Dec 15, 2022 • 20M

“I was shot with two arrows — first in my stomach, second in my chest — by a man in the depths of the jungle.”

An essay from my friend Matt about why, every June 19, he celebrates his death day.

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Note: this podcast contains coarse language — if you’re listening with the kids in the car, maybe drop the audio down for a few seconds at the 7’28” mark.

Hi,

If you’ve been here for a while, you probably know by now that I bang on about death from time to time.

It’s an arrangement I’ve been unhappy with — this whole dying thing — for years. My fear of death is hardly unique, and I think I probably got mine growing up in a religion that promised me an afterlife. I think it’s fair to say when that idea left me, I found the idea of a final ending to this whole “life” thing unfair, worrying and stressful.

In other words: I had the selfish human response of “I deserve more! More time! More experiences! Me! Me! Me!”. Like a toddler throwing a tantrum, screaming at the injustice of it all.

And so one of my earliest Webworm newsletters was about this visceral fear, something I’d seen reflected in an excellent TV show called Devs.

I explored the topic more, interviewing a hospice nurse who cared for people as they neared death.

I became fascinated with Elon Musk’s Neuralink and its promise of one day giving humankind an artificial afterlife (pity Elon is awful, deranged, and an expert on selling empty dreams). And Hayden Donnell fired shots back at my rambling in a piece called How the f**k are you still alive?

“How many of our industries, religions, and cultural values are run at least in part by this engine of existential dread? There’s the bad: billionaires trying to create a monument to themselves by blasting off to space in a series of metal phalluses. Influencers selling eternal youth in the form of weird goops. A collection of loathsome despots, from Donald Trump to Mark Zuckerberg, heading up their utopian movements.”

But through all of this talk of death, one person kept creeping back into my mind: Matt Scheurich.

I met Matt years ago — probably decades ago, now — in what feels like an entirely different life. We met in New Zealand when I was an entertainment reporter for TV3 — I’d interviewed him about a creative project he was involved in.

But there was another story I wanted Matt to tell. Because (and forgive the drama here, but it’s fucking dramatic) he’d come face to face with death, and lived to tell the tale.

And not just any death — a visceral, confronting, totally fucking bonkers one. One that made him confront this thing I feel utterly terrified of.

For a variety of reasons, he’s never told this story before. Those reasons are his own, but I imagine they were a combination of having a very busy life, and his story being incredibly traumatic.

But as 2022 prepares to close, he responded to my recent “nag” with this:

Tbh I think about it a lot

And then the next day, I got this:

Over the following week, we went back and forth, and got to what you’re about to read. I am so glad to be able to publish this, as it helped me, and it might help you too.

I’ve read it out as a podcast if your eyes are sore. See you in the comments.

David.


Death Day

by Matt Scheurich.

PNG jungle

My first life-defining moment of death was staring at what looked like a porcelain doll with flaking red paint on its lips. A friend of the family had lost a newborn, and my mother brought my sisters and I to the funeral. The placid porcelain nature of the face is my most enduring memory of that event, along with reading Where’s Wally on a bed.

I gotta commend my Mom for bringing us there, as otherwise we’d have a generally uneventful experience of death in our family — it was only about 5 years ago that my grandpa died, so it was really only when I was in my mid-30s that I experienced the death of a loved one firsthand (not counting two very near and dear pets).

When younger I had a morbid fear of death. I remember having vivid visions of someone jumping out of the bush at night and shooting me. Ha! As if that’d ever happen.

Growing up, the nightly news was a sandwich of placid feel-good stories and whatever morbid murders or kidnappings were happening at the time. TV shows and movies dripped with blood, and let’s not bother to mention video games, those peddlers of casual recreational death.

New Zealand culture forked British and US culture. We were (and still are) drenched with the “Wilhelm Scream” concept of death as comical scream screen filler; or the Inspector Morse/CSI abundance of death as part of the daily grind’s foibles and plot motivators.

Experiencing the near-death of oneself is actually very different, and I can confirm it changed my outlook on life.

Every year I celebrate June 19 as my death day. It was when I was shot with two arrows — first in my stomach, second in my chest — by a man in the depths of the Papua New Guinean jungle, and subsequently the day I accepted my death. 

