We have three boys who are now adults. Our oldest, Ryan, is interested in the more traditional sports, especially basketball and golf. Ryan has the most naturally gorgeous basketball shooting form of anyone I know, and the same is true of his golf swing. The guy just had it from the womb! Jeff, my second son, and his brother Phil have had an interest in non-traditional sports, particularly extreme BMX biking. Donna and I have supported all 3 boys in their interests and activities, usually timing our summer vacation plans around the sports camps they wanted to attend.
I think the greatest demonstration of our support for Jeff’s and Phil’s interest in ramping bikes was in our willingness to allow them to purchase and dump tons of fill dirt in our side yard so they could build jumps. The dirt jumps grew over several years as did the crowd of teenage daredevils who spent hours forming the ramps so they had just the right shapes with perfect “lips” at the tops. Before any of the young men (and there were a couple girls who hung out as well) could use the ramps, they and their parents had to sign a release/waiver form that Donna and I put together using borrowed “legalese” from several sources. Fortunately, none of the boys’ friends sustained any serious injuries on our property, so we never needed to test whether the release form really protected us from being sued. Given the size of the jumps, the stunts they attempted, and the feats they achieved, it’s a miracle nothing serious happened during the years the ramps were in operation.
In addition to signing the waiver, Jeff and Phil invited all local rampers to join their extreme sports club, the “Fairfield County Crue” (I’ve never understood why it is cool to use non-traditional spelling in names like this). The FCC didn’t have a formal constitution or meeting schedule. But there were custom-made t-shirts, and the walls of both boys’ now vacated bedrooms still have “FCC” inscribed on them in glow in the dark paint even though they have since moved out. I got a kick out of their club, and I wanted a t-shirt. But Jeff and Phil insisted that my sport of hang gliding was not considered an extreme sport, so I was not permitted to join.
Never mind that most of the other Crue members disagreed. My boys thought that hanging face down while thousands of feet in the air, from an aluminum and Dacron contraption weighing only 55 pounds, was not extreme. We had many philosophical discussions about why dirt bike jumping was extreme and hang gliding was not. I think that it had something to do with perceived speed. While high in the sky a hang glider looks slow. Go figure.
Jeff, Phil, and I still jokingly banter back and forth over just what characteristics of a sport can cause it to be deemed “extreme,” but we all agree that the element of risk has something to do with it. Pushing through the paralysis of fear, feeling the adrenaline rush, and relishing the sense of accomplishment when you have set new personal records all add to the draw of our non-traditional athletic pursuits. Of course, the cheers from family, friends, and onlookers carry with them an addictive element as well as do the “You must be crazy!” comments frequently thrown our way. But I think there is something more going on, a deeper longing or desire that is only partially fulfilled by being engaged in these thrilling activities.
This past Christmas, my mother gave to me (I dropped a hint or two) a book titled Explorers of the Infinite by Maria Coffey. It’s subtitle is The Secret Spiritual Lives of Extreme Athletes – and What They Reveal About Near-Death Experiences, Psychic Communication, and Touching the Beyond. I had read a review of this book, and even though I realized it was not written from a Christian perspective, I thought it might challenge my thinking a bit and, perhaps, give me some insight into what makes us adventurers tick. The book was filled with vignettes about extreme athletes of all kinds, especially mountain climbers, their reflections about why they engage in their particular sport, and some very unusual experiences they had encountered during their adventures. Their stories had to do with apparitions of ghostly figures, near-death and out-of-body experiences, visions, and psychic encounters. Intriguing reading to be sure.
In the introductory material, Coffey explains the foundational question that guided her work: “Could the state of intense ‘aliveness’ that is the allure of extreme sports for so many actually be a route to spiritual transcendence, and a portal to new realms of consciousness?” I began to read with a high level of curiosity. I recognized bits of my own cravings and fascinations with “extreme” living as I read the motivations and reflections of the adventurers Coffey profiles in the book. But after only a few chapters I noticed that I was becoming weary of pressing on. It became evident that with each strange encounter, Coffey offered only random guesses as to what was going on. There were no substantial answers as to why mountain climbers had premonitions about climbing on a day in which they or a fellow explorer later died, or what actually caused the ghostly appearance of a deceased relative…only suspicions. I finished the book with an empty feeling. There were too many repetitions of phrases like “Could it be…?” and “What might have caused…?” and “Was it possible that…?” I don’t really think that Coffey was any closer to answering her guiding question than when she started, although I do commend her for doing the research and documenting her findings.
