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Jewish World Review
June 14, 2004
/ 25 Sivan, 5764
Thrill-seekers don't know what they're missing
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush holds flowers and a bottle of Smirnoff Vodka given to him by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev after skydiving above his presidential library yesterday
Ex-president Bush and parental responsibility
"Middle age has finally arrived," I said to myself as I confronted a life insurance application form for the first time ever. But as I filled in the blanks and checked off the boxes I suddenly paused, suspended between youth and old age, when I read and reread one question midway through the form: Have you ever been skydiving?
I consider myself an honest person, so I did undergo a moral struggle as I contemplated how I should answer. The reasoning behind the question seemed obvious: why should any business gamble a quarter of a million dollars on the life of someone foolish enough to jump out of an airplane?
The way I figured it, however, there are three reasonable explanations why an otherwise sane person would do such a thing. One, as in the case of former President George H. W. Bush, to save his life when his plane has been hit by enemy fire. Two, also as in the case of the ex-president, when one is winding down his life and figures he hasn't much of it left to lose anyway. And three, as in my own case, when one is not yet sufficiently mature to appreciate that his life is far too precious a thing to be thrown casually out of an open hatch at 3000 feet.
In the absence of any of these three excuses, an insurer would be entirely justified to refuse coverage or inflate charges. But why, since I now regard jumping from an airplane as ample cause for mandatory psychiatric observation, should I be burdened with doubled insurance premiums because of a momentary lapse in good sense when I was half my present age?
As it turned out, I went with a different company, one whose application asked, "Have you been skydiving in the last ten years?" That's much more fair, I think.
Of course, insurance companies may just be looking for excuses to jack up their prices. After all, compared to BASE jumping, ice climbing, and other extreme sports, skydiving is positively run of the mill. Could George Bush, a former president of the United States, former director of the CIA, and former member of the NRA, be so completely off-the-wall? (Never mind that the poor former first lady could hardly bear to watch her husband's escapades.)
Indeed, my diving instructor (whose name was also George) told us repeatedly: "Skydiving is no riskier than crossing the street!"
George isn't alive any more. He wasn't killed crossing the street, either.
The simple truth is that as a 19 year-old undergraduate still looking for a major course of study, life seemed to have little to offer me except for cheap thrills. If something did go wrong, and I splattered against the plowed earth of the Sacramento valley, well, what was the point of being alive if I didn't experience all life had to offer?
It goes without saying that children of all ages will be drawn like moths to the fire of every kind of sensory stimuli. It is our job, therefore, as responsible adults, to shield them from the flames of both real danger or virtual thrills, to gently prod them along the road to wisdom by exposing them to more rewarding and enduring highs than those brought on by adrenaline rush. For in the same way that chomping on spearmint gum deadens the palate to the subtle complexities of fine food and wine, the instant gratification of putting one's life at risk may in the end kill off any hope of ever savoring the subtle joys of maturity, even if those dangerous pastimes do not themselves prove fatal.
The Talmud offers the following insight into human nature:
If someone says, "I struggled but did not achieve," don't believe him; if he says, "I achieved without struggle," don't believe him; but if he says, "I struggled and achieved," believe him.
The Talmud offers the following insight into human natureThe Talmud goes beyond the simple axiom that there is no sense of accomplishment without exertion. It tells us that exertion and effort will inevitably produce a sense of accomplishment. And unlike the transient high produced by LSD, PCP, or any contrived brush with danger, the feeling of accomplishment produced by struggle will not vanish into nothingness, will not leave behind either an emotional void or the anguish of physical or psychological withdrawal. It will endure, spurring us on to greater struggles and greater accomplishments.
Without intellectual effort, we would never graduate from Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare, from Marvel Comics to Monet, or from music videos to Mozart. Without psychological effort we would never learn the practical skills to succeed professionally or the interpersonal skills to succeed as spouses and parents and friends and neighbors. Without effort we would never learn to appreciate the small, subtle pleasures life has to offer because we would be ever waiting impatiently for the next emotional quick-fix.
Acquired taste is not inaccessible to the young. As parents, we must not shy away from the challenge of inculcating patience and prudence in our children. Limit their time in front of the television and the computer monitor. Sign them up for Little League, or karate, or piano lessons, or arts and crafts. Don't let them smother everything they eat with ketchup. Through persistent effort we can teach them that cultivating a taste for the more refined pleasures of life is not so hard, no harder really than falling out of an airplane.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Rabbi Yonason Goldson