Back in 2012, icy calm free soloist, Alex Honnold, was featured on 60 Minutes for his ropeless ascents of daunting climbs throughout the world. Despite the mellow and seemingly-sensible climber's repeated descriptions of his solos as high consequence, not high risk, he's been embraced largely for his steely nerves in the face of daring. And the general assumption for most of us, despite Honnold's claims otherwise, is that it's ultimately about adrenaline. Either way, he's lauded as though he's conquering fears for all of us.
In May, world renowned risk-taker, Dean Potter, made national headlines when his final wing suit flight went wrong. He and fellow flyer, Graham Hunt, crashed into Yosemite's towering stone walls and two lives ceased. Potter was long respected in the climbing and extreme sports communities for his high-risk antics and rule-breaking lifestyle. Though both men inspired many (and doubtless troubled many others), it's Potter's deep and open conversations about death that we tend to remember. "I don't want to die, but I'm ok with putting it all out there, for the most beautiful expression of my life," he's once said. I guess that's one way to practice mindfulness.
Clearly, extreme risk sports are capturing the imaginations of an increasingly mainstream audience. And this, by itself, seems fine. Culturally, I could expound on the varied reasons sociologists think people engage in adrenaline-inducing activities. It's called edgework and the theories are based in ideas of a sort of psychological disenfranchisement that results from the capitalist economic and work systems. So maybe we need this extreme inspiration. Maybe we're stirred by the perceived bravery or a need, like Potter's, to find that edge that makes life sparkle. I love asking these questions--after all, while I'd never solo, I'm a scared-of-heights climber who keeps trudging back to the cliffs.
But that's not what interests me right now. It's the parallels I keep seeing between participating in high-risk sport and drug use, and the contradictions in how these practices are treated by our laws and our society.
In June, three BASE jumpers were convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment for for leaping off the World Trade Center in 2013. The charges could have meant up to a year in jail, but the jumpers were ultimately sentenced to community service. I don't have a problem so much with the charges or sentences doled out to these men. Perhaps, I would even agree with critics that they're harsh, given the fact that they were skilled and worked actively to minimize risks to themselves and others. But as a former drug researcher and social justice advocate, I question why these BASE jumpers received less punishment for their act than they would have for injecting themselves with heroin. And there's no telling what the retribution would have been had they done so exuberantly, had they threatened to inject others, at the base of the WTC. Would drug users have been convicted of the top charge of burglary (dismissed in the BASE jumping case) if they had simply entered the building to use in private? I'm concerned by the double standard that this particular brand of risk-taking highlights.
So, to start, how are extreme sports and drug use similar?
- Physical risk to self. That physical risk, however, is variable. It depends on specifics, on each individuals' efforts to recognize and minimize it. There are worthwhile distinctions between drug use and abuse and addiction, between injecting and snorting, between using one's own clean syringe and works each time and sharing with others. Sometimes these choices are true choices, other times shaped by social circumstances. Most often, though, the relative risks are acknowledged by the users. Similarly, extreme sports enthusiasts distinguish between free-climbing (using a rope) and soloing, or free-soloing (no rope), trail riding and jockeying racehorses. Some of these things, though related, just aren't so dangerous. Other are. There are degrees.
- Potential to harm others, especially emotionally.
- While motivations for both drug use and extreme sports participation vary a great deal, pleasure-seeking and adrenaline-seeking apply to many in both groups. Potter's view, mentioned above, offers an inspiring way to view the world indeed. And that's the thing with the folks sociologists refer to as edgeworkers: The ways they play with risk, taunt death, inspires a lot of us. Their risk-taking tends to be laced with a desire to be as close to life in the present moment as possible. It's almost mindful. Whether or not similar motivations drive drug users is debatable, but after years of studying meth use and spending time around both recreational users and addicts throughout my life, I'd say yea, for many this is absolutely what's going on.
- The laws that make both illegal cause more harm than the practices themselves. This is well-documented when it comes to drug use, but was recently, and solidly, put forth regarding high-risk sports.
But the next piece of this puzzle is recognizing how the two are different, especially socially...
- The WTC jumpers were convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Under NY law, self-injection of a narcotic is a felony. Felonies, even the smaller ones, have a way of ruining lives that misdemeanors just don't.
- Extreme sports participants tend, disproportionately, to be white men. Actually, so do illegal drug users, but those who face the legal repercussions of their use tend not to be. In particular, in the US, it's far and away black men who are punished for using drugs.
- The knee-jerk responses differ considerably. The overdose is always, always deemed tragic, emphasis is on the family, the loss. The edgework death, however, is permitted more complexity. Potter's death saddened many and was scoffed at by some. But time and again, folks brushed the sadness, the accountability to loved ones, aside, to celebrate a man who lived his life "well," doing what he loved. Individuals who die because of drugs aren't afforded that degree of humanity. Their lives are viewed as tragic, their deaths as well. Regardless of how they would have interpreted it.
There's no clean way to wrap this up at this point. It's a thought, a process, with many limbs. But how, I wonder, could recognizing these similarities and disparities move us toward a more human, more humane, way of interacting with one another?