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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Petty

011 Embracing Mystery, When to Call It a Day, and What Matters Most

Lessons From an Astonishing Life-After-Death Story


Imagine that you died and came back to life. How would it change the way you lived?

My guest for this episode doesn't have to imagine it. This is the first time that Joe Harsel has shared his story publicly, and if you let it, his story has the power to radically transform how you live. You’ll learn what Joe sees differently, does differently, how he thinks differently, and how he uses gift cards differently. Yep, gift cards. Death seems to change just about everything.

Meet Joe Harsel

I met Joe when I was in high school, almost 30 years ago. He was a leader in Young Life, a Christian ministry to teenagers. Outwardly, I was somewhat of a golden child--athletic, academically gifted, well-behaved, and respectful. Inwardly, though, it was a very different story. Joe came alongside me at this critical time in my life and began to help connect my insides with my outsides, so to speak. I share more about how his investment in my life made a difference in the full episode.

A clear theme emerges when you look closely at Joe's life--no matter which of several different professional chapters you examine: a commitment to investing in and serving others. Joe is a perennial optimist, an exuberant fan of everyone he comes alongside, a devoted husband and father, and someone to whom hundreds owe a deep debt of gratitude--including yours truly. Joe and his wife, Carol, live in Baltimore, MD, and have four grown sons.

Fine One Minute…

...dead the next. That’s what happened to Joe three years ago, as he walked up to his son’s swim meet.

A friend said hi, and Joe collapsed headlong--upright and breathing one moment and prostrate with no measurable vitals the next.

Remarkably, a man just a few feet to his side was the Maryland state trainer for municipal EMS. He immediately got his medical bag from his car and began CPR. For more than 30 minutes, Joe received CPR, shots of epinephrine, and multiple shocks with a defibrillator--all to no avail. In fact, onlookers said that Joe began to look dead--his skin turning a grayer color and his body cooling.

Carol was riding her bike to the swim meet when she got the call that Joe had collapsed. Friends began to send texts and call others with the tragic news that Joe had died.

Remarkably, just 24 hours earlier, Joe had gotten a good report from his doctor: blood pressure down, cholesterol down, weight down. Everything looked good.

Fine one minute. Dead the next.

Dead One Minute...

...and alive the next.

Unbelievably--against all odds--as the ambulance pulled up to the hospital, Joe came back to life.

For more than 30 minutes, he had no measurable signs of life, all of the definitive signs of death, and none of the prolonged efforts to revive him had ANY measurable effect. And yet there he was--alert and talking.

What Happened??

The medical term for what Joe experienced is “sudden cardiac death”--in other words, the heart suddenly and catastrophically stops working. This is different from a heart attack, in which case a blockage prevents blood from reaching the heart. Only 6% of sudden cardiac death victims recover, and most of those have significant neurological impairments upon recovery because of oxygen deprivation. In addition to being an odds-buster simply because he revived, Joe’s case is even more remarkable because he has very little, if any, lingering problems from the episode. He did have a stint put in to address an occluded “widow-maker” vessel and a defibrillator implanted in the event of another episode. It wasn’t totally clear sailing after the episode, but he was ALIVE.

What word would you use to describe Joe’s experience? Miracle? Anomaly?

Embracing Mystery and Other Lessons

Shortly after Joe’s remarkable recovery, he and Carol agreed that they wouldn’t push to understand or explain what had happened right away. That they would instead embrace the mystery of his experience. This is a key takeaway from Joe’s story for all of us. Life has moments of mystery that defy all of our abilities to define, explain, categorize, or analyze--despite our best efforts and most earnest desires to understand. Life is simply wilder and the list of possible woes and tragedies much longer than we want to acknowledge. (The list of wonderful possibilities is also longer than we usually acknowledge, too, BTW!) Joe and Carol have grown more comfortable with the discomfort of NOT understanding. This, in my opinion, demonstrates a humility in the face of a terrifying experience that all of us can stand to learn from and integrate more into our own lives.

If Joe’s story teaches us anything, it’s that some things in life defy our every attempt to understand them. And attempting to explain them is a desperate bid to regain a sense of control where, in fact, we have very little--if any.

How comfortable are you with mystery in your life? Or do you demand that everything has its place, its category, its explanation? Challenge yourself to open up to life’s Mystery. This relationship with Life aligns much better with the reality of Life and builds your courage muscles in the process. See Life’s wildness with your eyes wide open...and live!

Other key takeaways include:

  • Relationships matter most. Many people immediately began to travel to Baltimore when they heard that Joe had died--not knowing that they would arrive to instead find him alive! Rather than attending Joe’s funeral, they had a visit with him in-person. And Joe basically received a sort of verbal obituary from these folks. They recounted the many ways that he had impacted their lives and expressed their deep gratitude. As he had more of these visits, Joe realized that thankfully, his life had been well-lived and well-invested up until then. In fact, he realized that had his life ended then, he would have been pleased with the life he lived. All because of the relationships he’d invested in and made a priority his whole life. Today, relationships are all that much more important to Joe. Any time he has a chance to come alongside someone--especially someone he’s already invested in--Joe seizes the opportunity. And if there’s any solace in the face of life’s terrifying unpredictability--its defiance of our attempts to create A + B = C formulas for living--it’s to be found in the comfort and safety of meaningful relationships with others. And it’s in that context that the wildness and mystery of life can be experienced and honored without it doing us in.

  • Be okay with calling it a day. Today, Joe is much quicker to call it a day if he’s simply losing steam--trusting that the next day will bring fresh energy and insight. And, Joe asserts, it’s pretty much always the case. My takeaway from this is simply to trust yourself--what your heart, mind, and body are telling you. Loosen your white-knuckled grip on productivity, and live to fight another day.

  • Stay laser-focused on the here-and-now. Joe’s new awareness of the wildness and unpredictability of life--the list of possible woes and tragedies that are possible has grown much longer--has led him to become hyper-focused on the here-and-now. It is, after all, all we’ve got. The past is history, the future is anybody’s guess. But right now? That’s real.

  • And more...Tune in to the full episode to capture all of what Joe’s story has to offer you. There’s a lot more.

We’re All Going To Die. But Are You Living?

It’s not often that we have the chance to learn what matters most in life from someone who actually came back from the dead. What part of Joe’s story will you allow to change your life? We don’t need to live in fear of Death. But, let’s not try to ignore or avoid it, either. Instead, let’s wake up, acknowledge that it’s coming, and do what we can today to become the person we were made to be and live the lives we were made to live.

You are the One and Only You! There never has been nor will there ever be another human exactly like you. You matter. Your life matters. Your time on this blue and green cosmic marble we call Earth matters.

You ARE going to die. But you’re not dead yet. So get after it!

Feeling Motivated? Strike While the Iron’s Hot.

My purpose as a coach is to help you discover, enjoy, and deploy your unique purpose in the world. Connect with me on Facebook or learn more on my website. I'll help you create the life you know you were made to live.

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Connect With Joe

If You Liked This Episode, I Think You’ll Appreciate These, Too…

Remember: You ARE going to die. But you’re not dead yet! Become the person you were made to be, and live the life you were made to live.

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