23 Jul Contemplation

A few weekends ago, I headed out with some friends to go paragliding at Marshall. Being a small pilot on a slow glider, means I can only fly safely in light wind, otherwise I run the risk of being blown backwards into dangerous, turbulent air behind the hill. This particular day was extremely windy, yet even though I knew my limitations, sitting there watching larger pilots on their faster gliders launch, I began to doubt myself anyway. Was it really too windy for me?  Or was I just succumbing to my anxiety like usual?

After waiting for a good hour, in which the wind only seemed to pick up further, I made an offhand comment to a friend, saying, “I can’t decide if I’m being smart or being a wimp.” He gave me a strange look and replied, “It’s always smart to wait for conditions that you’re comfortable with.  You don’t have anything to prove.”

It was funny how he picked up on the real issue before I even understood it myself.  I didn’t have anything to prove – but that’s exactly the reason I was doubting myself and feeling tempted to fly.  Watching the other pilots glide about, I could feel a tightening in my chest, a strange pressure telling me that I should be up there too. If they could do it, so could I. And so what did that say about me that I was still on the ground? In my mind, it said I wasn’t good enough.

What a strange thing to think though, right?  Why should I feel that way, when in fact, I was being smart and making good decisions? Why did I feel this pressure to get in the air even when I knew it wasn’t a good idea? Is it something about flying itself, an activity that inherently pushes the limits of human capability?  Is it some innate competitiveness inside of me, the same attitude that drew me to sports such as rockclimbing and paragliding in the first place.  Is it this pressure I put on myself to overcome my fears?  Is it a self esteem issue, a need to prove to the world that I’m brave or talented? Maybe some combination of it all? I didn’t really find the answer as I sat there on launch that day, but I did realize that whatever the answer, it would never be good enough.

In a sport like paragliding, we cannot be out to prove anything to anyone.  There is too much risk involved and too little forgiveness for mistakes.  This is a sport where the desire to do something should certainly never outweigh the choice to do it as safely as possible.

I didn’t launch that day until 6:30pm, when the wind finally died down to a manageable speed.  Even then, I still had trouble making forward progress and I was very happy that I had waited to fly.  I know that if I had launched any earlier I would have been either parked in the air, or moving backwards, neither of which would have been fun, or safe. Instead, I waited, and ended up having a great flight, cruising around the mountains for an hour with my friends.

I’ve been thinking about that flight and the conversation on launch ever since, and even more so this week when I read about the death of another member of the flying community.   I did not know this athlete personally but I still feel his loss, like a little break in my heart.  And it’s only the latest in a series of heart breaks. There have been so many lately, including close friends of mine.  I hate that it’s happening.  I hate that lives are lost in pursuit of the adventures we love  I hate that the sky sometimes lets us down.

And why is it happening?  When technology is getting better, the equipment safer, instructors more accessible and more knowledgeable?  I know we can’t control for everything and of course there will always be the tragic accidents, things that spontaneously go wrong, but otherwise, I believe it comes down to us.  It comes down to the decisions we make; when and how to fly. And so this week, I’m once again reflecting on my decisions, thinking about my goals and why I want to do all of the things I do. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the line between wanting to progress as a pilot (or climber for that matter) and being safe in my approach. Where is the balance between the two? How do I know I’m doing things for the right reasons?  How do I know if I’m pushing too far?  Again, as on launch, I don’t have the answers.  And maybe there are no hard and fast answers to these types of questions. Perhaps what’s more important is simply keeping the questions in mind and assessing our motivations and decisions on a regular basis, consistently checking in on our own attitudes.  Maybe it’s when we forget to do this, when we start taking our safety for granted, that we actually put ourselves in danger?

I forgot for a moment the other week. I let the wrong things – pride, doubt, fear, and the influence of others – hold sway over my decisions.  And I’m so grateful to that friend who put me in my place and kept me safe this time around.  I’m glad for the chance to think about what he said and hopefully use it to fly and climb safely for a long time to come.  I realize I need to make a concerted effort to always check in on myself and my decisions.  And I hope if you’re reading this, that you will do the same.  Maybe then we can keep our little community of adventurers a bit safer, a bit more whole…

I hope so.

Be safe my friends!  Take care of yourself, take care of each other, and I hope we can all meet each other in the sky and on the mountains for a long long time to come!