how the temple’s high pillars rose above us, with tons of stone slabs resting atop the pillars, seemingly floating above us. Then, the call to prayer sounded, the muffled voice filling the air.
It was the first time in my life I had ever heard the Adhan.
In hearing it—and in looking at the wide, open smiles and bright eyes of all the tourists around me, their faces darkened by the night—and in having that sudden flash of understanding from looking at the sky goddess still twisting in my heart, the muffled and melodious call to pray cracked open my soul, and out poured all this love.
Suddenly, I was in ecstasy, where I wanted nothing more in the world—more than to be home with my son and his mother—more than I wanted to be away from the ship and my anger and fear—than to kneel and show my devotion to Love—to God, and only God—and surrender.
I don’t remember anything else after that. I don’t remember the journey back to Hurghada or coming back to the ship. Looking back upon that memory, it feels like the experience consumed everything else of that evening.
Days later, we were underway once again. I could no longer work the way I was able to before, with the full focus the deployment demanded of me. I was still in ecstasy. At night, instead of choosing to sleep, I would go topside, to the highest point I could get on the ship, and I would lay flat against the rough deck to look at the night sky. In looking up, I felt connected, knowing that under these same stars, billions of other human beings were like me, with their own joys and sorrows, with their own lives, with their own problems and struggles, and with their own triumphs. I was not alone!
I would continue to look up at the bright and colorful Milky Way Galaxy, stretching from horizon to horizon, and see Nut, the sky goddess, stretched out just the same as I had seen in the tomb.
It had not been long before that moment that I had wanted to throw myself overboard. But now I was drunk from the sudden understanding of life—from the sensation—and I wanted to live now more than ever. I wanted everything in me to make use of this summons from the universe to live, and in answering the call, I was determined to seethe and burn while living it.
So much has happened since then that’s not worth getting into, other than to say that my worst fears at the time did come true. I was injured not once, but twice. My son’s mother left me. Because of the PTSD stemming from my injuries, I struggled to connect with my son and with everyone else for the most part until I was able to, through writing, experience that flash of understanding I had gained from my visit to the Valley of Kings—to Thebes. This is why, in my older age, I live near the vast night skies of New Mexico and West Texas. Every time I need to be reminded of the eternal, especially when the PTSD becomes so severe that I begin to feel as though I want to toss myself over into the darkness of death and end the pain, I make my drive out there and feel the relief of my smallness when compared to the night.1
If I am small, then my problems are smaller, and so is the pain felt from my PTSD-fueled nightmares, and I would become happy again.
And that is what I am now at this moment, with the coming anniversary of an Alive Day.
To see how I have used this experience to make the vast night sky an important element in my work, check out my novel, The Beautiful World of the Alive, now available in ebook and paperback on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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If you’re in need of help, please reach out and dial 988 or 1-800-273-8255, so that you may live to fight another day. I promise you, your life means everything to me and to the people around you who love you. Don’t give up!