The Danger Line“I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.” -C.S. Lewis
Danger is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as : “Liability or exposure to harm or injury; the condition of being exposed to the chance of evil; risk, peril”
Every human being is exposed every single day to risk and peril, harm and injury. This danger dons various guises. We breathe defiled air, drink polluted water, and eat adulterated food. We could be hit by a train, electrocuted by our toaster, maimed in a plane crash, assaulted, or choke on a cupcake while texting and driving with our head out the sunroof of our bald-tired car.
Added to this are increasing numbers of people who chose to put themselves in danger for recreational purposes. Such pursuit of thrill ranges from bull-running in Pamplona to BASE jumping in New Zealand. The intent of this analysis is not to impugn any particular sport or activity, but rather, to examine the attitudes and cultural perceptions which inform and influence risk-motivated behavior.
Brash self-endangerment is lauded in certain circles as evidence of fearlessness, bravery, and love of life. Every new obituary for such prematurely deceased enthusiasts is peppered with adulatory phrases such as, “lived life to the full”, “was not afraid to dream”, “followed their passion”, etc. What I can’t help noticing is the consistent use of verbs in the past tense. Perhaps these people could have “gone after life with a vengeance” for quite a while longer if only they had exercised better judgement.
Many other people, in contrast, choose (or perhaps fail to not choose), to drift with the indolent current, going from couch to refrigerator to work to bed to chair to ripe-old-age grave with not a whiff of excitement or variety. They never step outside of the societally-conditioned box. Their obituaries are larded with terms like “family man”, “upstanding citizen”, “worked at Smiths Bank and Trust for 47 years”, and so on. A theme of banality is evident. Maybe they lived long, but did they enjoy the process?
Can a balance be found? Is it possible to live as a responsible adult without vacationing in Boringville and being a staid cardboard cutout? Can a person be a gusto-ripened action seeker without bequeathing his corporeal heat to an early grave?
I believe that the answer is “Yes”!
Recognizing The Line
Part of the key to staying alive while being an active participant in life is to see the Danger Line clearly. What is the Danger Line? It is the individually determined limit beyond which one is flirting with Death rather than going steady with Life. It is the line which, when crossed, makes Thrill a twisted conveyance of dismemberment, paralysis, and grief.
I have not always been good at respecting and staying on the right side of the line. As a young man in my early 20’s I used to ski off 40′ cliffs and huck back-flips on skis off of excessively large jumps. Foolishly, I once free-climbed a cliff in the Adirondacks while wearing dress shoes and a tie. (I also had on pants and a shirt.) I made my wife and friends very unhappy with me when I fell while trying to down-climb a precipitous decline above the Pöllat River near Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. The list could go on: Swimming in a shark infested ocean with a foot streaming blood, skiing off-piste in the Austrian alps, etc.
What was I thinking? The answer is that I wasn’t; adrenaline was doing the thinking for me. Despite my deep respect for life, I allowed thrill to supplant reason. The above mentioned examples all occurred before the ready availability (perhaps even advent) of YouTube, GoPro cameras, and the entire culture that has sprung up around the glorification of risk.
Now, in addition to the inherent personality type and hormone-charged motivators toward extreme behavior, we contend with a video-clip fueled culture of ignorance and competition. The danger-glorifying media riffs on the trite and asinine “be yourself-do your own thing- live your life the way you want to-don’t be a follower” dogma that could make a rebel out of June Cleaver. This un-original advertising technique sells energy drinks and makes scrawny teenagers feel macho, but lacks substance and intelligence. If everybody is a radical thrill-seeking rebel iconoclast, then, really, nobody is; get it?
I vividly remember an article which appeared in a skiing magazine that I used to subscribe to in the early 1990’s. It talked about two men, Trevor Petersen and Eric Pehota, extreme-skiing gods of the late 80’s and 90’s. They pioneered climb/ski routes on rugged peaks and were the type of super-cool outdoor people that I looked up to. The article stated that they “lived and breathed” the backcountry and noted that Petersen even named his daughter after a type of glacial snow, Névé.
I thought it was beautiful. The name, the ethic, the drive.
Then, in 1996, Trevor Petersen died in an avalanche while skiing in Chamonix, France.“It’s like anything, you push for it in an extreme sport and eventually you’re going to get bit. There comes a time in your life when you back off, move on, and do other things.” – Eric Pehota, interviewed in 2012 by Outside Magazine
Judgementalism is not the point. Petersen’s death, along with the deaths of John Bachar, Alex Lowe, and many others in the mountain god pantheon, made me think more deeply about my choices. Update, January, 2016: Add Henry Worsley and Dean Potter to the list of departed.
The Safe(r) Side
As has already been noted, not all risk in life can be eliminated. It can, however, be mitigated. I think about my wife, my mom, dad, brother, and friends whenever the old adrenaline fueled sense of recklessness whispers in my ear. Respect for life makes me say, “No, thanks!”
This does not, however, preclude adventure, exploration, curiosity or even a reasonable measure of thrill. The people who die doing what they love are on to something. Life should be a playground, a wonder-filled romp that fills us with awe and reverence for the Creator! How can one encounter that awesomeness without stepping out onto the limb of a new experience?
Society is a beast of snarling extremes. Out of one corner of it’s mouth, it urges us with ribald abandon to throw ourselves off the cliff while out of the other it whispers: “Sit placidly on the couch of convention and let life dribble out of the corner of your mouth”. Don’t listen! Be a real individual, one of those radical dissenters who makes sensible, informed decisions based on knowledge and inherent intellectual capacity.
I have learned that exhilaration can be had without extreme risk. A slope that is tame on alpine ski equipment can be a real challenge on lightweight cross-country gear. There is nothing “sissy” about looking before leaping. Beauty can make my heart pound just as much as danger did.
I still fill my lungs with mountain-cold adventure wind and seek the hidden places where the rope runs out; now, though, I try to do it with the blinding beauty of life and limb at the top of my bucket list.
True, ‘the bright forest, warm water, and sweet love’ are not unaccompanied by danger. It is life, however, that makes the sensation of sweetness able to be enjoyed. By all means, then, Live!Share your thoughts! Are you a reformed thrillist? a still addicted adrenaline junkie? a couch potato who longs for adventure? Tell us all about it!