Monday, September 04, 2006

Tragically fearless.

By now you've heard that Steve Irwin is dead. Irwin, of course, was the moppy-haired, wacky and irascible but oddly lovable "Crocodile Hunter" who catapulted to international celebrity after the Discovery Network picked up his offbeat show in the mid-90s. Irwin was also, above all, fearless. So fearless that he took a fair amount of heat in 2004 for pulling a Michael Jackson-like stunt, baiting a croc from a distance of just a few feet while he held his infant son in his arms (photo). One could even say it was Irwin's fearlessness that killed him Monday, Australia time, as he swam among a group of stingrays off the Great Barrier Reef. One of the animals stung him, piercing his heart.

You can probably intuit where I'm going with this, and I don't want to be accused of manipulating Steve Irwin's death for self-serving purposes. I'm just making a point that I've tried to make many times in this blog, but that has never been more clear-cut, or more chillingly so, than in this case: The body is a physical, biological entity, and has physical, biological matter how fearless, how confident, you are. The most confident person in the world--if he wanders too close to a stingray--can die. It should be obvious from that truth that there are lesser physical and factual limitations that are just as fixed and immutable as the vulnerability to a stingray. The most confident tennis player in the world can be beaten by a less confident opponent with a better serve. The most fearless golfer in the world can be undone by a day on which his own physical skills fail him, or even a day on which a gust of wind comes out of nowhere and nudges his make-or-break putt away from the pin. The most determined, upwardly mobile employee can fail to make the progress he expects in his career if the external circumstances just aren't right.

The Tony Robbinses, Dr. Phils and Tommy Lasordas cannot enable you to do what you do not have the physical capacity to do (no more than they could've saved Steve Irwin from that stingray). In fact, they may give you the false confidence that brings you too close to the stingray in the first place.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -

On the one hand, I agree with your assessment that confidence and sheer will cannot compensate for skill or eliminate the variables that can have a dramatic effect upon one's life. I've seen bravado cut down in an instant, both on the battlefield and on motorcycle runs along challenging roads (and freeways!). No matter how strong one's will to succeed, the potential for failure always exits.

On the other hand, all the skill in the world is little more than unrealized potential until the individual exerts his or her will to apply those skills. I've seen combat soldiers who were so timid that they would shun any perceived danger, and motorcyclists who would never push what they felt to be safe limits. On the battlefield, such timid individuals are a genuine liability, both to military objectives, and to the safety of their fellow combatants. On the road, the timid rider misses out on a sense of exhiliration that can only be experienced when one tests the limits of their abilities against the laws of physics.

It is the individual's determination, bolstered by some sense of invincibility, that drives them to truly test their skill and see just what they are capable of doing. The individual might be aware of the fact that experience comes only with a mixture of successes and failures; they just don't use the failures to justify abandoning their quest for success.

As in all things, balance is essential. In any endeavor, I would prefer to be accompanied by someone who is aware of their limitations, yet is willing to stretch beyond them, toward a level of achievement previously unreached.

Steve Erwin had incredible skills in dealing with a dangerous world. It was not a lack of skill that ended his life, and it certainly wasn't a lack of confidence, either. He had both, in abundance. And because he had both, he lived his life fully, and it is that fulness that has endeared him to so many. Very few people attain real mastery of skills, and fewer still approach life with the confidence and assuredness that he exuded. But it is those very qualities that we would do well to hold up as models for ourselves, for by doing so, we aspire to live our fullest potential. Not to live beyond our capabilities are, but to fully realize those capabilities and experience all that life has to offer. Even if, by doing so, our lives are shortened somewhat.

To paraphrase the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, "Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body,
but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, and shouting "Holy s**t......What a ride!"

Cosmic Connie said...

As the Rev said, balance is essential. The trick is to find a balance between confidence and overconfidence or even foolhardiness. Steve Irwin made a bad choice that cost him his life, but, as many have said and will say, he died doing what he loved. And that's a lot better than living a cloistered life, ruled by fears.

