Death, Parenting, and a Zest for Life

A few thoughts on the Abby Sunderland sailing-around-the-world controversy

As columnists go, Leonard Pitts Jr. tends to be thoughtful and eloquent.  He can even be upbeat.  Most newspaper columnists, however, are committed to whining — pointing out what is going wrong, the deficiencies of people and society, etc. — and with his column on Abby Sunderland (“Taking the Ultimate Risk…”, which you can read here), the oftentimes balanced Pitts has entirely embraced that pessimistic orientation.  And in doing so, his generally well-considered viewpoint has gone off the rails.

Abby Sunderland loves adventuring on the ocean.  You can find your own water-based adventure through the English firm "Into the Blue."  Click to find out more.

Abby Sunderland sailing her boat “Wild Eyes”

See what I did there?  I employed a metaphor, stating that he had gone “off the rails,” which implies that his thoughts were misguided, dysfunctional, erratic.  But, really, what specific elements of his thesis about the response to Abby Sunderland’s attempt to sail around the world did I refute with that statement? 

Not one. 

But that’s also what columnists tend to do.  Pitts did the same thing in his piece.  He wrote:  “But the hole in Sunderland’s logic is wide enough to sail a crippled boat through.”  See how easy that is?  By using a provocative metaphor that has no basis in reality, he has predisposed you to feel that Laurence Sunderland’s position is unquestionably wrong (Sunderland, Abby’s father, said:  “Sailing and life in general is dangerous.  Teenagers drive cars.  Does that mean teenagers shouldn’t drive a car?  I think people who hold that opinion have lost their zeal for life.  They’re living in a cotton-wool tunnel to make everything safe.”).

But, of course, Pitts notwithstanding, Sunderland is not wrong.  His statement is rather accurate.  And since Pitts has chosen to speak up in the interest of cotton-woolism, I’ll engage with those interests by using his column as a springboard.

There are a couple of cruxes to this issue.  One involves how we view death.  The other involves how we view children.

Death comes to everyone; all humans have that in common. 

How we each regard death is subject to wide latitude, however.  The controversy surrounding Abby Sunderland’s adventure seems to divide people into two camps.  On one hand, we have those who apparently think that life consists primarily of avoiding death.  On the other, we have those who think that life is an experience to be embraced uniquely and pursued so as to maximize enjoyment.  People in both camps die, sooner or later.  But who has a better time beforehand?  Is life about doing whatever it takes (including drudgery) to remain alive as long as possible, only to be dragged away, whimpering, when the Grim Reaper decides it’s “our time?” 

Or is it about pursuing vivid experiences that give rise to feelings of purpose, euphoria, empowerment, passion, and fulfillment?

In the first camp is Leonard Pitts Jr. and his ilk, who seem to think that the value of life is to be measured by its length, as well as how closely our activities conform to what others think we should be doing.  In the second camp is Abby Sunderland and other envelope-pushers (including her brother Zac, Jessica Watson, and Jordan Romero) who seek to do what they are inspired to do.   Which group is living life to the fullest?  Even if you’re out on the ocean in a boat, alone, in a storm, maybe scared, uncomfortable, unsure whether you’re going to make it, at least one thing’s for sure:  you know you’re alive.  And, really, isn’t that the point?  Otherwise, why bother?

Besides, that is the least of it — if the dream is pure, there’s going to be more joy and exhilaration involved than anything else.

You want to spend years and years avoiding risk and uncertainty at all costs?  That’s your prerogative.  Just don’t expect notable zest to result from that approach.  I’ll take Abby Sunderland’s 5 months at sea over 80 years of trying to prolong a tepid life.  Not that you have to be an adventurer.  The point is that you can’t fully embrace life if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder.

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Let the ones who want to live exuberantly do so.  The quality of life should not be measured by how long it lasts or how free of danger it is, but by the amount of joy and intensity it contains, whether one lives for a single year or a hundred. 

