All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day
Recently, I spent a fine summer afternoon hanging out with a couple of young friends. One of them is an occasional motorcyclist and the other is not. During a bit of that discussion, we touched on crashes and near-crashes and the odds that getting into serious trouble on a motorcycle are pretty high. Nick, the non-rider, asked, “So, is it worth it? If you are that likely to crash and get hurt, why do it?”
Risk-taking has a bad rap these days, and some of that is for good reason. Bankers, investment brokers, real estate speculators, and the rest of the Vegas gamblers who play with the public’s money as if it were a child’s toy are a waste of air. They reminded us that hanging out on the edge of sanity is something less than sane. We didn’t learn that lesson well enough to accurately apply discipline where it is needed, but we did become more conservative/timid/terrified-of-the-future. That move has been a highlight of failed empires since humans started writing down the steps taken before the barbarians stormed the walls and we all went back to banging the rocks together to make music.
Combine our general decline in courage with a brand new phenomena my wife likes to call “old parents” and we’re raising a generation of kids who think buying an Android-based smartphone instead of a safe-but-expensive iPhone is risk-taking. These fearful geriatric “helicopter parents” are responsible for the collection of pseudo-psychological maladies used to excuse bad manners, poor work ethic, and an education system too terrified to fail even the worst slackers. These low-flying hovering parents think a skinned knee is cause for both medical intervention and systemic overhaul of every playground, school activity, and television program within the two block range their child is allowed to venture. It’s also true that the average age of the American parent is increasing and there are some biological reasons why that might not be good news, especially for over-35 men and women. The Genetic Literacy Library summarizes this problem, “As more children are born to older parents, increasing numbers of babies are at higher risk for a range of health problems, many with a genetic basis and possibly resulting from epigenetic changes—functional changes that are generated in the DNA as a product of longevity and environmental interactions.” So, we’re a nation of declining health and growing conservatism. In other words, we’re afraid of everything other than sending other peoples’ kids to war. Ideally, other people we don’t know. Shades of China, Greece, Rome, Denmark, Spain, England, and every other Empire Gone Bad.
The first part of taking physical risk is physical activity and even the fattest of us knows that physical activity is crucial to good health. The advantages of taking on physical risk is less well known. Freud, that famous couch-potato, sex-deviant, thought that any sort of adventure was evidence of an “innate human death drive.” His years of smoking cigars eventually led to cancer of the mouth followed by a successful plea to his own kid for assisted suicide, so his death-drive-drivel was probably just self-diagnosing. More rational psychological studies have found that nature has built in significant biological rewards for risk taking. Endorphins and adrenaline crank out chemicals that give athletes and daredevils a “high” similar to sexual activity. Our hearts speed up and become more efficient, our minds focus, our respiratory system kicks into high gear, and the bio-chemical response to peak moments of excitement can’t be matched any other way. Afterwards, we relax and more fully appreciate our everyday life.
Of course, some people get nothing but terror out of almost any kind of risk and they have no way to empathize with any of this. To them, taking physical risks is just crazy and inconceivable. Couple that with all of the characteristics of old parents and it’s easy to understand how we “progress’ to a conservative state deluded into believing that creating an economically inequitable, unsustainable, always-on-the-edge-of-disaster economy is a rational substitute for actually showing some courage occasionally. This produces stress and stress does not provide the same positive effects as physical risk. They might feel similar to those unused to a physical life, but they aren’t.
In the film, Moto 4: The Movie, desert racer Kurt Caselli says, ” Do one thing every day that scares you, live your life on the edge. It makes you feel good . . . and alive” Watch him race across the desert, full of life, on the edge, doing what most of his generation thinks they are doing when they play video games and you will immediately know why we do this crazy thing. In the same movie, WORCS champ Taylor Robert said, “For me, it’s my escape to life.” For some humans, there is no other way to get this far sideways and getting sideways is absolutely necessary.
My least favorite thing about getting old is the growing fear of getting hurt and not being able to recover. It makes me appreciate how the rest of the world spent their lives in terror of getting hurt, afraid of taking real chances, worrying about every little thing so they do no big things their entire lives. Life kills us all. Sooner or later, you will be nothing but a memory, if you’re lucky. Would you rather be John Glenn, the Marine combat aviator and test pilot who was the first American to orbit the planet or John Glenn, the man who slipped on a bathroom rug and might have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair or worse from that incident? I know from experience that some pretty boring activities (like working on my house or yard) can result in some awful injuries. “I’d rather be shot out of a cannon than squeezed out of a tube.” With all of that in mind and a lifetime of injuries from bicycling, contact sports, household chores, motorcycle racing and adventure touring, I can easily say, it was absolutely worth it and still is. Thanks for asking.