Writing a few days ago about how walking on the edge of a roof is great mindfulness training got me thinking in a couple of related directions.
One is that how risky something is usually is a combination of objective fact and subjective interpretation. The other is that the first thing I did after coming up with the name for this blog back in 2004, was decide on a subtitle.
Preaching the gospel of spiritual independence
The two ideas are related, in my own mind at least. I want people to make an informed decision about what sort of spirituality, if any, to pursue. To some extent that means looking at whatever facts exist about the spiritual options that most appeal to them.
But it also means that after looking at the same facts, various people are almost certainly going to interpret those facts in different ways.
This seems to be a universal feature of human nature.
Even in science, our most objective way of knowing reality, scientists engage in passionate disputes about how to view the same facts. Quantum theory, for example, is amazingly accurate in describing goings-on in the world of the very small. Yet there's no consensus among physicists as to how to interpret those goings-on.
(The "shut up and calculate" crowd even denies a need for interpretation.)
So I believe in allowing people a lot of latitude in how they decide to live their life, with the proviso that whatever decisions they come to aren't forced on others without good reason -- which typically is the role of government and elected officials.
Circling back to me walking on the edge of our roof to clean our gutters with a backpack leaf blower, I feel that I've thought out the pros and cons of this during the 25 years or so I've been doing this a half dozen or so times a year.
However, I also totally understand why someone -- such as my wife -- thinks this is an unwise thing to do. Partly she feels this way because Laurel has a different risk tolerance than I do.
I should add, physical risk tolerance.
Laurel is wonderfully gutsy when it comes to standing up for what she believes is right, even if she's in a decided minority, which happens fairly often with our neighborhood association where she's been a board member for many years. And my wife was a psychotherapist in private practice where she had to deal with domestically violent men and volatile family counseling situations.
Yet when I decided to get a motorcycle soon after we got married in 1990, my dream of us going off together on it vanished when, after one ride on our local street, she started yelling "slow down!" when I got up to 25 mph.
After that, I rode alone.
Which also was the case when in 2009, at the age of 60, I decided to get a 650 cc Suzuki Burgman scooter after selling the motorcycle after a couple of years. Numerous people advised me not to ride around on two motorized wheels, especially at my age.
That led me to write a blog post, "Older motorcycle riders, don't be scared by statistics."
Thus the risk of riding a motorcycle or scooter can be reduced by about 50% just by not being stupid, inattentive, or figuring that your handling skills are better than they really are.
Doing the sorts of common-sense risk-reduction things I mentioned above cuts down on the chance of gettting in an accident even further. However, no matter how careful a rider is, there's no getting around the fact that driving on two wheels is going to be more dangerous than getting around in a four-wheeled "cage" (as motorcyclists like to refer to cars).
Also, a lot more fun.
Which is why I ride, along with most motorcyclists and scooterers -- aside from those who can't afford a car and simply need a low cost means of transportation.
Back when I worked in health planning and policy research I became acquainted with the notion of balancing the quality and quantity of life. This often comes into play with living wills, where a person has to indicate how he or she feels about this sort of tradeoff.
Most people consider that extending the sheer quantity of life via time spent hooked up to a respirator, feeding tube, and such isn't worth the suffering and distress if one's quality of life is dirt-poor.
Similarly, virtually everybody is willing to take some risks in order to get more enjoyment out of life. Whether it is horseback riding, bicycling, getting on an airplane, or even driving to the weekly meeting of a knitting circle, doing something rewarding entails some risk-taking.
Again, this applies to both physical and non-physical risks. A stand-up comic is at very low risk of being physically injured while on stage, but they run a very high risk of being emotionally injured if their audience doesn't laugh, starts booing, or yelling out insults.
How many people are willing to take that risk? Not many. Yet I love stand-up comedy and applaud anyone willing to have the courage to open themselves up to that sort of potential ridicule.
Again, everybody is different.
Some people would rather have a root canal than speak in public. Others adore public speaking. They simply have different risk tolerances for the same activity. When I see another gray-haired/bearded old guy on a motorcycle, I think, "Way to go, man." Followed by, "I sure wish I still had my Burgman scooter."
Recently I saw a TV news story about an 82 year old man who took up pole vaulting again after an unremarkable high school career with the sport. He's cleared 9 feet, 1 inch, a record for his age group. Falling from nine feet, even onto a mat, has to be sort of risky for someone his age.
But he's enjoying pole vaulting.
Isett is the nation's best pole vaulter in his age group — and pretty much the only pole vaulter in his age group. He picked up the sport — for a second time — at age 66, five decades after an unremarkable high school career.
"It's fun," he said. "It's like going to high school again with nothing to study."
He has nothing to study but the physics of gravitational potential energy — and pain management. But Isett said it's worth the aches.
"It's a rush, exhilaration, when you clear a bar," he said.
At a meet last year, Isett cleared 9 feet, 1 inch. No octogenarian has ever done such a thing.
"What he does is absolutely insane," another teenager at the gym said.
Isett said he's not done setting records. He told CBS News he plans to stay fit and keep at this until he's 6 feet under.