In his column, Pitts disparages Abby’s journey as “meaningless,” contrasting it with Magellan’s search for a passage to the Spice Islands — as though a mercantilist criterion is the only suitable way of determining the worthiness of an objective (a materialistic argument that he also brings to bear on the subject of driving cars — dissing, along the way, anyone who doesn’t have an automobile). 

He seems to want people to do only those things that, according to him, benefit others.  But then, what of Pitts’s own profession?  Columnists seek to persuade, influence, and shape the behavior of others into channels they deem appropriate.  Actually, most humans spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get others to act the way they want them to.  You yourself probably regularly attempt to get your spouse, friends, kids, and others to do what you want them to do.  How’s that working out for you?   If controlling the actions of those closest to us is futile, how much more futile is it to try to influence the population at large?

Ted Koppel, a thoughtful and intelligent man who has spent his life as a journalist ferreting out the ills of society, couldn’t keep his own son from killing himself with alcohol.   By Pitts’s own standard then — benefiting others on a materialistic level — how ultimately meaningless are his writing activities?

This brings me to how parents and other adults in so-called positions of authority view and treat children.

In the last 125 years or so, much of the civilized world seems to have come to the conclusion that children are little more than self-destructive morons, incapable of choosing appropriate courses of action or protecting themselves from the vicissitudes of a hostile world. 

But this is illogical.  Look at it philosophically from either a materialistic or spiritual viewpoint. 

If you take the view that basically we are all spiritual beings, then each child must be regarded as an experienced soul that chose to take on a body in order to experience this construct known as “life” — an experience they have certainly undertaken many times before, given that one of spirit’s primary qualities is immortality.  (The view that an all-powerful entity created each of us to live a single, go-for-broke lifetime in an immense material universe, during which we must adhere to particular religious rules or be denied an eternal “heavenly reward” is kind of goofy.  For one thing, have you noticed that the rules we’re supposed to follow are always set up to benefit the rule-makers?). 

If you observe children, you will note that they instinctively chafe under the limitations of mind and body those in “authority” impose on them.  At a fundamental level, they want to express why they are alive, why they came to this world.  Instead, we bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy by treating them like incompetent halfwits incapable of making decisions and creating the experiences they desire, as opposed to powerful spiritual creators who are here through deliberate intention, relishing the tremendous variety of life. 

Given the asinine assumptions and stultifying influences surrounding them, it’s no wonder many kids grow up weak, tentative, uncreative, and “irresponsible.”  (Do we disparage their dreams because we’ve given up on our own?)  Instead, kids should be given credit for being the knowing, magnificent beings that they are (as should all humans). 

Parenting should consist mostly of making sure a child has a place to live, food to eat, and loving encouragement — after that, let them decide what they want to do and how they want to do it.  Too radical for you?  There are many examples of eras in history when children took on “mature” roles much earlier in life than they do now, and the human race somehow managed to survive.  (How old was Tut when he began his reign, nine?  Alexander the Great became his father’s regent at sixteen.  Joan of Arc became a knight at sixteen.) 

Kids have a greater capacity to do almost everything than is generally acknowledged.  Of course, one can find plenty of hypocrisy in this stance on childish ineptitude.  For example, the United States officially regards all of its healthy 18-year-old citizens as suitable candidates to fight wars (so it will be okay for Abby Sunderland to die doing that in another couple of years).  But when you think about it, evaluating someone as responsible or irresponsible based on the date affixed to their birth certificate is inane.  We all know level-headed, purposeful 12-year-olds and clueless, ineffectual 25-year-olds.  Both, however, should be free to pursue their preferred path in life. 

It does not work well for kids to be regarded as, more or less, accessories intended to gratify their parents, nor treated like little robots that must be painstakingly programmed with society’s restrictions.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to a non-spiritual view of life — if you think that a human being is only a collection of electro-chemical processes somehow exhibiting self-awareness — then it is still illogical to lean towards curtailing the activities and aspirations of youth. 

