The selfish conceit of taking extreme risks

In the pursuit of thrills, have we become immune to the suffering of others?

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RED DEER, Alta. Feb. 2, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Take a risk, a voice inside your head says. How else are we to discover the best of ourselves and what we can offer the greater world?

Or how else do we discover how fast our snowmobile will go, and how far up a steep and delicate mountain crest of snow?

Certainly, risk-taking is an inherent part of the human condition. Without a willingness to face and conquer risk, ground-breaking science would be left undiscovered, astonishing literature would be unwritten.

In every walk of life, from business to education, from health to sports, you must sometimes take risks to move forward.

Love and risk hold hands every day.

You can’t make the leap from hope to faith without considering the risk.

Great art requires risk.

Exploration demands risk.

But what part of greater human evolution – or even true personal development – do we advance in any meaningful way by hanging from tall buildings to take photos of each other? What have we contributed to society by donning a wing suit and leaping off a skyscraper under dark of night into an urban forest of other skyscrapers?

How have we served our community by piloting a 250-kg snowmobile into remote mountain terrain, finding a steep and fragile slope and opening the throttle?

You certainly give yourself a jolt of adrenalin when risk-taking turns to thrill-seeking. If you remembered to turn on your GoPro camera, and don’t cry like a young child through the experience, you probably have great footage to show the world on YouTube.

And you no doubt can cherish the experience afterward, knowing that you faced your fears, pursued your dreams and came out the other side. You will certainly have created a sense of self-fulfilment that is not nearly as important as the realization that you are still alive.

Ultimately, however, the greater the risk, the more selfish thrill-seeking seems.

It seems particularly self-absorbed given the tragic consequences of failure – by you, your equipment, those around you or nature, which is at best a fickle plaything and at worst an evil spectre.

It also suggests you carry a large dollop of self-entitlement. It’s as if you aren’t concerned about the public and social cost of rescuing you if something goes wrong – or, worse yet, that your friends or public-service workers must recover your remains. And, worst of all, that your friends, family, neighbours and co-workers will be mourning you the next day, and for years to come.

Several Alberta families, countless friends, neighbours and co-workers are in mourning this week after five Albertan snowmobilers died in a backcountry B.C. avalanche.

This type of death has become far too common. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, between Jan. 1, 1996, and March 17, 2014, there were 192 avalanche deaths in that province. That’s 10 deaths a year, on average.

Most victims were men (slightly more than 90 per cent), about 35 years old, on average, and 41 per cent of them were snowmobiling (only two per cent of the deaths were occupation-related, the rest came during the pursuit of recreation of some sort).

So the deaths of these men near McBride, B.C., should not surprise us. But we should be puzzled by the increasingly common nature of the tragedy. How do we explain the rise in risk-taking behaviour, and the need to pursue this behaviour in surroundings that ramp up the random risk factor?

Most of us get our fill of extreme sports on the Internet, which is full of evidence that people with keen imagination and no fear filter can get up to all sorts of trouble.

For us, then, mundane life is fine – with a little vicarious video thrill-seeking.

We would like to think we would take such life-threatening risks – but only under extreme circumstances, such as saving another’s life.

Few of us love a hobby or sport so passionately that we would take such a risk. Few of us are willing to give in to the pursuit of a pleasure so intrinsic to our being that we are willing to leave others to mourn us if it turns out badly.

From that perspective, the thrill of the moment should never justify the cost. And that voice inside your head urging you to take a risk should be muted.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past. John is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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