Death Wish? Not even close

Note the missing helmet

When it comes to living on the edge — extreme sports, extreme living, leading the way in innovation and exploration — there’s usually an element of risk, even life-threatening danger involved. People like to say folks who push the limit have a death wish. They may be right at times, but on a deeper level, I think they’re wrong.

It’s more like a Life Wish – an intense desire to live life to the absolute utmost and take the human experience to places it’s never been before. Plenty of us live on the edge – out on the front lines of human experience where the everyday is simply not enough to keep us going. There must be more. Surely, there must be more.

And it’s not just us. Our whole society is in love with that kind of mindset – the ones who push the envelope, who take human experience places it has never been before, who show others what is possible and how it can be done. Indeed, when was the last time you heard anyone celebrated for doing the same thing everyone else is doing — just more reliably and predictably and with less variation than anyone else?

People want to be woken up — all across the board. And those of us who live on the edge probably need it more than most.

So, why do we need it?

I have my theories. I believe that some of us have more  of a need for the edge, because life has thrown us a bunch of curve-balls over the course of our lives — maybe our lives are a living, breathing curve-ball. And dealing with it all can be overwhelming and defeating. Day after day of confusion and frustration and being treated like you’re less-than, because you are different, and having but faint and fleeting moments of clarity in a world that will not stop and wait for you… it takes a toll. Whether you’re dealing with dyslexia or ADD or ADHD or some other neurological or medical issue… TBI after-effects, PTSD, old wounds from trauma that just won’t go away… it takes a toll.

The one way you can get relief is sometimes to take up an activity that forces you into the moment with such urgency, that you cannot spare a moment’s attention on anything else except for Here And Now. You can block out the static. You can shut out the noises. You can silence the voices in your head that tell you you’re wrong, you’re bad, you’re worthless, you’re lazy, you’re pathetic, you’re a waste of breath, you’re a disappointment, you’re a good-for-nothing whatever.  And you can just BE. Right then and there. As you are. As things are. As you wish they always were.

And whether you’re riding a snowboard or skiing or paddling or running or flying or driving or working like a mad person, you’re not in the midst of the crazies. You’re not stuck with that herd of nay-sayers who never cut you a break. You’re either alone with your own mind and body, living what’s in front of you — and ONLY what’s in front of you. Or you’re with your friends who find the same solace as you in that kind of activity.

People who say extreme/action sports athletes have a death wish, simply don’t understand. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they don’t care. Whatever. I guess the reason I’m thinking about this, is that the label “risk-taker” dehumanizes people who live on the edge and puts us in a category — a category that makes us seem like we’re not worth saving. It’s a category that makes our eagerness to push the limits look like blind foolhardiness, rather than a real love of life — and a very real need to relieve the pain of our everyday lives.

Not only does it devalue this basic human need, but it also misses the point – and I don’t know how many lives have been ruined or lost, because people don’t “get” the nature of extreme risk-taking, when they’re helping someone who’s been injured. This is the point that gets me the most – and how many lives have been trashed needlessly because of it? People try to reform risk-takers and danger-seekers, by treating them like they’re self-destructive individuals who are addicted to the adrenaline rush.They dismiss the need for speed, or they talk about it in psychological terms — when it’s really a physiological and soul-level issue.

Now, it very well may be a self-destructive addiction in some cases, but look beneath, and see what the larger need is — relief from the pain, activation of certain circuits in the brain, analgesic stress to numb the anguish of living every day in a world that does not make room for you. Why not look at that need as a valid thing? Everyone needs to ease the pain of their existence, in one way or another. Risk-taking and extreme danger-seeking are just variations on what everyone does, to some extent or another.

And what it brings… well, that’s pure sweetness on a whole different level. When it works out, of course. When it doesn’t work out, that’s a completely different ball of wax. That’s when you get hurt. That’s when you get really, really hurt. Seriously injured. Sometimes permanently. Sometimes dead.

And then loved-ones and caregivers gather around the survivors of the crashes, hoping to wean them off their “addiction” to the adrenaline rush, and convince them they have something else to live for.

In the process, a valuable opportunity is lost — a chance to see what’s really going on, and find another way to address it. The real work is not to find a way to do away with the rewards of speed and danger, but to replace them with similar rewards that do the same thing for your brain and your body that danger-seeking does. Asking someone who is in serious pain and confusion on a daily basis to get rid of the very thing that gives them a sense of actually being alive makes them believe they are human… well, that’s a little unkind. It’s well-intentioned, most likely, but it misses the point.

The point is not to get rid of extreme experiences and stop that kind of behavior entirely. The point is to recognize the important role that extreme sports and danger-seeking plays in stabilizing someone who’s “all over the map”… and then find another way to achieve those same effects and experience those same rewards, without putting yourself in unavoidable harm’s way. It’s not about decrying and getting rid of extreme sports. It’s about listening to the messages that risk-taking send out — and no, it’s NOT self-destruction and addiction — and then doing something with that information to find a way that doesn’t end up in a mangled pile of flesh and splintered bone at the bottom of a mountain gorge… or splattering your brains all over the bottom of a half-pipe.

This is important. I really believe lives depend on recognizing the true nature of risk-taking and extreme sports. And the longer we take to understand this, the more peril we’ll stay in.


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