Tightrope walker Nik Wallender recently took one of the greatest risks of his life when he walked across the Grand Canyon and completed the walk to world wide acclaim. I could only watch the TV reports with stunned amazement; why would anyone dare to do this when the risk of life was all too obvious? I have absolutely no idea what motivated him; and the fact that he pulled it off is unequivocally remarkable to say the least. Yet, he’s not the only daredevil in this crazy world of ours when risk taking is a high priority for millions of people, albeit unconsciously at times. Racing car drivers, sportspeople (the tragic death at the Sochi winter Olympics just one recent example), asylum seekers traversing dangerous seas in unsafe boats, jockeys, those in the armed forces, war correspondents et al Does the love and passion enjoyed and/or the desperation of their plight play havoc with their common sense or are they ignorant, indeed oblivious, to the risks they’re taking? What price, life? More common however are the daily risks many of us take when we speed in ordinary cars, let alone drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs, jaywalk, pick up strangers in bars, even at coffee shops, eat too much fattening food and sugar, ignore all the health warnings about cigarettes (I’m one of those, sadly), and go online for sex in bed at night. The list is endless; we indulge in all kinds of risk taking ad infinitum; it’s part of the tapestry of life as what is the alternative? To sit at home alone in abstinence of fun and good times and avoid all risk entirely? Risk taking is qualified by its intensity; most of us mere mortals measure our risks; as adolescents we may be more reckless and oblivious to all the warnings that could imperil our lives, but as we mature, our awareness about risk seems to augment and we develop more cautionary behaviour as we live out our lives. Is it the drive to survive that underpins this so-called maturity? And why do others keep in pursuit of great risk?
The Andes plane crash in the 1990s where survivors indulged in eating the dead to keep alive reflects the sheer desperation of doing anything to survive; ordinary civilians in war torn countries and/or POWs endure incredible starvation, torture, deprivation and suffering to live to tell the tale while others experience the sheer torment of physical and mental pain only to emerge from their agony as survivors, even living to enjoy life once more. We can marvel at their strength and resilience; we can only empathise with their situations and for most of us, count ourselves lucky we haven’t had to go through what they’ve experienced. But surely, their drive to survive, albeit at times against all the odds, seems truly incredible. Is it that life is SO precious that to surrender to death or to stop fighting for life is to abandon the inexplicable gift of being human? Sometimes, it’s taking great risks that endanger our lives; it is our decision as adults and we have to confront that responsibility for ourselves; but what is it that motivates us? We’re not walking across the Grand Canyon (he had the skills to achieve the feat), but we might as well be in a way; we place ourselves in situations time and time again that beget danger; I walk home alone through the gardens at night after a football game often surrounded by people who’ve consumed too much alcohol and you only have to remember what happened to Jill Meagher on a suburban shopping strip in the middle of the night with lights blaring from shop windows to know I am taking a great risk. Or the young men who’ve walked the streets of Kings Cross not even late at night who’ve died after a king hit by a stranger! Should they have been at home safely alone and not out at all? Fate dealt with them and their families so cruelly but they still took a risk however moderate it might have seemed. Risk is part of living and an article I once read talked about the 20 times greater risk of dying from asthma than surrendering that risk in life itself. I know that too as I am an asthmatic and have nearly died twice in my life. Literally. (I too had a very serious asthma attack in St Vincent’s and while I told them in the morning I couldn’t breathe, it wasn’t until late that afternoon a doctor actually came to see me. What was my life worth to them? I lay in bed for hours struggling to breathe and felt like I was dying; a public hospital where I had to ring my GP and a friend outside and then I’m just not sure why a doctor even came to see me. The reality is I could have been dead by then. Also, at the same time, my drive to survive was paramount; I remembered my mother always telling me not to panic and to stay as calm as I could and just to try and take deep breaths slowly) I have also nearly been killed by my violent ex-boyfriend as I’ve detailed (I never again took a risk with a violent man) and I’ve been raped by a stranger I picked up in a bar. I’ve also been a passenger in a car driven by a guy clearly under the influence of marijuana; in my youth, many times I have driven with drunk drivers; and I was left to die in emergency at a public hospital in Melbourne not even six months ago. Who ultimately is responsible for my life? My risk? My culpability or at times, the police and hospital staff? I do know that I am lucky to be alive; indeed, glad to be alive despite whatever I’ve experienced as I lived life and hoped some things would be different.
Nearly four years ago, after I’d been in a private hospital for asthma where thank god, I was attended to in emergency in the middle of the night immediately, I had to see a female psychologist from Centrelink about my capacity to work. She asked me if I had suicidal thoughts (that puzzled me as it was as I’d taken myself to the private hospital because I couldn’t breathe and needed help urgently to save my life) but I replied that sometimes I wondered why I was alive. She didn’t reply. What I meant is that at that time, living on unemployment benefits with little money and still not fully recovered from my asthma (the doctor in emergency who attended me told me I also had atypical pneumonia) , it was hard to go out and enjoy myself when many people then didn’t want to know me either. And I’d also had a vociferous argument with my sister (yet again) over money with her telling me to go on a Disability Pension because I’d receive more money which I didn’t want to do. I wanted a job! The reality is that however much we may question the meaning of life and why we do in fact exist, I know that I’ve always been on the drive to survive however I can do it. At the same time, I still take risks as I’ve outlined, but nowhere near the potential peril of risks I took when I was much younger. I’m still alive, and at 64, still look forward to my life and try to be healthy (apart from nicotine my addiction!) as I can and enjoy myself when I can. I learned years ago that that was my raison d’etre – I’m an unashamed hedonist with all the occasional risks that involves as well as making sure I look after myself as best I can in my straitened circumstances. My drive to survive is paramount; asthma is indeed without doubt, the most terrifying illness I’ve ever had; you really do feel you’re dying and fighting it takes all the calm in the world. I’m one of the lucky ones but I do seek help when I’m in desperate trouble as my own medication at home is limited. But mostly it works.
Life is indeed a maze of mysterious motivations but the gift of life is just far too precious to surrender. May I continue to breathe and enjoy life!