Looking down at the first arrow in my stomach was a surreal experience. Pulling out the arrow was instinctual and visceral (don’t worry, the arrowheads were not barbed — they’re shaped like a long thin leaf, designed to cut major arteries of wild pigs so they bled to death quickly). Receiving another in the chest soon after the first was 1000 times worse than whatever happened before. Where did these arrows come from? And who was firing them at me?

Then a guy came out of the bush with a third arrow poised to finish the job. It was hell on Earth. I saw death, but it didn’t end there.  My (ex) girlfriend, who was a PhD anthropology student doing her fieldwork research (why the hell else was I in Papua New Guinea?!), wrestled the bow and arrow off him (seriously, she saved my life multiple times, this is count one). With steely, lifeless pre-meditated murder eyes he then pulled out a machete and raised it as he murderously advanced towards me. Smartly, she ran away (count two of saving my life, and I’ll tell you why soon).

I was only in my swimming shorts in a wide river with a stone bed, but I said to myself “I ain’t going down without a fight” and feebly picked up a stone and threw it at him. He did the most comical dodge-spin-twirl, no doubt amped on his own supply of adrenaline. I chuckled internally at death’s dance.

Lobbing the stone had used up my last bars of energy, and I fell into the shallow water, exhausted but still conscious. He reciprocated and threw a stone at me, and — I’ve really gotta hand it to him here — hit me square on the side of my head. He then ran after the girl, because really she was who he was after (that’s why it’s count two). I was just a soft, fleshy obstacle, now out of the way for him to go claim his trophy bride.

I lay in the river reflecting on the moment’s trauma, figuring this was the end. Two large lacerations, likely internal bleeding, head walloped by river stone, probable concussion. If I was really unlucky the evil giardia or whatever from the river water making its way into my perforated meat bag.

I lay in that water thinking about and saying aloud my last words:

I love my family and friends.

Life is poetry.” (Don’t worry, I’m rolling my eyes too, but it meant something at the time.)

Fuck you Francis Neobia, you CUNT.” (I met him the day before, I knew his name, I can confirm he is an absolute fucking cunt.)

I love my family and friends.

There I accepted my inevitable death, but that lizard brain in me was still holding on to material thoughts: I wanted my own family — wife, children — and to live to a grand ol’ age and have a positive impact on the world and the people around me. I clung on to those thoughts as I imagined (because I didn’t want to look!) ribbons of red streaming from the new ventilation that had been forcibly installed.

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Eventually I had accumulated enough spirit to get out of the water. I walked to my bag, got out my towel and then placed it between my knees and chest in an almost prayer-like position. One would think that in these moments one’s life would flash before them, but I just grieved my future, lamented brushing away my sister’s concern for my life (“what if you die?” “I could easily die crossing the street or just being in a car!” Sorry for being so flippant, Jess), closed my eyes, and focused on breathing.

There was a distinct lack of visiting deities, visions of angels, clouds parting, steps leading up (or down…) — none of that malarky whatsoever. Maybe I didn’t get as close to death as I thought — no euphoria, nor tunnel of light.

There did come a moment of clarity, though: I got a warm comforting sense that everything will be OK. Not sure why I thought that — eventually I’d learn my stomach was perforated, my right lung collapsed to a third of its size, and the end of my pancreas was snipped off and leaking digestive enzymes into my abdomen — but hey, in that moment I thought “I’m gonna be fine!

People eventually found their way to me thanks to my girlfriend (count 3). She’d had a supremely harrowing experience escaping him and getting back to the village where we were staying. It involved crushing his balls at a traumatic-yet-opportune point and using the opportunity to run away. 

When she got back to the village, she activated her emergency beacon, and her Dad over in France got a message and called the French Embassy in PNG where they arranged a medical evacuation by light aircraft. With luck, the spot where we were attacked was at the end of a runway, so they moved me closer (oh god, the pain) and we waited. When the flying doctors arrived, they bundled me and her in. Once on the plane and in safe hands I lost consciousness.

When I woke up, I was on a wheeled bed before surgery. They put me under and when I opened my eyes again I woke in a hospital bed with a tube plugged into my right lung, and pirate stitches criss-crossing my stomach and chest. I was informed we were in a town called Kiunga — coincidentally the place we were intending to travel to before the attack, and double-coincidentally exactly the same place my grandmother had spent some years doing a Catholic mission.

Matt lifting his shirt up after surgery, showing his three scars - they are long and pretty brutal.
The biggest scar in the middle is where they cut me open to clean my guts. I’ve never shown this photo to anyone, nor have I seen it myself since it was taken.

