I have to admit that I was fully transfixed this afternoon as I watched Felix Baumgartner stare down the 24 mile long void that separated him from the ground. There he stood, motionless and quiet, knowing that in moments his own body would tear through the sound barrier as gravity's insistent arm angrily pulled him toward home as if seeking to right a taunt made against it -- "you don't belong up here. No one does."
I also have to admit that though I will never come close to doing anything remotely like this, I have a deep craving to know what it's like. There are several aspects to this craving:
One is the desire to be so smitten by a big idea that you're willing to go to great (extreme) lengths to achieve it. Baumgartner planned for this world-record smashing jump for five years. He built a team, got corporate sponsorship, trained, refined his techniques and trained more. He then put his life on the line. A man on a mission is a very powerful thing. The Talmud's take on it is "nothing stands in the way of the will."
The second is a desire to sense that you have the power to make the impossible possible. There have been many feats of daring and wonder achieved over time, but a handful have stood out in my mind -- Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the newly constructed Twin Towers, David Blaine's week under water and his 17 minute breath-hold are, for me, the top two. As of today, Baumgartner joins them for third.
When Blaine spoke to neurologists about what the safe limits of breath-holding were, they told him that anything more than six minutes would cause brain-damage. Naturally, he took that as a challenge. He became obsessed with holding his breath -- doing it for 44 minutes out of every 52 first thing in each morning. He spoke with pearl divers. He studied the guy who at that time had the record (someone with twice the lung-capacity of the average person). He lost 50 pounds, ate foods that would increase his oxygen supply, learned how to slow his heart rate down to 32 beats per minute and slept in a hypoxic tent. The result was a world-record 17 minutes and 4 seconds. Like beating the 4 minute mile, all is impossible -- until it's not.
A third aspect to my desire to know what these experiences are like stems from a desire to do something of great import -- something dramatic, captivating and inspiring. And here's where it gets a bit tricky. Everyone wants this. Everyone wants to feel that the things they do -- their existences themselves -- matter. This is part what drives people to become actors, politicians and sports figures (or do Tough Mudders or go on Kingda Ka at Six Flags). It's what makes us appreciate and crave fame and part of why we all need validation. The question is: Is what Baumgartner & Co. do actually, intrinsically valuable? Some would argue that it's just lunacy or simply a cheap substitute for real achievement -- if you can't contribute to society in any real way, just hold your breath for attention like children do. Can we actually say that the world is better off because Philippe Petit had the guts (or the temerity) to sneak up to the WTC, string his wire and perform on it? One suspects it is, but how, exactly?
Three-thousand years ago Solomon wrote that "he who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of his passions is better than the conqueror of a city" (Proverbs 16:32). Though it does not tend to win accolades, from a Judaic perspective, internal achievement is far and away the greatest (and most difficult) feat to perform. To be sure, the daredevil must achieve inside and out. To do what they do, they must vanquish fear, build tremendous reserves of patience and remain undaunted by failure. What I wonder is: What else could these people have done with their unassailable talents? How many hungry people could they have fed if they had applied these same skills to the poor? What medical breakthroughs could they have brought about? Or, could they have become literal living saints -- taking hold of and rooting out all of their negative traits and clearing paths for others to learn from their example? It's clear to me that anyone who seeks to walk a spiritual path needs to pursue that growth with the same dogged, death-defying, obsessive and relentless vigor.
The sad truth is that some of the folks who pulled off these extraordinary stunts did not live exemplary lives. They were able to bring their gifts to bear only on certain aspects of their reality while others rotted on the vine. Thrills, no matter how intense, eventually fade and can leave people feeling empty and drained. So while, these traits and skills are exceedingly valuable, they do not necessarily correlate to happiness and can leave someone eternally milking a brief moment of glory from 1974. No one can take it away from him, but there's just got to be more.
I propose that a challenge competition be established -- one that encourages internal exploration and achievement. There should be a presidential medal or a Google X Prize awarded to all those who can demonstrate that they used to be habitually angry and overcame it, verbally abusive and stopped or excessively fearful and worried who became congenially optimistic. These new found traits pay dual dividends -- one to the individual who does it and another to society -- which will benefit from all its interactions with these folks.
It may not have the drama of a supersonic leap from the edge of space, but, pound for pound, when it comes to success borne of frightfully tough work and unbending determination, character development wins hands down.