Don’t Mask the Symptoms

The other day my youngest son asked an interesting question. “They tell you to catch cancer early,” he said. “But how do people know when to go and get a checkup for cancer?” I guess he’s becoming conscious of his health lately, so this concern was on his mind.

I, of course, explained that people usually detect a sign that something might be wrong… a small lump, the changed appearance of a blemish, an unusual ache or pain, a slight discolouration of the skin, even just an odd physical sensation… something that flags what might be a bigger, more serious problem.

I added that the way to make sure they catch the problem early is to not ignore the symptoms. I explained that, while many people detect the early signs, some often choose to ignore them. Many are afraid of what they might find if they go see a doctor. Some don’t recognize the symptom as being a problem. Then again, maybe they figure that they’re invincible, so nothing bad could ever happen to them. Or maybe they put it out of their mind, figuring that it’ll go away on its own. Some people are just too lazy to do anything, and simply forget about it. Others go to a drug store, get some cream, or pills, or medicine that treats the symptom, and assume they’ve taken care of it. Whatever their reasons for dismissing the symptom, they may well end up paying a price for neglecting it if the condition progresses to the point of becoming a major illness that no longer responds easily to treatment.

Symptoms are our body’s way of communicating with us. Loss of sensation or tingling in the extremities… could be diabetes. Yellow skin or eyes… could be jaundice. Slight pain in the lower right abdomen when standing or bending… could be appendicitis. Low grade fever or nausea… could be an infection. Or maybe not. But safer to get it checked out and know for sure. Because symptoms are often tell-tale signs that something bigger and nastier is going on.

That said, I advised him that people shouldn’t go running to the doctor for every little pain, hiccup, or lump they discover. Some common sense has to be used. The human body suffers from many conditions, and can deal with most of them by itself. People only need to be concerned about those unusual abnormalities that the body doesn’t seem to be able to deal with successfully on its own.

Symptoms are not just limited to the human body. If your car starts making a metallic clunking sound, there’s probably a bigger issue at the root of it. Maybe some part is worn or broken, and needs fixing or replacing… the noise being a symptom of a bigger mechanical failure. Or if an otherwise happy couple starts bickering all the time, it might not just be all those little issues that they’re fighting about that need their attention… there may be a much bigger problem with their relationship that needs looking into. Or if a person cries all the time, it might not just be sadness, there maybe an underlying condition that should be considered.

Sounds like pretty straight forward advice, right? If you notice a disturbing problem, have it looked at by a professional. Unfortunately, that’s not what most people do. They treat the symptom. Got a cold? Take some over-the-counter medicine to mask the symptoms so you can get on with your day. Sure, you’re still sick (and probably still contagious), but at least you no longer feel like crap, and can go back to work, or school, or shopping. And don’t worry about the fact that you might get even sicker because you’re not letting your body rest and get healthier.

Sorry, but treating the symptom is not a cure. It’s only a temporary fix, and is rarely the answer. In fact, it can make things worse, because you’re not addressing the root cause of the problem. Few over-the-counter medicines actually offer a cure… all they do is mask the symptoms. Antacid lozenges may stop a stomach ache, but the cause of the excess acid remains. Antidepressant pills may allow you to live with your depression, but the psychological or physiological causes remain untreated, and the condition will probably return. Going on a vacation (or buying flowers) may ease the stress & tension caused by frequent squabbles, but the tension and fights will probably resume once you get back from the vacation (or after those pretty flowers die). Treating the symptom is just sticking your head in the sand.

Eliminating the cause means looking deeper into the underlying issues. A common diagnostic approach is to consider multiple symptoms together to see if they form a congenital pattern that might reveal the hidden nature of the problem. Once the underlying cause is determined, you can go about fixing the real problem that underlies all the symptoms. And once the root problem is dealt with, the individual symptoms usually clear up over time.

Which brings me to the real point of my blog (you knew there was one). Right now the world is experiencing some major, nasty symptoms of its own. Wars in the Middle East, terrorism, rising suicide rates, growing disparity between the rich & poor, growing dissent amongst blacks and hispanics in the States, middle-class kids running off to join ISIS, a rise in violent crimes, so-called “honour killings”, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump are all symptoms of a bigger disease… a kind of social madness.

