Strange Blessings(This is a companion piece to my book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)
When I was 19 years old, I was shot by a man with a gun. It was on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, about 1:30 a.m. on a night in May. At the time I was walking from my friend's home near the campus to the Greyhound bus station downtown.
Too bad I couldn't afford a taxi. My backpack was heavy, I was already sleepy, and the trek was a long one. I had to catch a bus to Philadelphia, which was scheduled to leave at 2:30.
I had just passed Baldwin Auditorium at the north end of the campus and was behind the Brown Residence Hall when two strange men stepped out from behind a van. They were both holding shotguns, and stood less than twenty feet away. One spoke to me. "Do you know where Baldwin Auditorium is?" he asked. I was almost frozen with fear, but somehow managed to turn away from them, preparing to depart in a hurry.
The next thing I knew, I heard a bang, then felt a whoosh of tiny missiles rushing into my body at the top rear part of my right thigh.
I knew I was in trouble. Would they shoot again? My questionable strategy was to fall down on the ground and pretend I was dead. I hoped they would think they had finished me off and see no need to pump me full of more rounds.
Unfortunately, I collapsed in such a way that I could not see them. I lay there in a heap, not knowing their next move. Were they coming closer so as to empty their shotguns into me, or were they fleeing the scene? In the meantime, I worked hard to act like a dead man, trying to betray no motion. It was almost impossible to keep from shivering or avoid taking big deep breaths.
After a few minutes, I couldn't stand the suspense. Were they still nearby? I pulled up my head and upper body to look around. To my relief, they seemed to be gone.
I rose to my feet, feeling the excruciating sting in my thigh and seeing the blood ripple out through my jeans. To my surprise, despite the pain, I was able to drag myself along the ground. In a few minutes, I had managed to make my way to the front door of the Brown dormitory, where a security guard was on 24-hour duty.
"I hate to alarm you," I told her, "but I've just been shot."
She called 911, and soon an ambulance was hauling me away to the hospital.
With the help of X-rays, my doctor determined that 43 shotgun pellets had lodged in my flesh. They had narrowly missed a major artery, and my life wasn't in danger. Still, the doc thought that if he operated to remove them, he'd risk causing more damage than if he left them in. That's why, to this day, I'm carrying lots of extra metal in my body.
The recovery time was lengthy. The suffering, even with painkillers, was extreme. It was months before I could walk right again.
Besides my physical well-being, the other major casualty of the mysterious shooting was my long-term dream for the future. For months before the unexpected detour, I had been planning to relocate myself to Northern California. Working as a janitor in a community center and then as a post office employee, I had saved up enough money to migrate across country and start a new life.
But after the assault, I had to bail out of that vision. I was in no condition to travel, let alone do much of anything else. Besides, I was deeply depressed and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I was in no mood to launch the grand adventure I had been fantasizing about.
Eventually, I recovered from the shock of my wounds, and resumed my pursuit of destiny. But my life path was forever changed. Being denied my dream of California at age 19, I was led to numerous adventures on the East Coast and in Europe.
It would be more than seven years before I got back on track with my original dream and moved to Northern California. At the age of 27, I finally arrived in the place that has been my home ever since.
Fast forward to the present time.
When the original version of my book Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia came out, I did a book tour. Among my stops was Durham, North Carolina, where my beloved body had received the ghastly delivery of 43 shotgun pellets.
As I drove into town in my rented car, I was struck by a challenging question: If I really believed in the ideas I describe in my book, then I should be able to discern some element of pronoia in my shooting. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I wanted to practice what I preached, it was my duty to identify the blessings that had come my way because of the terrible event.
Having a couple of hours free before my appearance at Durham's Regulator Bookshop, I took myself to the scene of the crime. I drove to Duke University and sat down in the grass behind Brown dormitory, exactly where I had been attacked years ago. "What were the pronoaic blessings that life brought me through the shooting?" I asked the wind and the trees and the sun.
What they told me would take an entire book to explain in full, so I will just briefly summarize here.
Because of the shooting and its consequences, including the detours in my life plans, all these wonderful things happened for me:
1. I met one of my main mentors and friends, who eventually became the publisher of my books.
2. I met two incredible women with whom I fell in love. They influenced me in a thousand inspirational ways that still benefit me to this day.
3. I unexpectedly and accidentally started a music career, which has turned out to be one of the great joys of my life.
4. I spent many years in North Carolina, where I got a deep immersion in African-American culture -- a transformative experience that has been essential to my work as a musician, performer, and writer.
5. I traveled extensively in Europe.
This pivotal series of events in my life helps explain my idiosyncratic understanding of pronoia: that life is an endless source of blessings working in unpredictable ways.
This understanding can't be summed up in a few words -- it took me 400 pages in my book -- but you can hear a pithy condensation of the message in my spoken-word piece, Shadow Blessings.
P.S. The pain I experienced in this particular case ultimately delivered blessings that I could understand and appreciate. But that's not true about all the pain I've experienced. A lot of my suffering remains mysterious to me. Why, Lord, why?
If you're interested, the following pieces from my book also address the issues in "How Was My Gunshot Wound a Blessing":
How Pronoia Works
Too Soon to Tell
The Pronoia of Darfur
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