I’m not claiming any special knowledge myself, although I did note that many of the strange encounters she chronicles took place at high altitudes with climbers who waived off the use of oxygen or when adventurers were nearing physical exhaustion due to sleep deprivation and over exertion. Our brains can do bizzare things in conditions like these. Pilots are required to use supplemental oxygen when flying above 12,500 feet for an extended period of time for exactly these reasons. And I have premonitions (or more accurately, I get a little queasy and I have second thoughts) almost every time I go out to fly.
The most intriguing thing that has caught my attention and given me reason to ponder is simply the question “Why do we desire transcendent experiences in the first place?” The craving for feelings of rapture, euphoria, intense aliveness, unbounded flight, and supernatural powers afflict most of us at one time or another, and probably more often than many of us care to admit. Coffey does a nice job documenting this in her book. Our recreational pursuits, from the benign to the extreme, are an effort, I believe, to touch this transcendence even if for a fleeting moment. Ask yourself…why are golf courses some of the most beautiful places on earth? Where and why do hikers hike, campers camp, and sightseers see? What is it about height, speed, and danger that so intrigues skiers, extreme bikers, surfers, and base jumpers? Is it not for phenomenal and transcendental adventures?
And as uncomfortable as it may be to admit, it’s a universal human characteristic that we crave approval and admiration. Even the most humble among us wants to be accepted and loved, and we all have different ways to achieve this condition. I don’t think it’s a shameful thing for us to desire acceptance and to feel appreciated. It’s fun to win first place in an athletic event or to set a new local or world’s record. The respect an athlete earns as a result is satisfying for a season. Of course, this can get out of hand, particularly when a person or team feels the need to hurt their opponents or to break the rules to be “number one.” Competition can be a motivating thing, but when the desire to destroy others to win becomes an end in itself it can turn ugly.
In an essay titled “The Weight of Glory,” the 20th century novelist and theologian C. S. Lewis explores the human desire for transcendence. This is one of my favorite literary works of all time, besides the Bible. I’ve probably read this excellent composition nearly two dozen times in the past 5 years, and each reading yields new insights for me. In the essay Lewis proposes that a desire for the transcendent is a universal human condition. We long for a “far off country” which “no natural happiness will satisfy.” There are moments in our experiences when we are blessed with glimpses of the beauty that we desire, yet these fleeting moments of joy or beauty are brief and are transported to us through temporal means that are vague reflections of ultimate joy or beauty.
Lewis calls this desire for the transcendent “glory.” Glory can be thought of in 2 ways, the first being pure love and acceptance. Our earthly cravings for attention and affection can be satisfied for a time through relationships with those we love or through the admiration we might attain when we do something well, but ultimate love and affection are only possible in eternity. Christians look forward to a time in the future when we might hear those beautiful words from our heavenly Father, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” Only this blessed approbation will ultimately satisfy any human being now or in eternity. C. S. Lewis frames this beautifully:
We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine… The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged , to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will be open at last.
~ C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
Lewis describes the second aspect of glory for which we crave as “brightness, splendor, luminosity.” We don’t want to simply experience moments of unbounded freedom, we want to be unboundedly free. We want perfect health, and even though many of us would deny it, we want unbridled power. Not necessarily in the sense of brute strength, but we know that our physical bodies are limited, and we long to be set free from these limits. Lewis takes these ultimate cravings even further:
We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become a part of it…For if we take the image of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophesy. At the present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
~ C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
I believe that Lewis’ reflections about the universal human desire for glory is much more satisfying than those given by Maria Coffey. She documents the craving for thrills and the unusual experiences of extreme adventurers, but Coffey does not touch on the deepest motivations that drive these athletes (and all of us) forward. To put it simply, God has placed in each of us a desire, a longing, for things eternal. Somehow we know there is, out there, the satisfaction of our need for love and freedom and beauty. We can find temporary satisfaction of these cravings in this life, but the ultimate fulfillment is in a life to come. God “has placed eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and may He give us the grace to be found good and faithful servants so that we can enter into His joy forever.