Oh sure, you’re probably going to say that this notion is naive, that all these issues are major problems in and of themselves, not merely symptoms of some other problem. But hear me out. I believe something bigger is going on – something affecting all regions of the globe – something that needs addressing. And soon. The problems are not merely those of the disgruntled masses that have plagued mankind since time began. We’re seeing ordinary, law-abiding citizens pulling out guns and shooting innocent victims for no apparent reason. We’re seeing healthy and strong teenagers committing suicide in alarmingly large numbers. We’re seeing intelligent people voting an egotistical, self-centred jerk into the office of President of the United States. We’re seeing young, well-educated middle-class kids running off to join a mercenary terrorist group in the deserts of the Middle East. We’re seeing seasoned and highly-respected police officers gunning down unarmed black youths. We’re seeing loving mothers and fathers murdering their children. These are not the usual symptoms of ordinary stressful life. They are aberrant behaviour by people pushed beyond their coping limits. And it only seems to be getting worse.

Unfortunately, what the underlying problem is, I can’t say, because of course I don’t know. But all of these symptoms seem to point to a global psychological disorder that’s getting worse by the day. There seems to be a growing sense of anger, hatred, fear, paranoia, disregard for the well-being of others, suspicion, selfishness, greed & hoarding, and suicidal tendencies. If a given individual was to display these symptoms, I believe that any qualified psychologist could come up with a diagnosis (if not a cure) pretty quickly, after some observation and testing. But, on a global scale, we seem to obsessively focus on the separate symptoms (or at least the media does), and overlook what may be the unifying cause or causes.

I truly believe that human beings are experiencing a global psychosis… a kind of planet-wide depression & despair, brought on by… what? By poverty? By fluoride in the water? Exposure to the news itself? Maybe cometary dust clouds? Wars over access to oil? Or our aging population? Financial disparity? Maybe climate change is the problem? Or the environment? What about cellphones? Unemployment? Chemtrails? Or the Internet (my personal favourite culprit)? How about electric fields? Or maybe immigration? Or possibly world overpopulation? Pollution? Or religious differences? Or maybe just the lack of a good old world war to get rid of some of the international tension and bring things back into focus?  I’m just spitballing here, because I don’t know.

But something is definitely affecting us all, making us meaner, angrier, more fretful, less content, greedier, more paranoid, sicker, crazier, more reckless, and more suicidal… than ever before. You can see it on our highways. You can see it in school hallways. You can see it in the streets of St. Louis. You can see it in the streets of Bagdad, Paris, Beirut, Boston, Mumbai, and Columbine. You can read it on the Internet. And I believe that it’s more global than regional, because these feelings of despair, anger, paranoia, and a need to lash out at others are almost universally shared around the planet. So I believe they have a common cause. Whatever that cause is.

Is it linked to the decline in bee populations, or to the rain forest frogs that are dying off? Is it the additives in our foods, or GMO foods in our diets? Again, I don’t know. But I also don’t suggest that we look to the conspiracy theorists for answers. Because, although they’ve been trying to bring these concerns to our attention for years, many of their explanations are… well… kinda out there. No, we need sober, rational, and qualified minds to look into it. I’m sure they’ll find that the causes are sociological, but that might not be the whole story. Conditions have declined so rapidly, and so alarmingly, that we have to consider that the causes might likewise be unexpected.

Someone qualified needs to address these concerns. Maybe instead of all these global climate change symposiums, the G20 countries, or the United Nations, should also be getting together to discuss this global psychosis, and to bring the experts in to offer their observations and opinions. Because it’s in all our best interests to get to the bottom of it, and to do something about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice to discover why the Middle East seems hell-bent on destroying itself? Or why kids are killing themselves off at the rate of 10 or 20 per week in our northern communities? Or why recreational painkiller drug use is on the rise? Or why kids’ music is filled with such hate-filled lyrics? Or why police are so terrified of blacks that they shoot first and ask questions later? Or why some Muslim extremist groups hate the USA and Europe with such passion? Wouldn’t it be nice to find the one or two (or maybe several) underlying causes that can be addressed, and then treat them to bring this global psychotic epidemic under control?

Sure it would. But as long as we continue to treat the individual symptoms themselves – the wars, suicides, acts of terrorism, police brutality, etc – as isolated incidents, then we’re merely putting the world in a strait jacket to keep it from hurting itself or others. But we’re not dealing with the underlying causes of the psychosis that’s destroying our planet and our cultural relationships with each other.