Every time I think about my death now, I find it somewhat comforting, yet wholly unremarkable. Whether I go now or later, the outcome will be the same — I just hope it is not when I’m on the toilet.

I no longer have the bland superficial cartoon preconceptions of death I had pre-arrow’d — I have a forever traumatic experience of its potential. Let’s just remember that life is an indifferent motherfucking struggle full of suffering — and I’m saying that as a bleeding heart optimist.

Death is, at the end of a life, a chance for dear sweet rest and relaxation. Death is both happy and sad. Death deserves more credit and less stigma. It is the great equaliser. A bookend. It comes for us all, yadda yadda yadda.

My simplified Cliff Notes feelings on the matter is that anyone who denies death denies life.

Countless religions, as well as other spiritual and mystical fun and games like the Tarot, interpret death as a time for change. When I reflect on my younger self, my fear of death was just a fear of losing control mixed in with fear of something I didn’t understand. What a terrible and miserable existence I was leading. 

Additionally, I was drowning in an exploitative capitalist culture trap — a mind-yoke of workin’ 9-to-9 job career LinkedIn personal brand bullshit drudge, and going to Papua New Guinea was the unconscious part of myself trying to break free of my programming; to go somewhere that I didn’t know much about, in an attempt to change myself and try to exist in the world rather than within the restricted confines of my mind.

Through my combined PNG and nearish-death experience, I think I learned that the ego and its need for control and dominance has to be set aside, or somehow diminished or lowered, to make oneself more receptive to external experiences outside one’s perception and knowledge. I saw my ego has a defense mechanism to rationalise and justify ad nauseam, and poison experiences with banal thoughts — alas, the curse of “intelligence”. 

It took these combined experiences to learn that it pays to be dumb, stupid, ignorant, and to not understand in certain moments. I can now better turn off the internal yapping-mechanic-ego-dog doing flips in my brain, and better tune into the world around me.

I’ve now had 11 good years where the fear of death doesn’t cloud my mind. It was maybe not so much a near-physical death, but a high-fiving of Death which led to a notable ego death, allowing me to now focus more on living rather than not dying.

Don’t get me started on the trauma of post-arrow’d life, trying to finagle myself back into a deeply corrupt and exploitative society. The six weeks in two different Australian hospitals was a deeper, more profoundly twisted trauma than the incident itself. The challenge of navigating and guiding everyone else’s understanding of what I went through while trying to process it myself. Fending off incorrect and wildly fantastical news articles then having to begrudgingly acquiesce to some form of media exposure.

For at least six years, Google search results of my name (hello prospective employers!) ensured inquisitive minds.

The worst was being exposed to people’s fantastical elaborations of my experience and the entrenched collective stupidity of stereotypes, racism, sexism, and a piss-warm cocktail of other undesirable-isms. 

Initial news reports said a male scientist was attacked. No, I’m a graphic designer and web developer. She is the scientist. That I stood in the way of arrows to save her? No, at minimum she wrestled an arrow off him to save me (one of many times she saved me). No, it wasn’t a tribe who attacked us, just one stupid crazy man. No, the arrows were not poisoned, nor were the arrows barbed.

Headline: "Speared and Clubbed as he saved his girlfriend"
Article published in Cairns Post, 29 June 2011, saying I’m the scientist and she’s just a girlfriend, whom I saved 🤷‍♀️

People fill in the gaps based on their experiences and fantasies because they want the illusion of understanding.

I realise this is the same place religion and spirituality comes from. Making up stories is not understanding — it’s at best entertainment. But on a deeper level it’s probably coping mechanisms for not dealing well with unknowns. Callous societies like ours, who often regard “undeveloped” countries as “savage” or “shit-holes”, have a tendency to hold antiquated and dehumanising viewpoints of other people and places.

Before I went to PNG I had similar views, but I never consciously realised it until I was there unlearning them based on the reality I had before me. A lot of the time these simplistic views are just absorbed by cultural osmosis. A chance encounter with two privileged white Australian missionaries in Tari made me realise that even when confronted with reality people distort perception to suit their beliefs, or rather in their case, assert their feelings of superiority. Intelligence is a one-word oxymoron.

They’re not wild tribespeople out there. They’re just people living their normal lives in a different context. They all want safety, comfort, education, health and basic amenities for themselves and their children: Average life expectancy is around 40 to 50 years old, if they’re lucky.

