From my third floor perch, I see a lot of things. On a winter day, the trees denuded of their foliage, I can see almost 10 city blocks. I shrink from saying that 'I've seen it all' but I've seen a lot of it. Recently, I watched two teenage boys shinny up a tree and take turns leaping from ever-higher branches. It wasn't something they'd been taught, but the danger of it was obviously sublime.
From my third floor perch, I see a lot of things. On a winter day, the trees denuded of their foliage, I can see almost 10 city blocks. I shrink from saying that ‘I’ve seen it all’ but I’ve seen a lot of it. Recently, I watched two teenage boys shinny up a tree and take turns leaping from ever-higher branches. It wasn’t something they’d been taught, but the danger of it was obviously sublime.
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”
Of course the trick of it is to run headlong right up to the lip of the precipice… stopping short of the abyss.
There is a passage in the Hindu Kath Upanishad that reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.” Somerset Maugham referenced this in the title of his novel, The Razor’s Edge. The world’s religions are rife with narrow path metaphors and other admonishments to seek balance amid the perils.
The secular lexicon is equally fatted with similar turns of phrase. We often speak of “walking a tightrope” or “working without a net.” The idea of acting in spite of great risk is especially fertile ground for visual verbiage. Relatedly, we tend to hold in high esteem those professions for whom danger is a defining element. Firefighters, police officers and members of the military quickly come to mind. This professional marriage to danger manifests in interesting ways. Most law enforcement officials speak of “being a cop” rather than “working for the police department.” As noted policing scholar Jerome Skolnick observes, the demands of these professions extend well beyond official duties. Others have described policing as a “style of life.” In short, it’s not what you do. It’s what you are.
Being forged in the caldron of danger is transformative. Four decades ago John Van Maanen termed the process of becoming a police officer a “metamorphosis.” An event earlier this week reminded us that there exists an especially rare breed of person for whom marriage to danger may be genetic. This week the government of Canada gave Nick Wallenda, a member of the famous aerialist family, permission to walk a tightrope stretched over Niagara Falls. In so doing, he will be the first person to attempt this feat in more than a century. According to the BBC, Wallenda has been walking tightropes since he was 2 years old.
Wallenda apparently finds his own transformation in the danger: “My dream is to walk into the mist, disappear, and walk out the other end. Contrary to popular belief, it’s very peaceful when I’m on the wire. It’s just me and the wire. It’s relaxing.”
If you listen to cops describe those moments of exigent peril, they often talk about time slowing to a crawl or of “the rush.” I’ve never heard anyone speak of “the quiet” or “the peace.”
While equally compelling, the two dangers are not the same. Circling back to a pivotal region in Maugham’s novel, we can add a third. In a recent book Wade Davis tells a splendidly horrible tale where the veterans of the War to End All Wars assail the slopes of Mt. Everest. In what proves to be a regularly fatal parade of grand adventure, these men symbolically claw their way back from the trenches of Verdun, the Marne and the Ardennes. In their risk, there was redemption. Long before the Mercury astronauts freed the U. S. from Sputnik’s mocking beeps, the men of Flanders Field blazed their own trail into the heavens.
A soldier who served under legendary Army Ranger Jim Keen once wrote a few lines that perfectly circumscribe so much of what all these men represent, “It was a different time and different place, it would be hard to understand if you weren’t there.”
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org