Putting up a wall only masks the symptoms of people escaping lives of desperation into a nation where they believe they’ll have better lives. Accepting millions of displaced refugees only masks the symptoms of millions of innocent people being driven from the country of their birth by an evil dictator. Leaving the EU only masks the symptoms of a nation that feels its traditional values slipping away. Forcing travelers to subject themselves to degrading body searches every time they board an airplane only masks the symptoms of vibrant young men & women, so filled with revulsion for the USA that they’re willing to kill & die for their hate-filled passion. See what I mean? In each case, our efforts at a “solution” are only superficial bandaids that treat the symptoms, but don’t address the underlying issues.

Let’s not treat these social & cultural symptoms we’re experiencing the way many people treat their physical symptoms. Let’s not ignore them, trivialize them, or try to mask them. And let’s not view them as the issue, when they’re really just symptoms of a much larger problem.

I believe it’s time to stop fixating on the symptoms affecting our world, and to start dealing with the underlying causes of our mutual misery & discontent. Otherwise things are probably going to get worse, more threatening, and more disturbing… and harder to fix.

I’m just sayin’

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Fear can be Healthy

The news was tragic. A young woman’s life had been snuffed out by a fatal fall from a path along a steep and dangerous Italian slope where she and her friends had been hiking. It was supposed to be a fun afternoon outing. But it took the life of a vibrant young person who had her whole life ahead of her. And for what? For a little excitement, which I’m sure was thrilling – up until she died.

The article hit close to home for us because that young woman had once been a student at Conestoga College where I worked, and I’d seen her in the hallways between classes. She had helped my wife out with some volunteer events. She was a bright, involved, and charming young person. Yet a few minutes of dangerous fun ended her life.

The article pointed out that she had died in an area notorious for its dangers, and which on that particular day had also been icy. My 23 year old son, reading the news article, asked why anyone would risk their life on such a clearly treacherous trail. Why had they taken the chance? Why, indeed? Bravado? Thrills? Showing off? Acting on a dare?

The same day that article appeared, I saw an online photo of four young women taking a group selfie while standing on subway tracks as, in the distance, the light of a train can be seen rounding the bend towards them. They’re all smiling, clearly oblivious to the danger they’ve put themselves in. I must ask… was this stupidity, courage, or as the photo’s Fail caption reads, “Natural selection” at work?

We hear of it all the time. Snowmobilers killed while trailing in parks that have been shut down due to dangerous snow conditions. Skiers killed in well-marked and cordoned off avalanche zones. Hikers lost on trails that have claimed the lives of others in the past. Young kids killed by a train while attempting to cross a long, narrow trestle. What lures people to such dangerous places to engage in risky activities that have already claimed the lives of others? I found myself at a loss to answer my son’s question.

And it’s not just dangerous sports. Sometimes it’s everyday activities. For example, what makes overly-confident motorist foolishly venture out onto snow-packed or ice-covered roads, or speed along roadways shrouded in thick fog instead of obeying the speed limits or even just hunkering down and staying put? In fact, what makes so many motorists irresponsibly disregard the speed limits altogether and race along at 30 to 40 km/hr over the posted limits? What makes construction workers disregard safety restraints when working on high structures? What makes tourists at Grand Canyon crawl past the safety barriers out onto those precarious ledges, and risk falling hundreds of feet to their deaths, all for the sake of a selfie? What makes so many tourists at Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia ignore the warning signs and clamber out onto the exposed rocks and risk getting swept by a wave to their deaths in the deadly undertow of the surf? In short, what makes people take unnecessary and life-threatening chances for such meagre rewards? Not only ignoring the warning signs but their own innate common sense and fear.

Do they think that the warning signs are lying, or exaggerating the danger? Do they think signs are only meant to keep out wusses and sissies? Do they think they are losing face and admitting defeat by heeding the warnings? Is their ego somehow deflated by giving in to caution, common sense, and safety? Do they think their friends are going to laugh at them for exercising good judgement and wanting to stay alive?

We may as well ask what makes a drunk person get behind the wheel of a car. Sheer stupidity, combined with cocky overconfidence, impaired judgement, a lack of self-control, and a compulsive need to prove the naysayers wrong. But nature has a tried-and-true way of overriding such self-destructive behaviour. It’s called fear, and it’s supposed to keep us from killing ourselves. No one should want the epitaph “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” carved on their tombstone.

My son and I discussed people’s cravings for excitement and adventure, and their compulsion to seek out life-threatening thrills for the brief adrenaline rush they experience.