I remember how aggravated I got at my mom when I was growing up and going through all of my teenage moods. I've always been a bit of a cynic and pessimist (probably wired that way, LOL), and it irritated me to hear my mom continually repeat cliches such as, "Think positive!" Yet, as much as I love her, I have to say she was never a role model for positive thinking, for she was and is full of fears and worries. Even today she always has a reason I shouldn't do something even remotely adventuresome or out of the ordinary. Even a mention that the Rev and I went out on a short motorcycle ride (with full armor and helmets, as we always do) will get her started on a motorcycle safety lecture. She has one opinion about motorcycle safety: Stay off of motorcycles, period. :-)

Yep, there has to be a balance. I'm still trying to reach it, but I do know that the answers probably don't lie in a Dr. Phil book or a Tony Robbins seminar.

RevRon's Rants said...

According to the news reports, it wasn't so much a bad choice as bad luck - a freak accident. But to some, perhaps his very vocation & passion constituted a bad choice!

Anonymous said...

At least Steve Erwin was fully aware of the risks he was taking, as opposed to some poor fool who signs up for a firewalking seminar or that idiot who killed himself and his girlfriend "communing" with grizzlies. Disaster can find us all so easily even if we don't seek it--a car wreck, a riding accident, a storm. But for those who DO seek it--the racecar drivers, the mountain climbers, the skydivers, the thrill-seekers of all types and stripes--well, I just always wonder what's so dull about this glorious life, which God knows is brief enough as it is, that makes an early death such an attractive option?

RevRon's Rants said...

I think that passion is the key element in choosing what would be considered a dangerous lifestyle. Some people live their lives in pursuit of order and security, while others follow a different hunger that yearns for something beyond the safety of a set routine.

This is not to imply that one is inherently better than the other; on the contrary, these polar opposites must coexist in tension with each other. Were all humans guided by passion, the human race would face chaos and eventual extinction. By the same token, were all guided by the muse of security, humanity would stagnate. As in all things, it is the balance afforded by this exquisite tension that simultaneously sustains us and leads us forward to greater insights and growth.

It was Irwin's passion - and a confidence reinforced by a lifetime of experiences - that placed him in the situation that ended his life. I suspect that living a life that denied him the opportunity to follow that passion would have, to him, been worse than the death that he did not seek, but did not fear, either.

Another element is the individual's perception of control. Some people seek out a lifestyle in which they are able to predict what is going to happen at any given point, while others breathlessly await a surprise at every turn. To the order-oriented individual, the variables beyond their control represent danger, to be avoided at any cost. These people see their opposites as foolhardy risk-takers. To the individual who welcomes the unknown, even fear becomes little more than a signpost, indicating that he or she is about to embark upon something new and exciting. To this person, control is folly, and the only constant they recognize is change.

Naturally, very few individuals fit squarely into one group or the other. Most of us live our lives inclined slightly to one side, but more or less at the center. Those who appear to fall at either extreme provide us, alternately, with entertainment and inspiration or with confusion and disdain. But whatever our intellectual reaction to them, these "fringe" people inspire us to follow our own inclinations, even if by negative example.

Cosmic Connie said...

In the end, it may all come down to brain chemistry (as Steve himself might argue). Some people just seem to "need" more stimulation than others, and a lot of research indicates this has more to do with their "wiring" than anything. It has little to do with their not being appreciative of this glorious life, as Anon suggested. OTOH, for some people, even a little extra stimulus is too much.

The Rev gets a big thrill out of riding fast on his motorcycle, although he is very observant of safety. I, on the other hand, get motion sick and do not enjoy fast (or even long) motorcycle rides. (Maybe if he had a cruising model I'd be up for a longer ride, but the Guzzi Jackal was not created for passenger comfort.) Anyway, if the Rev wants to go fast on his bike, he goes alone. He loves the stimulus that a fast ride on a twisty road provides. But that doesn't mean he is in any way less appreciative of the many gifts life has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Anon getting back to you, Connie. I love the thrill of speed as much as any--a rictus-like grin seems frozen on my face as a plane I'm on roars down the runway, and there's nothing like being on a horse and letting it run--but I have to say, I have wondered if the people who enjoy or must have excessive stimulation haven't been shortchanged when it comes to sensuality. Perhaps they're simply insensitive, requiring extreme stimulation to really feel alive, while for the true sensualists among us the least possible stimulation is fantastic, the brush of slight breeze on skin? I guess it's all a continuum, from the overstimulation of the autistic child to the understimulation of the thrill-seeker.

