What do you need to feel alive?
The question came up for me this week because Hurricane Dorian just gave Charleston a light smack compared to what could have been. And even after that one night of worry as the winds howled, I was bouncing with joy when the day after was sunny and cool and just amazingly beautiful. It was like the day after you’ve been sick when food that turned your stomach yesterday tastes amazing today.
I’m not sure if the day was actually any more beautiful than the day before Hurricane Dorian, but facing down the nasty storm made the next day’s weather seem more precious.
That contrast – danger and then exhilaration – was on my mind I was reading an article about three climbers – and not just climbers, Alpiners. Alpine climbing is crazy stuff. Why would anyone do this? I have to admit, I’m an indoor house cat. The closest I get to outdoor sports is the occasional trail ride and, even then, the horse is doing all the work. I’m not even sure why I was reading an article about outdoor sports.
Except, spoiler alert. The three climbers don’t make it. And the article was really about why people challenge themselves to this kind of sport.
And that was why the article fascinated me. How close do we need to get to mortality to feel alive?
I have done sky-diving and been on a trapeze and even taken one airplane piloting lesson. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I did each of these activities after some kind of trauma. Sky diving came after a really bad patch in my marriage. The trapeze lesson and the airplane lesson came at different points in the illness that would ultimately kill my mother.
They jolted me out of the numb despair. They gave me the illusion that I could conquer the world, even if I couldn’t conquer death or sadness. But all of those things were safe risks. I had an experienced skydiver strapped to my back when I jumped out of the plane – well, okay, when he jumped because I was about to change my mind but the weight of his body just pulled me out of the plane. I had a harness on the trapeze and a net below me. The pilot who taught me had a license and I didn’t take off or land the plane, just took over the flying while we were in the air and tried to keep the plane level. The odds of actual death were pretty small.
Not like my one friend who fought in Vietnam. The hyper-vigilance, the knowledge that your next step could be your last…he hated it. It messed with his head. But I remember him telling me somewhat wistfully, “Helen, I’ve never felt so alive and I’ve never found anything since I got back that made me feel that alive.”
And that made me wonder. How do we feel alive without facing down death? Is being alive boring unless we risk losing our lives?
Some would say that the fear of death focuses your gaze on your surroundings with an intensity you can’t duplicate.
I know that I have read that mindfulness — being really present in your life – is the key to enjoying every one of life’s moments. But is being a thrill junkie a shortcut to being present?