He said that while these traits may apply to brainless daredevils, he had to question why an intelligent yet inexperienced person like that young woman would have even considered going on such a dangerous hike. For me, that question also hit kind of close to home. Because I’ve been there.

To show him how easy it is to get unwittingly swept up in reckless behaviour like that, I recounted an episode from my own past.

It was 1975. I was 24 – not much older than my youngest son is now – and had just moved to Vancouver to attend graduate school. Some new friends had invited me to accompany them on what they described as a “hike” to a beautiful, scenic BC mountain landmark… the Black Tusk. To an Ontario city boy like me, a hike was a walk through the woods with maybe a hill or two. It sounded like fun, and I was promised a breathtaking view of a mountain vista that was not to be missed. So I eagerly accepted the invitation.

Right from the get-go I realized I was in over my head. We marched from the parking lot up 1700 meters in elevation along gradual switchback trails to the base camp. I was already winded by the 300 meter mark. The rest of the way was agony. Then, instead of resting, we hiked to the Black Tusk, a huge projection of volcanic basalt in the Garibaldi mountains of BC near Whistler. The trail to the Tusk took us along steep snow & ice-covered ridges, along narrow trails that span icy slopes, and across tricky outcroppings of treacherous basalt scree – steep slopes covered in flat, fist-sized chunks of loose shale that can easily slide out from underfoot leading to long bone-jarring slides down steep embankments and sometimes even over cliffs below. I probably should have turned back many times, but I’d been provided an ice axe and shown briefly how to use it to arrest such a potentially life-threatening mishap. Besides, I certainly wasn’t about to admit to any signs of weakness or cowardice. Pride goeth before the fall, you know.

When we reached the base of the Tusk, I discovered that the initial struggles had been the easy part. What now confronted us was a vertical spire of black rock that soared over 200 meters straight into the sky. Most sane hikers would have taken their photos here and returned with a story to tell and pics to show. But not my friends. They insisted that we actually climb this ominous black obelisk. Don’t worry, they said, you’ll do fine. And like the proud fool that I was, I smiled and agreed to press on.

Now, I must point out that BC Parks actively discourages anyone from attempting to climb the Tusk. As they put it on their website, “Be careful on the loose rocks as some of the cliffs in the area are high enough to cause very serious injuries or even death. And, although it is possible to make it onto the peak of the Tusk, it is not recommended as it is extremely dangerous and is strongly discouraged by BC Parks. However, it has been attempted by experienced rock climbers with the proper equipment and training.” I had neither the experience, the proper equipment, nor the training. But did I turn back right then and there? Of course not.

Whatever the look on my face, any limitations or hesitations I felt certainly didn’t dissuade my friends. Whether they were trying to show off their climbing prowess, or wanted to see how much it would take to scare the shit out of me, I don’t know. But they proceeded to embark on the climb up the basalt face of the Tusk. And I, like the proud fool that I was, willingly followed along… but with extreme trepidation, mind you.

We found ourselves a vertical crevasse or notch in the rock wall where we would be enclosed on three sides by rock. Basalt exists as a vertical mass of parallel hexagonal columns when it cools to form volcanic plugs like the Tusk. So climbing relied on us placing our hands and feet on the flat tops of broken pillars. Trouble is, basalt easily crumbles and breaks away without much sideways effort. So footing and handholds were unreliable at best, and we had to thoroughly test each grip and step before putting our weight on it. Remember, we had no ropes or pitons… just ice axes hooked to our belts, plus our wits… or lack of wits, as in my case.

I was already exhausted from the switchback ascent, and found that this vertical climb now introduced pain into even more muscles and joints. My one friend was about 5 meters above me, his wife about the same distance below me. Occasionally a chunk of basalt would break free and the person who caused it would call out to those below as it fell. Usually this was less a warning and more an apology for what had just hit them.

Needless to say, the climb was slow, painful and laborious. I didn’t question whether the view at the top or the sheer achievement of the climb would be worth the risk. I just went along because I didn’t want to look like a coward. That’s what peer pressure does to you… it overpowers your better judgement.