Steve Salerno said...

This current sub-thread (i.e. speculation on the nature and limits of joie de vivre and such) is very interesting. Love to see where it goes, if anywhere... While we're talking about thrill-seeking, I should confess a little "game" my college football cronies and I used to play from time to time. We'd pile into someone's car, head out onto Brooklyn's Belt Parkway or the LIE, mosey over to the left lane, find a nice section of straightaway, get the car up to 70 or 75 mph--and close our eyes. The driver included. Then we'd count. We started at 5 seconds. By the time we abandoned the game, we'd gotten up to 15 seconds, as I recall. Nothing ever happened.

Crazy? Of course. Completely and recklessly oblivious to the safety of those who shared the road with us? No question. Aided and abetted by the use of certain mind-altering substances? I take the fifth.

But what a rush...

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
I would be the last one to advocate reckless behavior (though I admit to having exhibited my share from time to time), and am convinced that Steve Irwin was far from reckless. He had the utmost respect for the potential danger when dealing with predators, and acted out of that respect, both for the danger to himself and for the well-being of the animals.

As to whether a type of behavior seems risky to others, I think that unfamiliarity with a given behavior might lead one to deem the action foolhardy, while to the more experienced, it merely seems pleasant. There are, of course, extreme cases, who need the adrenaline rush implicit in impending disaster, bit they are truly the fringe, and are not representative of most people.

Neither do I accept that the enjoyment of some risk is a sign of insensitivity. Quite the contrary; I feel it arises from a hunger to experience as much of life as possible, including that which dwells beyond a sedentary comfort zone. For example, I am exhilirated by the aroma of a pine forest on a spring morning, but enjoy it even more if I'm carving a path along a twisty forest road at speed. While so engaged, I am simultaneously in a state of hypervigilance and complete relaxation. I am constantly aware of everything from changing road conditions, traffic density, side roads that might place someone in my path, and areas where wildlife might hide. If any of these factors becomes less than ideal, I slow down appropriately - but still revelling in the tartness of the aroma that surrounds me and the slight chill in the air.

Similarly, there are those who practice forms of meditation which require absolute stillness, while others engage in very active movement, such as martial arts. Having long been a practitioner of both, I cannot state that one is superior to the other, or that either holds a monopoly on achieving the desired state of consciousness. They each feed a different hunger, but offer the same sense of satiety (how's that for a paradox?!).

I'm reminded of the Zen koan, where the monk, fleeing a charging lion, plunges off a high cliff. As he plummets to certain death, he spies a single strawberry growing out of the cliff wall. He plucks it, bites into it, and exclaims, "How delicious!"

Life itself is terminal, and each of us is plummeting toward a certain death. We can close our eyes and delude ourselves into denying our fate, or we can open our eyes, accept inevitability, and savor each taste we encounter along the way. How we do it is unique to each of us.

Cosmic Connie said...

Well, Anon, I can't speak for all thrill-seekers, but I can say unabashedly that Rev Ron is not at all lacking in the sensuality department...but no more details; it's not that kind of blog. :-)

OTOH, some of the extreme thrill seekers who continually take foolish chances may very well be sensually "short-changed" in some way. I think you're right about there being a continuum from, say, the autistic child to the extreme-stimulus junkie.

But I honestly do not think the Croc Hunter could be placed in the category of foolish risk-taker. He had great respect for the dangerous critters he worked with. And behind his hammy exterior was a profound sense of wonder at the amazing variety of creatures who walk this planet. As one who likes snakes and lizards and all kinds of creatures not normally considered loveable or cute, I always enjoyed Irwin's shows. I'll miss him.

And I sometimes wish I had more of the daredevil in my makeup; notwithstanding my love of snakes, lizards, etc., I lean more toward the wimpy side of the continuum. Back in the days when I was sometimes "aided and abetted by the use of certain substances," as Steve put it, I guess I did a few daring things, but those don't count...