One of the most accomplished extreme athletes of his generation, Dean Potter died last week in a BASE jumping accident at Yosemite National Park. He and a jumping partner were attempting to navigate a narrow passage notched into a steep and spiny ridgeline. They smashed into the rock before they had time to open their parachutes.
By all reports, Potter was methodical in preparing and executing his jumps. That he was driven to court danger is, of course, an understatement. He climbed granite rock faces without ropes and traversed tightropes without safety nets. His daily life was as frugal and simple as his athleticism was passionate and spectacular. He feared controversy as little as he feared death. He solo free-climbed in parks where it was illegal, and he had a fondness for strapping his dog on his back while skydiving in a wingsuit.
Wingsuits give divers the feeling of a sudden but controlled plummet from a fixed point. The idea seems to be to inflict the maximum experience of fear onto one’s body while maintaining a clear and alert mental focus on the time needed to open one’s parachute. Think of this experience as the ultimate in Cartesian dualism: Mind and body are pushed to opposite extremes of clarity and panic. In a single movement, a fall that should be fatal ends in a landing that is almost impossible to believe.
Potter sometimes wondered about the ethics of his sport. “Wingsuit BASE-jumping feels safe to me,” he wrote in a blog, “but 25 wingsuit-fliers have lost their lives, this year alone. There must be some flaw in our system, a lethal secret beyond my comprehension.”
Actually, young men have always pushed themselves to face physical danger with courage and skill. Rites of passage are supposed to channel those urges into manageable and productive forms. We live in an age without such rituals, and yet we have the luxury and technology to take the search for thrills to unheard-of heights. Thrill-seeking, however, does not do justice to people like Potter.
It takes nothing away from Potter’s life to imagine that, born in another era, perhaps a thousand years ago, he would have made a great saint. He considered himself an artist more than an athlete, since he did things that had no rules or precedents. Like the members of a sacred cult, he was devoted to his calling with a singularity of will that is incredibly rare in any age. He lived on the edge of death in order to have life more abundantly, an exchange that demanded everything he had.
A thousand years ago, people were more familiar with death than we are. Why risk death when it is all around you, and just growing up and getting old is a rare accomplishment? The saints of old were adventurers of life, not death. Saints embraced poverty with all of its dangers in order to demonstrate the joy of living on the edge of grace. They pushed their bodies beyond the brink of self-punishment as a means of participating in the solidarity of all who suffer. They trained their thoughts to avoid temptation so that they could focus on finding the face of God in their neighbor.
We do not have saints like that because we do not believe in the dangers of damnation and the reality of demons. That is, the religious life is not an adventure because nothing is at stake. Our spiritual imaginations have become so desiccated that we need impossible pathways through unmovable mountains to inspire what little faith we have. The best among us seek to fly as they fall, rather than abandon themselves to the sheer uplift of God’s grace.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.