Halfway up the Tusk my legs gave out and started to shake the way muscles do when lack of tone combines with fatigue. At this point, I froze with fear at the paralyzing realization that I was trapped over 100 meters in the air on the side of a rock face, and could neither advance up nor retreat back down. In my calmest voice I tried to explain my predicament to my friend’s wife whom I could tell was quite annoyed by my stopping. But instead of expressing concern or sympathy, she just huffed and said that if I wasn’t going to keep climbing, then I should get the hell out of the way and let her scramble past me. I was stunned. There it was. Safety meant nothing to them. It was simply the glory of the achievement that was at stake.

I guess it was the ensuing anger and stubborn pride that prompted me into action, summoning up whatever reserves of strength I still possessed, and enabling me to clamber up the remaining 100 meters to the peak. I even surprised myself. With relief, I thought I was done. But at the top, to my horror, I discovered that the worst was yet to come.

The peak of the Black Tusk is a flatly-rounded hump of basalt some 20 meters across, covered in a thick layer of loose scree. The trick to mounting it from the top of the crevasse is to stretch out one’s arms and scramble on one’s belly as far up as one can, then straddle one leg, then the other, up onto the surface (if you can call it that) while being careful not to roll or slide backwards, free-falling to one’s death on the rocks hundreds of meters below. As I performed this tricky maneuver (successfully, I might point out, as I’m clearly around to tell this tale), the adrenaline coursing through my body made my ears ring so loud I couldn’t hear whatever instructions were being shouted at me by my so-called “friends”. I was too busy praying to God to spare my foolish life.

Once out of the crevasse and onto the top surface, I crawled first on my belly then cautiously on all fours until I reached the summit of the peak, whereupon I scrambled to my feet to appreciate the… well, the lack of any view whatsoever. The high altitude air, it turns out, was so thick with fog and snow we couldn’t see much beyond the peak. No mountain vista. No memorable photos. The only evidence of our accomplishment were the few small cairns and inukshuks made from rocks that previous climbers had left to declare their own victories over nature and the grim reaper.

Although we could see nothing of the promised mountain view around us, we did notice a second nearby black peak separated from the ours by a deep 10 meter-wide chasm. A twin peak, as it were. This second peak looked even more frail than the one we were on. Yet it too proudly bore several handmade victory monuments.

With little else to do other than make our own inukshuks (which we each did, of course), we headed back. But instead of a relatively easily descent, the return journey down the Tusk turned out to be even more terrifying. You see, the upward climb had the advantage of requiring our upward gaze. But, when going back down, our gaze had to be directed downwards. And don’t they always warn you “Don’t look down”?

So, as I cautiously bum-slid down the slippery rocks back toward the crevasse, I could see the deadly precipice ahead – a stark drop-off beyond which lay nothing but hundreds of meters of open air. And I discovered, to my dismay (and by considerable trial-and-error), that I could not arrest my slide on a dime as I might have wished. So, as I neared the edge, heart pounding in my chest, I rolled from my butt onto my belly and proceeded to slip feet first in short inch-by-inch increments towards a very likely backward plummet to my death.

When I reached the crevasse, somehow – don’t ask me how, as my brain has wisely chosen to erase all memory of the next few moments – I slung my legs one-by-one over the edge, and got my feet firmly planted on some solid basalt… the trick here being to not shift one’s weight too quickly from the relative safety of the horizontal peak to the vertical crevasse, a movement which could result in one toppling backwards into the abyss. I guess I must have instinctively realized this, because I somehow successfully managed to perform this tricky and unfamiliar manoeuvre.

From there the climb down was actually much easier than the climb up, as I was facing the rock wall and tentatively feeling my way for secure footing below me, trying hard to remember where I had placed my feet and hands on the way up.

As I recall, once I reached the bottom I was of mixed emotions. First of all, I was relieved and grateful to be alive. I was also feeling quite exhilarated at what I had achieved. And for some time afterwards I even felt like I could understand why some people insisted on doing this sort of thing for recreation. Whereas, I should have been angry for being tricked into putting myself in such mortal danger.

It has only been with the passage of time that I’ve come to realize that I might have died in any number of horrible ways that day… died needlessly from either my stupid pride, a need for an adrenaline rush, or for bragging rights, none of which are valid grounds for risking one’s life and one’s chances for a long life with many safer adventures, personal relationships, and even offspring.

Which brings me to my point. It seems to me that many (mostly young) people today are either compulsive, irresponsible thrill seekers, or pushers of this insanity who encourage others to risk their lives for a thrill, or who are bound by foolish pride to follow others into the jaws of death, as I once did. And for what? For a few minutes of exhilarating terror and some photos?

