On November 29, 2010, at around 7:30 in the morning, at the age of 39, I found myself in an ambulance thinking I might have suffered a stroke. Roughly half an hour earlier, I had temporarily lost control of my arm and begun slurring my speech. I later described to a doctor in the emergency room that it had been as if I had a 1999 robotic arm that would not quite respond to my commands properly. It would move but at odd stochastic angles. In a jerky manner my arm would eventually, and only with great mental effort, reach its goal. It was one of the oddest bodily sensations I have ever had. There was me. And there was my arm, mine and yet not mine, proprioceptively separated into a dual self. After suspicions of some form of seizure, a CAT scan and MRI confirmed my fears. My brain had indeed been injured by an ischemic stroke.
But as I still lay there in that ambulance confronted with uncertainties, the sun shone in on my face through the back window of the ambulance. It was a warm autumn sun. Suddenly I found myself softly saying, "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun". I said it slowly over and over again. I imagined traveling so close to that ball of plasma that I could see its prominences ejecting into the corona. The sky was a clear morning blue. "It's alright. There are 8 minutes between here and the Sun".
Was I praying in that moment? We've heard of people claiming to be atheists to suddenly find themselves in divine prayer when confronted with existential uncertainty. I consider myself a strong agnostic. That is to say, I have determined for myself the undeterminability of a compassionate supreme and necessary being. In that moment, I do not feel as if I abandoned that position. And what I said to myself was in no way petitionary. I was not asking something greater than myself for mercy. But I seem to have willed a connection to something far less transient than my mere being. Even if that will was just directed at my concept of the Sun, its presence was immediate and very real. I had chosen to focus on my extended knowledge of that sensation of bright warmth, our majestic Sun without which life, as it is, would not exist.
8 minutes and 19 seconds. That's how long time a ray of sunlight will travel through spacetime before it illuminates our lifeworld. And 8 minutes, give or take a few, is how long the brain can usually be without oxygen before the damage becomes irreversible. A coincidental fact? I certainly had no scientific thoughts about my brains deprivations and irreversible damage in that moment. But I did feel vulnerable. And so I focused on that comforting feeling when sun rays strike your face through a pane of glass. I felt connected. And more excepting of my transience which had been brought to the surface. Was this an act of agnostic worship?
But then again, it's alright. There are, after all, 8 minutes between here and the Sun.