Thank you, Tim Krieder, for writing such a marvelous New York Times essay, "Cycle of Fear." You wonderfully described why I love riding my maxi-scooter (a Suzuki Burgman 650) so much. Also, why I like boogie boarding on the biggest waves I can find on a Hawaii vacation so much.
Krieder talks about riding his bicycle in New York City. But his explanation of why risky activities are so enjoyable applies to lots of pursuits: motorcycling, downhill skiing, rock climbing, skateboarding, horse riding, many others.
After speaking about our modern-day hypervigilance to mostly imaginary threats, the worries and anxieties of everyday life that obsess our waking brains (and even our dreams), Krieder says:
Which is why it’s such a relief, an exhilarating joy, to break the clammy paralysis of worry and place yourself at last in real physical danger. Even though it’s the time when I am at most immediate risk, riding my bike in Manhattan traffic is also one of the only times when I am never anxious or afraid — not even when a cab door swings open right in front of me, some bluetoothed doofus strides into my path, or a dump truck’s fender drifts within an inch of my leg.
At those moments fear is a low neurological priority that would only interfere with my reaction time, like a panicky manager shoved aside by competent, grim-faced engineers in a crisis. I doubt that the victims of sudden violent accidents die terrified; they’re probably extremely alert, brains gone pretty much blank while their galvanized bodies try to figure out what to do. I don’t think our minds are designed to accept that there’s no way out. Based on my own close calls, I suspect that if I am killed while biking, the state of mind in which I am likeliest to die is extreme annoyance. And at least it won’t be by drowning.
Exactly. I'm never scared while riding my powerful scooter.
(I usually put some sort of macho adjective before "scooter" when I write about my passion, to differentiate a Suzuki Burgman 650 from weenie scooters like teeny Vespas; nothing wrong with them, where I live it just seems like they're almost always ridden by young women wearing pink helmets, a demographic I don't identify with.)
As Krieder says, there's too much that needs concentrating on while engaged in a risky activity for fear to be present in one's mind. Even when riskiness raises its dangerous head, dealing with the situation occupies the brain cells which otherwise might scream Scary!
When I’m balanced on two thin wheels at 30 miles an hour, gauging distance, adjusting course, making hundreds of unconscious calculations every second, that idiot chatterbox in my head is kept too busy to get a word in. I’ve heard people say the same thing about rock-climbing: how it shrinks your universe to the half-inch of rock surface immediately in front of you, this crevice, that toehold.
Biking is split-second fast and rock-climbing painstakingly slow, but both practices silence the noise of the mind and render self-consciousness blissfully impossible. You become the anonymous hero of that old story, Man versus the Universe. Your brain’s glad to finally have areal job to do, instead of all that trivial busywork. You are all action, no deliberation. You are forced, under pain of death, to quit all that silly ideation and pay attention. It’s meditation at gunpoint.
Right now my stomach muscles are sore.
This morning the waves were running nicely high in Maui's Napili Bay. However, they weren't breaking super-cleanly, gradually from side to side. More like crashing down vertically in a single curvaceous whump, then whitewatering onwards.
It took a while to figure out where to position me and my boogie board for optimum wave-catching. I decided to venture past a small reef, rather than wait for a wave in front of it. This was a good decision. But for a split second, I had some doubt.
Not a fearful doubt. Just a calm, albeit highly focused, feeling of Whoa...look at this.
What I was looking at was nothing. Nothing, that is, between me and the ocean some four feet or so below, as the breaking wave had caught me in the curl and presented me with a great view of empty air between me and the ocean (also, somewhere, rocks).
I managed to hold onto the sides of my boogie board and land halfway gracefully on the wave after falling what seemed like miles. The landing hurt, but any discomfort was quickly erased from my mind as I enjoyed my best wave run of the day, almost all the way into the beach.
So, yes, I know what Krieder is talking about. And heartily agree with it.
I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive. Of course we can’t sustain this state of mind for too long.
People who go through their whole lives operating on impulse tend to end up in jail. We are no longer purely animals, living only in the moment; we are the creatures who live in time, as salamanders live in fire, prisoners of memory and imagination, tortured with dread and regret. That other, extra-temporal perspective is not the whole reality of our condition. It’s more like the view from the top of the Empire State Building, of people as infinitesimal dots circulating ceaselessly through a grid.
Eventually we have to descend back to street level, rejoin the milling mass and take up our lives; you lock up your bike and become hostage to the hours again. But it’s at those moments that I become briefly conscious of what I actually am — a fleeting entity stripped of ego and history in an evanescent present, like a man running in frames of celluloid, his consciousness flickering from one instant to the next.