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Falling Skies

Screen shot 2015-11-16 at 12_44_36 PMThe death of any young person is tragic, and all the more tragic when unnecessary.  In today’s world where sensory-gratification is king and accountability is unknown, few question the wisdom of jumping out of an airplane for kicks, especially when the chances of anything going awry are so small.

But those odds assert themselves eventually, as they did last month in Acampo, California.  The two young men who lost their lives were jumping about an hour’s drive from where I jumped myself almost four decades ago.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  But I’ve come to reconsider, as I explain in this essay from 1999, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Middle age has finally arrived,” I said to myself as I confronted a life insurance application form for the first time ever. But as I filled in the blanks and checked off the boxes, I suddenly paused, suspended between youth and old age, as I read and reread one question midway through the form: Have you ever been skydiving?

I consider myself an honest person, so I found myself in the midst of a moral struggle as I contemplated how I should answer. The reasoning behind the question seemed obvious: why should any business gamble a quarter of a million dollars on the life of someone foolish enough to jump out of an airplane?

The way I figured it, however, there are three reasonable explanations why an otherwise sane person would do such a thing.

One, as in the case of former President George Bush, to save his life when his plane has been hit by enemy fire in WWII.

Two, also as in the case of George Bush celebrating his 75th birthday, when one is winding down his life and figures he hasn’t much of it left to lose anyway.

And three, as in my own case, when one is not yet sufficiently mature to appreciate that his life is far too precious a thing to be thrown casually out of an open hatch at 3000 feet.

Barring any of these three excuses, an insurer would be entirely justified in refusing coverage or inflating charges. But why, since I now regard jumping from an airplane as ample cause for mandatory psychiatric observation, should I be burdened with doubled insurance premiums because of a momentary lapse in good sense when I was half my present age?

As it turned out, I went with a different company, one whose application phrased the question this way: “Have you been skydiving in the last ten years?” That’s much more fair, I think.

Of course, insurance companies may just be looking for excuses to jack up their prices. After all, compared to BASE jumping, ice climbing, and other extreme sports, skydiving is positively run of the mill. Could George Bush, a former president of the United States, former director of the CIA, and former member of the NRA, be so completely off-the-wall? (Never mind that the poor former first lady could hardly bear to watch her husband’s escapades.)

Indeed, my diving instructor (whose name was also George) told us repeatedly: “Skydiving is no riskier than crossing the street!”

George isn’t alive any more. He wasn’t killed crossing the street, either.

Cool-Skydiving-Desktop-Wallpaper-With-Sunset-ViewAs a 19-year-old undergraduate still looking for a major course of study, life seemed to have little to offer me except cheap thrills. If something would go wrong, and I would splatter against the plowed earth of the Sacramento valley, well, what was the point of being alive if I didn’t experience all life had to offer?It goes without saying that children of all ages will be drawn like moths to the fire of every kind of sensory stimuli. It is our job as responsible adults to shield them from the flames of both real danger or virtual thrills, to gently prod them along the road to wisdom by exposing them to more rewarding and enduring highs than those brought on by adrenaline rush.

In the same way that chomping on spearmint gum deadens the palate to the subtle complexities of fine food and wine, the instant gratification of putting one’s life at risk may, in the end, kill off any hope of ever savoring the subtle joys of maturity, even if those dangerous pastimes do not themselves prove fatal.

The Talmud offers the following insight into human nature: “If someone says, ‘I struggled but did not achieve,’ don’t believe him; if he says, ‘I achieved without struggle,’ don’t believe him; but if he says, ‘I struggled and achieved,’ believe him.”

The Talmud goes beyond the simple axiom that there is no sense of accomplishment without exertion. It tells us that exertion and effort will inevitably produce a sense of accomplishment. And unlike the transient high produced by LSD, PCP, or any contrived brush with danger, the sense of accomplishment produced by struggle will not vanish into nothingness, leaving behind an emotional void or the anguish of physical or psychological withdrawal. It will endure, and spur us on to greater struggles and greater accomplishments.

Without intellectual effort, we would never graduate from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, from Marvel Comics to Monet, or from music videos to Mozart. Without psychological effort we would never learn the practical skills to succeed professionally or the interpersonal skills to succeed as spouses and parents and friends and neighbors. Without effort we would never learn to appreciate the small, subtle pleasures life has to offer because we would be ever waiting impatiently for the next emotional quick-fix.

Acquired taste is accessible to the young. As parents, we must not shy away from the challenge of inculcating patience and prudence in our children. Through persistent effort we can teach them that cultivating a taste for the more refined pleasures of life is not so hard, no harder really than falling out of an airplane.

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