My client is facing trial for stabbing a rival gang member. In court, his neck tattoos and gang colors do him no good. Since he was the only other person at the scene besides the victim, he must testify on his own behalf; he is the only one who knows that he was defending himself.
This man almost bled to death in a prior incident involving the alleged victim.
The judge calls a recess midway through his testimony. I enter the holding cell to see how he’s doing before the jury enters the courtroom and the judge takes the bench. This man who has come within moments of death is shaking like a leaf at the prospect of making 12 white suburban dwellers believe his side of story.
Moments before the jury enters, I make an offhand remark within earshot of the district attorney that my client is a little nervous.
The district attorney snorts. “Didn’t your client almost die that one time? How is testifying scarier than that?”
I wished that I had responded with the following:
You’ve put me in a strange position. I have two options for answering your question. I could choose to explain to you why testifying is so frightening to my client. That would require me to spell out how the people in that jury box have never and will never walk in his shoes.
It might be easier for me to explain why death is comparatively less frightening.
I don’t pretend to have any knowledge of what happens after we die. No one has died and then returned to describe it for us. What I do know is that none of us were around for the 15 billion years or so before we were born. Stars formed, and their heat and energy created every atom of carbon, iron, and oxygen in our bodies. Those stars exploded, and the remnants formed into mellower, yellower stars. The remainder of that remainder formed planets. One of these planets had enough of that stuff sitting on its surface for life to form. And at the apex of this unfathomable process sits you, playing on your iPhone in boredom and annoyance, and I, hanging out with one of society’s untouchables and considering his temporal future with him.
So what I’m getting at is that as all this stuff is happening in the yawning abyss of space, neither of us were existing. The experience didn’t seem to hurt us any. I have no traumatic memories from my ponderous eons of non-existence.
I imagine that what happens after you die is very similar; I say this because this is my only frame of reference. And regardless of whatever happens after death, that “whatever” goes on forever. For eternity. For comparison, 15 billion years cannot even suck the distant after-vapors of eternity as it passes. Whatever death is, it is infinite. And so as my client lay crumpled against a lamppost those months ago after your alleged victim punctured his lung, and as his vision narrowed into tunnels as the ambulance screamed up the street, he caught one of the first glimpses that a person gets of the infinite before tumbling into its maw.
When you see the infinite, you see how everything else means very little in comparison. It is only when the marvels of medical science pull one back into the world of the living that one goes back to caring about his phone, his chain, his colors, his gang, his dope, or any of the pointless, transient things that preoccupy the blip of time between chasms of nothingness that we call “life.”
And that is why my client felt less fear as he was dying than he now feels at the hands of this jury. Death waits to welcome us all with open arms. That jury, holding the fate of his future, looks at him with fear and disgust. Can you imagine anything worse?