Why does fear and the survival instinct not prevent these people from doing such dangerous things? You see fear, like pain, is the body’s way of protecting itself by telling us that something is wrong. Pain tells us to stop doing whatever is causing the discomfort because it may lead to serious tissue damage. Fear, on the other hand, tells us to stop doing whatever is provoking that reaction because it might lead to injury or death. If someone is addicted to pain, we tell them to seek psychological counselling, because normal people do not enjoy pain. And if someone is addicted (or immune) to fear we should give them the same advice, seek help, because fear is to be respected and heeded. But the truth is, there are some people who, for whatever reasons, seem to either crave fear or, if they don’t feel it, put themselves in extreme situations where they start to feel something.

And there are also some people who actually admire fearlessness for some inexplicable reason. Why? Do they mistake fearlessness for bravery? Because firefighters, police, and soldiers returning from duty almost universally describe bravery as not being fearless, but performing heroic acts in the face of fear.

I’ve asked myself many times what it was that drove my so-called friends to carelessly attempt that dangerous climb, and especially to rope me – an inexperienced and unfit hiker – into accompanying them without the proper training or equipment. These were two intelligent, and highly educated people. It wasn’t lack of brains that overrode their better judgment. So what was it that interfered with their rational thinking?

Personally, I think a kind of psychological or physiological malady has inflicted these people. They suffer from a condition that renders them almost fearless in situations that should make them recoil from whatever folly they’re committing. They either don’t get the typical jolt of adrenaline that alerts one to imminent danger, or they don’t interpret that jolt as a warning. Either way, something is wrong with them. They lack the necessary fear-and-retreat reflex needed for proper survival. In fact, instead of experiencing the horror of fear, they often seem to experience a euphoric, even giddy, exhilaration. And, alarmingly, they often seem to be proud of this.

I see evidence of it every day. We have a roundabout a few blocks from our home. Most drivers navigate it with ease, but some do not. Inexperienced motorists often enter it at the wrong time, either hesitantly or aggressively. On many occasions I’ve found myself slamming on my brakes mere feet away from ploughing into the driver’s side of a car that has bolted into the roundabout right in front of me while I was rounding the curve. The weird thing is, where I would expect to see a look of fear or panic on the face of the driver who has only narrowly escape injury or death, I often see them smile or even laugh. That is not a normal reaction when coming close to dying. But I don’t think it’s relief from having been spared, because relief comes afterwards, in hindsight. Nor would I call it nervous laughter, because that has a characteristic giggle with a distinct look of terror. No, they seem to display a kind of perverse joy at what has just happened.

It seems to me that this spontaneous reaction of giddy laughter is the thrill of a danger averted… of plucking life out of the jaws of death And that’s not a healthy reaction. In fact, if anything, that kind of elated response only encourages a person to put themselves into harm’s way more often in order to experience that kinky… what? Joy? Pleasure? Thrill?… again and again. And that’s simply not rational behaviour. They’re playing a kind of Russian Roulette, and enjoying it. A near death close call should be frightening, not exhilarating. There is something clearly wrong with people who don’t experience protective fear as they should.

It’s not a new thing. Remember that craze a few years back where cars often bore a window or bumper sticker that read “No Fear”? At the time I thought it reflected the attitude of the owner that “I’m a badass who’s not afraid of you, so don’t mess with me.” But now I’m inclined to think that those drivers intended that message to convey their immunity to the usual feelings of fragility and mortality that make the rest of us back away from threatening or dangerous situations. And that implies a kind of crazy “lethal weapon” attitude – an almost suicidal personality – and hence flags them as someone who is not to be provoked because normal fear for their safety doesn’t dictate their behaviour.

This condition might also explain the growing popularity of thrill sports and activities like higher and faster thrill rides at theme parks, as well as death-defying activities like rock climbing, spelunking, base jumping, hang gliding, bungee jumping, and the like. Or the growing popularity of physically risky sports like rugby, surfing, hang gliding, car racing, skate boarding, and the like.

I think this fearlessness phenomenon began years ago with the “extreme sports” craze. It even affects young people who carry out risky “jack-ass” pranks, like riding a shopping cart down a hill, riding in a box down a steep set of stairs, or jumping off the roof of a house into a swimming pool. And of course there are those everyday thrill seekers who speed and drive dangerously, thus putting us all at risk. Quite possibly there’s even a connection between pathological fearlessness and growing involvement with violent criminal behaviour or even terrorist activity. On a global scale, some part of us that keeps us safe and alive seems to have switched off.