Death for them is a familiar and matter-of-fact part of life.

Matt standing with some PNG locals, posing to camera.
We had lots of fun out there, but it is a very very very hard life, especially for a sheltered pissant white city computer boi like me.
Smiling and pointing to food - a crayfish
These guys were awesome, they knew all the good food spots in the jungle. They whipped out snorkels and dived to get crayfish and we ate like kings.
Kids posing happily with a soccer ball
We played lots of soccer, it was grand.
A croc ready to be cooked for dinner
One of my first dinners in the jungle. I got lucky – it’s not often they eat this. The jungle is a hard place to live, sometimes they go for weeks with no meat. Farming pigs, gardening and foraging is extraordinarily important. Their main staple foods out there are bananas and the Saksak (Sago) tree, which takes 20 years to grow before you can harvest it.

As I mentioned already, we met our attacker-to-be and his wife the night before. We learned months later this man was put on local trial some time before for raping a pregnant woman within the community. After the attack, it took PNG authorities six months to jail him, but then he was let out after three months due to having friends and family in high places in Port Moresby. He was then employed as a security guard for an oil excavation project. There are a lot of these projects in PNG, and they are irreparably destroying the land, making it unfit for the people there to live off.

There are dangerous people who have no scruples everywhere, living some deep dark existence out in the open — obviously I’m talking about the people who own and run oil companies and who work for British tabloids. 

It takes strong people to be gentle and kind and care about others. After my attack, I became hyper-sensitive to others’ trauma. Watching the nightly news interviewing shocked people at scenes of horrible incidents cut my soul too deeply.

What happened to me was actually nothing personal — just wrong time, wrong place, crazy man. It still took me at least 10 months to deal with it enough to try to operate in society again. I greatly appreciate all the friends and family who let me be the mess I was, and I don’t talk anymore to the ones who pressured me into “getting over myself” or said things like “get a job and don’t live off the benefit”. Bitch, I caught two fucking arrows in my person, I can’t fucking operate normally right now. 

I forgive the nameless WINZ worker who tried to pressure me (likely due to systemic management pressures), but I don’t forgive my doctor uncle who tried to get my Mom to tell me I needed to get a job because he disagreed with my viewpoint that I needed to take some time out to reassemble my life — which involved being on the sickness benefit. I was already so twisted by the negative connotations of being on the sickness benefit that I put off applying for months.

What is my point? Death is. It comes, it goes. We’re all part of the cycle — the wheel turns. Death paves the way for others to occupy the same space. It allows for change to occur. Hardships exist, death happens, hardship is freed. Love, happiness, sadness and suffering are all equally nullified by death. Death is indifferent. I hope and pray that it is absolute.

Is there an afterlife? Shit, I’m still trying to figure out “life”. I am morally against an afterlife, as I couldn’t think of a worse torture than to live forever. Give me peace of death… eventually.

Some say “everything after 80 is gravy”, but the reality is if you’re still here whether you’re 1, 5, 15, 51, healthy or terminal — you’re one of the lucky ones and you’ve got the chance to do something right now. Each passing day, month and year I appreciate that I am still in the world. Give me all the grey hair, wrinkles, aching bones — I’m still here!

Given what I've experienced, I’d say microdosing acid or mushrooms

can constitute a similar ego death experience (or what I used to call a “meeting my creator” moment) that might help unlock your perception enough to where you feel the core of your beautiful and rich insignificance.

Tripping some balls out in a beautiful nature spot surrounded by people you love and respect helps to drop your ego out for a minute and yield your measly pallid existence to capital L-I-F-E, because keeping up this illusion of control is fucking taxing and preventing a lot of people from experiencing the world outside themselves.

It was a considerably better experience than two arrows in the thorax, a rock to the head, and PTSD.

-Matt Scheurich.


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David here again.

I don’t really have anything I could possibly add to this. Let’s chat it out in the comments — I’m incredibly curious about your reaction to this, and how it lines up with mine.

I’d also like to say thanks again to everyone who submitted questions to the Q&A over the weekend. I really loved answering a bunch of them in the podcast. It was fun.

Talk soon,

David.

PS: You can share this if you like — it’s webworm.co/p/bownarrow.

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Not everyone can and should do this, and taking psychedelics has a risk. If you’ve not done it before and you want to try, take a very small amount first and make sure you’re surrounded by good people (this podcast has an interesting component about psychedelics if you want to learn more).