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Monday, May 25, 2020

After Living An African Nightmare Corona Was A Piece Of Cake–Lessons In The Relativity Of Risk

Risk is what you make of it.  Some people are daredevils, snowboarding the double-blacks above the tree line at Aspen, acrobatic turns off sharp rock outcroppings, full speed through the glades and accelerating downhill.  Others attempt to climb Meru or K2 without oxygen and limited supplies.  Still others have serial adulterous affairs.  All these adventures are risky – broken limbs, concussions, pulmonary edema, and divorce are all common.  Yet those addicted to risk see life in no other way.  Without risk, says Ivan Karamazov’;s Devil, life would be boring, stultifying, and intolerable – ‘all one never-ending Hosanna’.  I am a vaudevillian, the Devil says, on earth to cause mischief, to stir up the pot, to make life interesting.

Peter Beaumont, a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber, disagrees completely and recounts the indescribable thrill of life-threatening risks.
So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."
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Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:
Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.
Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:
So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.
For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.
So it was for Randall Peet, an economist by trade, a Program Officer at an international development bank, and a world traveler by preference, personality, and instinct.  He avoided the easy assignments.  While his colleagues were happy enough to work in Senegal, Ghana, Namibia, Cape Verde, and the Gambia – seaside countries of relative calm, accommodating people, and reasonable health, Peet welcomed the chance to go to the worst places on the continent.  The crime and civil disorder of Lagos, the post-war civil chaos of  Angola, the volatile ethnic tensions in post-genocide Rwanda and Burundi, and the Tuareg unrest and ISIS terrorism in the Malian Sahara were features of the all-inclusive Club Med-style travel package he selected.

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It was not that Peet had a death wish or some irrational desire to challenge God or Fate, to prove his macho mettle, or to collect war stories for his memoirs.  He was simply like the climbers up K2, the skiers at the top of the Colorado mountains, or the men who love women – life without the risk of loss, failure, injury, or even death would be devalued, rendered mediocre and bland.

And so it was that  Peet had his share of scrapes and near misses – caught in the middle of a bloody coup in Ouagadougou; shaken down by armed Congolese militia thugs in Kinshasa; lost and down to the last jerrycan of water in the Sahara saved only by a camel caravan plying between Sijilmasa and Timbuktu; sick, dehydrated and prostrate from bout after bout of salmonella poisoning from bad meat, bad fish, and bad water; pulled unharmed from the wreckage of his Mercedes driven at freeway speed down the new trans-African Chinese road and thrown like a toy into the Sahelian scrub after hitting an unseen sand drift that had covered the road; and carjacked in the Atlas Mountains.

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Not surprisingly, Peet was unfazed by Corona and surprised at the hysteria the virus was causing.  Tens of thousands in Africa die of malaria, tetanus, AIDS, dengue, hepatitis, and typhoid every year. Infant mortality is high, maternal health fragile and poor. Only a few years ago before the advent of antibiotics, an infected finger even in the developed world could mean death; pneumonia was fatal, and tuberculosis a slow, painful, breathless end. As late as the early 19th century life expectancy was under thirty.  Tolstoy wrote about soldiers’ indifference to the Russian cannonade at the Battle of Borodino because of a sense that a heroic death at 35 was far better than an ignominious one from an infected insect bite back home.  Risk was not only ignored, it was dismissed. 

Although many will die of Corona, many more will die from cancer, heart disease, traffic accidents, yearly influenza and pulmonary ills; and yet our  first reaction is a flummoxed panic, to run indoors, to put on mask, gloves, and protective clothing, and stay put.  Despite the fact that Corona is not everyone’s disease, it is being taught that it is.  Only the immunologically compromised will get seriously ill or die, 20-25 percent of the rest of population will contract the virus and show no signs of illness, and those who do exhibit signs will be sick for a few weeks and recover.  Is this a recipe for panic? Basis for a universal protective algorithm? Where is the equanimity, the spiritual resolve, and the defiance?

Whether risk-taking is hardwired in our brains and linked to pleasure centers; or is a higher-order cognitive process which factors meaning, purpose, and being, the tendency today is to avoid it. Taking avoidable personal risk is considered anti-social, pre-evolutionary, and dismissive of human potential.  In our times a long, productive, unblemished, purposeful life is honored.  Yet in the final accounting has not the mountain climber had the more fulfilled life? Or the libertine? Risk is no simple matter, and the most evolved of us understand, embrace it, and take it.

The world is portrayed to children as a fundamentally dangerous place, and in order to survive, they must avoid all risk.  While much of this interdiction has a social reason behind it – one’s risk inevitably involves others – and therefore are valid; the effect of a society bound and determined to regulate behavior and to eliminate risk is to neuter the risk-taking impulse altogether.  Not only does eliminating risk squeeze the juice out of life but it cripples us when, as in the current Corona virus crisis, we must face it.

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Long life has made us fearful, timid, and restrictively careful.  Better high jungle gyms and seesaws, illicit and dangerous liaisons, and good food and wine than soft landings, faithful marriages, and a proper diet.

Randall Peet was one of the lucky few who not only understand the nature of risk and the dangers it proposes but the exhilaration of risk.  Randall Peet was a different kind of risk taker.  He was not the aggressive kind; neither the high Himalayan mountaineer who deliberately risks his life for the chance to do what few others have done or the soldier who leads a charge into withering machine gun fire.  He was one who relished being in the vicinity of risk, the environment of risk where danger might or might not happen. 

It was this particular sense of willingness to take potential risks that singled him out from the crowd and gave him a special philosophical resilience.  He was neither a fatalist nor a nihilist, just someone who like Ivan’s Devil appreciated the insecure life.

He was criticized and attacked by progressives who insisted that his demurrals were a malignant indifference to others.  His acceptance of risk with equanimity, however, was only self-confidence – no fear of death, no exaggerated sense of his importance or anyone else’s, and a certain spiritual grounding.  This moral diffidence was not immoral.  If anything it was Stoic; but Peet never thought of his reaction to Africa or Corona in such universal terms.  He had been made this way.  Whether thanks to some strange confluence of genes from adventuring forbears, twists of DNA that muted fear, family rectitude, a solid education, or simply personality, it didn’t matter.  He stood perplexed at the Corona hysteria and the calumny and political hatred it provoked, but not entirely surprised.  America after all was a timorous place.

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