Now, admittedly, some people may claim to be seeking memorable experiences to photograph and brag about. But one can experience many exciting things without putting oneself directly into harm’s way. Scuba diving is dangerous, but training for this sport is extensive, with every effort being made to ensure that the sport is safe. The same goes for sky diving. That doesn’t make these sports any less exciting, although I’m sure that some extreme sports enthusiasts might disagree. For them, it would appear, it’s the fact that the safeguards are off that makes the sport or activity so enticing.

You know, sometimes I wonder if there’s an element of cocky defiance in this behaviour. It’s as if the laws of nature, and the laws of man, are viewed as unfair constraints to be openly ignored as a point of principle.

Nature: “Don’t do that, it’ll kill you.”

Fool: “Okay, then that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

I think perhaps the act of defiance is seen as a rite of passage to achieving some kind of perceived hero-like status. If so, then that’s even more disturbing, as it adds foolish bravado and aggressive disobedience to the mix. It’s the triple threat… fearlessness, foolhardiness, and rebelliousness… not a good trio from a survival point of view.

I met a young man (also out west) who was an extreme skier. Despite being a 20s-something family man, he’d been hospitalized several times already for injuries suffered in high-speed collisions and falls on the slopes. His wife strongly objected to his cavalier disregard for his own safety, and often begged him to knock it off and be more careful. She casually joked that he was probably going to kill himself one day. He, on the other hand, just shrugged aside her concerns and said skiing wasn’t fun if it didn’t have the thrill of danger associated with it. Three weeks later he was killed in a high-speed skiing collision. He left behind a shattered young widow and two lovely young daughters who would never grow up with their daddy beside them. He chose a few thrills over a lifetime with them.

I personally suspect that a crucial protective aspect of our psychological makeup has been diminishing with each successive generation. Maybe it’s from our diet. Maybe it’s the fast food. Maybe it’s the fluoride in our drinking water. Maybe it’s a reaction to all the horror in the world. Maybe they find life boring. Or maybe it’s a reaction to all the restrictive laws and regulations that we’re subjected to. Who knows? Whatever the reason, it greatly concerns me, because absence of fear can unshackle normal restraints in ways that are not healthy to anyone. Fear stops us from taking dangerous chances, and from putting ourselves or others at risk. We all need a healthy governor to control our risk-taking behaviour, especially as the population density increases and life speeds up.

I know that some of you will simply write me off as just a coward or timid loser who’s averse to taking chances. But, as my story shows, I’ve taken my fair share of chances. I’ve piloted small planes. I’ve motorcycled across North America. I’ve climbed steep mountains. I’ve skied the high Rockies. I’ve hiked in mountainous bear country. I’ve driven up Pike’s Peak. I’ve slept outside in Death Valley. I’ve canoed in wilderness areas at night in snow storms. I’ve driven a Ford Econoline van down a steep motocross mud-climb hillside (although I feel it necessary to explain that, until I crested the top of that hill, I really thought I was on a country road). And each time, through God’s good grace, providence, or shit luck, I’ve managed to survive to tell the tale. But each of those risks (except the hill) could have turned out differently had I not done them with plenty of forethought, preparation, and caution. They were not risks taken merely to thumb my nose at death.

How long before people who drive their snowmobiles recklessly, or who race at breakneck speeds along back country roads, or who weave at high speed through traffic on a motorcycle, start paying attention to warnings and advisories meant to save their lives. There are lots of safe, cautious ways to have fun and experience excitement without taking fatal risks. Listen to that voice inside your head that says “this might not be such a smart idea” and obediently let the fear regulate your behaviour instead of laughing at it. You don’t have to be a hero.

I suspect that young woman who died in Italy probably had second thoughts about going on the hike that killed her. But, like me, she was perhaps too proud or too self-conscious to refuse to go. Or perhaps some pathologically fearless (or stupid) friends talked her into venturing into harm’s way without adequate regard for her safety for the chance of becoming a hero. Or dead.

