Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Fear and Consequences

This is a tough one to write. For the second time in his life, my excellent friend Grant suffered some serious injuries in a snow-related accident. A decade ago, it was a bad day on skis, and last Friday, it was a bad day on a snowmobile.

Deep in the Sonora Pass backcountry, Grant flew his Ski-Doo motorized refrigerator a few feet too far and landed flat, literally exploding his L1 vertebra upon impact, which in turn did some damage to his spinal cord. Thanks in no small part to the top-notch backcountry buddies he was with that day, who calmly and efficiently did everything right, he was safely aboard a helicopter within about 2 hours of the accident.

Lesson #1: No matter how easy of a day it's supposed to be, choose your crew wisely. You never know when they'll make the difference that will save a life, speed recovery, or minimize collateral damage.

Now, approaching a week in the ICU, he's had a horribly invasive 2-for-1 surgery that replaced the disintegrated vertebra with a prosthesis and is in constant wrenching pain. While immediately after the accident, he had little to no feeling below the waist, he's now regained feeling in certain areas. His rehab doctor is very optimistic about his chances for a full recovery, although she's anticipating 1-2 years until he walks again. Knowing Grant's lust for life and generally positive attitude, I've got no doubt that he'll meet or beat that estimate. That being said, it's a long road to recovery no matter what. Thankfully, he's got an amazing wife, a fully supportive family, and the most extensive network of friends I've ever witnessed, so he'll never be without help and encouragement at any point along the way.

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Grant, in a typical moment atop skis. Dropping in to the big side of Once is Enough, Kirkwood.

So here's where this gets interesting. After his skiing accident, Grant toned down the stuff he'd ski. In the same breath, however, I'll note that he will still select and successfully ski lines that would make 99% of other skiers' blood curdle. In other words, he refused to insulate himself from risk or otherwise ensure that he'd never experience an accident like that again.

I'm quite certain that he'll pilot a snowmobile again, and whether that's true or not, I have a pretty good idea that his liberating lifestyle of challenging his mind, body, and soul will not substantially change. Why? Even after 2 horrifically debilitating accidents that have subjected him to years of pain, surgery, and rehabilitation, the consequences of leading the lifestyle that landed him there are far more palatable than the alternative, which consists of avoiding risk at every turn, never experiencing enlightening moments, and living a life largely devoid of triumph or failure, merely bouncing along in a soft sphere of complacence and "good enough."

So to where does that bring us? We arrive at a quote from Helen Keller.

"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold."

Go ahead. Read it again. Out loud, even.

Grant and I agreed long ago that these were words to live by. These words do not advocate reckless forays into no-win situations, but rather calculated and confident approaches to challenges of any sort. And yes, that's a fine line, but the line broadens when one approaches it. In other words, the balance between reckless abandon and quiet, confident success when faced with imminent doom only appears precarious from a long way away.

From my own experience, I was able to choose a path nearly a decade ago after a bad day on my snowboard. Fortunately, I chose the path that constructed the accident as an enriching experience, one to learn from, and an opportunity for improvement. Choosing that path has largely shaped who I am today, and I wouldn't change a second of it. All the pain, doubt, and repetitive rehabilitation, wrapped into a big bundle of Awful, is still a small price to pay for the joy I've lived before and after.

After a few days of being there for his family, I finally got in to see Grant yesterday. I won't write about his condition. I shared good wishes from many people, we chatted for a bit, and we parted after a moment of coherence on his part when he implored me to spread the word to everyone to get out there and live life to its fullest.

Setbacks are setbacks, but the benefits of living one's life in embrace of danger and uncertainty far outweigh the associated downfalls. They even further outweigh the best outcome of a life lived gently bouncing along. May Helen's words resonate strongly in your soul as you continue (or embark) upon your journeys. If you can't take her word for it, best of luck. You're better off clicking those poles together and dropping in, ready to stomp the landing. Otherwise, you're just falling off a cliff.

Past Detritus