If life amounts to nothing more than subatomic billiard balls randomly caroming off each other, living beings should be allowed to pursue their unique agendas, which somehow express the focused chemical processes that gave rise to them in the first place.  In the absence of any metaphysical outcome or significant meaning toward which it must be morally steered, who cares what the ultimate fate of a process in a test tube is, other than the process itself (and maybe its cohorts)?  So, let it flow.

Of course, if a kid kills himself by following his inclinations — for example, let’s say Shaun White, instead of winning gold medals in the Olympics, ran into a tree and killed himself while snowboarding  — then that individual would never perpetuate his or her DNA.  The electro-chemical process ends.  While that may be regarded as a tragedy from the standpoint of the genes involved, the human race as a whole persists.  There’s plenty more genetic material available.

By the same token, from the spiritual perspective, if you die, no big deal — you’re still immortal, still alive, still aware, and you can come back here any time you want.  If you think about it like that, “tragedy” becomes irrelevant.

But neither of those two logical positions is adopted by the majority of adults.  Instead, if, as a child or teen, a Shaun White or an Abby Sunderland dies attempting something adventurous and challenging, there is no shortage of namby-pambys popping up to criticize the parents, opining that they were “neglectful.”

So…  Maybe the rule should be that kids can’t do anything dangerous until they have successfully reproduced?

For those who criticize Abby Sunderland’s parents, I say:  get thee to a nunnery.  That environment should suit you.  Leave the intoxicating vigor of life to those who can savor it.

Abby’s father, Laurence Sunderland, comes in for most of the criticism in Pitts’s column.  Pitts states that he “sent his daughter to sea all alone for no good reason,” as though Abby were some kind of oblivious automaton. 

But it’s an ill-considered statement.  You can’t “send” anyone to sea all alone.  They must choose to go.  Abby wanted to go.  In fact, her father dissuaded her from going when she was even younger.  She finally did something she’d been wanting to do for years, that she’d been preparing to do for years. 

Olympic gymnasts are almost regarded as over the hill by the time they are 17 years old.  13-year-old girls are allowed to perform backflips on 4-inch-wide balance beams all over the world, risking broken necks and fractured skulls.  Yet Abby, at 16, is too young to pursue something for which she has been practicing for over 10 years?   And besides, what possible “good” reason can there be for leaping backward on a balance beam?  Sounds dangerous and “meaningless,” doesn’t it? 

Pitts should be criticizing gymnastics.  And motocross.  And… well, you get the point.

Why did no one criticize Steve Fossett for floating around the world in a balloon for no “good reason?”

The meaning of any experience is contained in the experience.

Some are carping over the expense of rescuing Abby — or anyone, really — from this type of risky endeavor. 

As though the money would have been better used to pay for filling in potholes or hiring a social worker, or as though the money simply disappeared from the face of the earth. 

To those I say:  try not to worry so much.  Your scarcity-perspective is hindering you.  The money spent on rescuing Abby didn’t vanish — it helped employ pilots and aircraft mechanics and medical personnel and video crews and journalists and columnists.  It is still in circulation.  As a result of Abby’s initiative, bloggers and pundits now have something to pontificate about, and nervous nellies the world over are using computers and electricity and the Internet to poke their noses into the Sunderlands’ business.  Media is selling ads.  Television and radio stations and websites are prospering.  And, on a personal level, the people who helped rescue Abby probably feel pretty good about what they did.  They’ll have an experience to talk about for the rest of their lives.

If only all of us could have such experiences.

Leonard Pitts wrote:  “But for the grace of God, she would be dead now.” 

It’s a shame that he — and anyone who seeks to cocoon themselves in the cotton-wool of conformity and timidity — does not recognize the sublime grace that exists because of those like Abby who call it forth (which is also why we try to rescue such people when things go awry — because they call it forth from us as well). 

Due to her experiences, Abby now knows things no other person knows.  She has a vivid understanding that will never be lost. 

Bottom line, God’s grace is available to all of us, but it is those who pursue their own marvelous dreams that truly embrace and celebrate it.  The grace of God exists because we exist — the grace to do a little more because we want to.

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