And maybe that’s the answer. Maybe some people put themselves and others in life-threatening situations and ignore the fear because they think it makes them come across as brave heroes. So it’s just ego, and a need for hero worship that makes them risk their lives, and the lives of others. Let’s see, live wisely & cautiously to the ripe old age of 90, or die needlessly as a forgotten “hero” at 22. Is that such a tough decision?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you ever plan on climbing the Black Tusk, don’t do it the stupid way like I did. Take the time to get yourself in good physical shape, get proper training, use the correct equipment, and check that conditions are safe. Oh, and go on a clear day.

I’m just sayin’

In national parks, they often have to deal with bears that, for whatever reasons, have lost their fear of people. These fearless bears brazenly wander into campgrounds to ransack tents and trailers in search of food. This presents a clearly dangerous situation for campers. Park Rangers shoot bears like that with paint gun pellets to mark their fur with bright splashes of colour in order to identify them as potential threats to people. If a marked bear is ever caught invading human space a second time, that bear is shot and killed on the spot. 

Maybe it’s time we start marking fearless people the same way.

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Canada the Great!

The dramatic goings on south of our border recently have rightly concerned most Canadians. Unfortunately, we’re not immune to the vile attitudes of intolerance and hate that are so wide-spread in the USA these days. But, that said, Canadians are also known for their compassion and tolerance. Both these attitudes were brought into sharp focus recently by separate incidents.

I have some thoughts on this important issue, and what it means for Canadians to hold tight to the kindness in our hearts, words, and actions.

See Canada the Great! in the Ramblings section of this blog.

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Toronto the Hostile?

Remember when Toronto was thought of as one of the nicest, cleanest, most welcoming cities in the world? Well, I do. And it wasn’t all that long ago, relatively speaking. But things are changing. And not for the better. Toronto seems to be experiencing what other large cities have already suffered through… a population that is getting so large, so crowded, and so impersonal that it is losing that “togetherness” feeling that it once had. This loss of connection is manifesting itself as a growing hostility towards strangers, towards people who are considered outsiders, towards people who aren’t you. And it’s getting ugly.

Like any problem of this kind, it’ll only get worse if it doesn’t get nipped in the bud by (a) awareness of the problem, and (b) a desire to make a correction to our trajectory before its too late. Sure, right now there are lots of bad apples who are getting all the press, but there are also just as many, if not more, people who want Toronto to retain its untarnished reputation. Who will win?

I have some thoughts on this issue.

See Toronto the Hostile? in the Ramblings section of this blog.

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The Power of Engineering

I’ve been an Engineer for over 40 years. Wow, has it been that long? It’s what I do and it’s what I’ve done throughout my adult life. So I guess I’ve gotten to that point where I just take it for granted. But recently I watched a documentary that brought it all back to me all the excitement and rush of what lured me to this challenging and rewarding profession in the first place.

But the world has changed since the heady days of the Space Race, back when I was young and engineering was cool. And this made me wonder what, if anything, lures today’s young people to a career in engineering. In fact, do they even know what engineering is? I have some thoughts on that.

See The Power of Engineering in the Ramblings section of this blog

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I Pray For Justice

I find myself saddened and outraged beyond words by the tragic events of the last two days. The deaths of two more innocent souls at the bloodied hands of over-zealous, ruthless, trigger-happy cops has me at a loss for anything to say about it.

But the sounds of panic in the voice of the police officer who fired the shots at Philando Castile sent chills down my spine. It was as if he was motivated not by police duty but by fear to do what he did. But fear of what? A peaceful man driving his girlfriend and her young daughter through town? It goes deeper… much deeper.

The followup retaliatory violence in the streets of Dallas has now added to the horror. As always, suspicion, fear, and hatred have bred more of the same. I’m at a loss to think of what might be done. Instead, I pray for the loved ones and friends of those two dead black men and five dead police officers. As justice continues its downward spiral I pray for us all. And for all those directly affected by this unfolding tragedy, I pray for justice.

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Paranoia Runs Deep

Rant-(website)Sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into the wind. Almost every day I read of yet another unspeakable incident that provokes my simmering outrage. And I guess that I hope that by speaking out, my small voice will be like a snowball that builds support bit-by-bit, eventually growing into something substantial that will make a difference. Well, that’s my dream, anyway.

The event that has me riled up this time was not an action by police, but instead occurred at that most mundane of places… the airport, where a handicapped teenage girl was unjustifiably roughed up and injured by TSA agents. Since more of us will find ourselves at the airport than at the sight of a police action, I think it behooves us all to sit up and take notice of this particular event.

See Paranoia Runs Deep in the Ramblings section of this blog.

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