From January to September 2009, 21,833 people died in my home state of Oregon. Just like that, each one of them left the world—here one day and gone the next.
Several weeks ago, three hikers also died on our nearby Mount Hood in a tragic accident.
After their deaths, there was the usual pontification about what they could have done differently. Despite the fact that they were all experienced climbers, and despite leaving for the hike when weather conditions were good, some people blamed their “risky behavior” and suggested various reforms that wouldn’t have made any difference in their case.
While I was away for my end-of-year vacation, I scanned through the comments on our newspaper’s website. “I don’t want to say they deserved to die,” one person said, before going on to explain why they deserved to die for pursuing their passion.
Fatal accidents are sad. I wish they wouldn’t happen, and I wish we could bring back the lost hikers. But I also don’t think they should have stayed home, and I don’t think they are that different from the 21,833 others who died earlier this year.
I propose that the greater risk is to play it safe all the time. Properly experienced, life is a very risky behavior.
I recently read Christopher Reeve’s autobiography, Still Me. He wrote about how during his years playing Superman, he worried about dying in a “dumb” accident. Superman Hit By Bus, he imagined the headline. Later, he fell off a horse and was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
The book is a fascinating account of his first two years adjusting to a very different (and extremely limited) way of living. He was angry, bitter, and at times wished he had died in the accident. But he didn’t regret riding the horse that day his life changed forever. As he put it, if he knew when he got on the horse that he would be thrown, he would have slept in that morning. But there’s no way to know something like that in advance; you just have to live your life, risk and all.
From time to time people send me stories like the Mount Hood climbers, or something bad that happened to another traveler somewhere. I don’t have a death wish with anything I do, and I don’t think that world travel is particularly unsafe. Like Superman, I could get hit by a bus right down the street from my home.
But if something ever does happen to me, all of you can tell the real story to anyone who asks: Chris didn’t want to take any risks on missing out. That’s why he climbed the mountain.
Instead of trying to live a risk-free existence, let me tell you a few things that are truly worth worrying about:
The road not taken.
The destination not explored.
The adventure not pursued.
The life unlived.
If we’re going to lose sleep over something, it seems to me that those are the things that should keep us awake.
Life is dangerous. It’s risky. It’s worth it.