It Could Be Worse: Afterthoughts on Zip Lining

Zip lining is not inherently dangerous. It is generally beautiful, simultaneously exciting and peaceful, and sometimes exhilarating. I know. I have enjoyed that experience more than once. The end of my first zip line adventure in Costa Rica was to rappel from a high cliff down an exquisite waterfall that took my breath, literally. And shocked me alive, alive, alive. My first thought on getting my breath was that, if I lived near it, I could be instantly addicted. The waterfall brought me into a deep, beautiful gorge with an exquisite view across distant mountains. A memorable finish to the experience.

Every September I lead a retreat for twelve men from Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans. I often find it is they who lead me, sometimes on great adventures. Last year they announced a plan to do the zip line a few miles south of my retreat location here in the mountains. The experience was one of ultimate security and peace in dangerously high places: a shared spiritual metaphor with individual nuances. We were in the hands of experts, held in safety and security in unfamiliar and otherwise inaccessible territory, an experience of letting go in absolute trust.

Two weeks ago I endeavored another zip line. This is a different story with a different life lesson. We were out of the country with our twin grandsons and their family. One of our shared adventures was the zip line. From our arrival onsite, I had vague misgivings. The procedures did not seem familiar; something was missing. I could not have named what and I failed to pay correct attention to my feelings, an inclination I have regretted in the past, and a tendency in us all which I have long worked with clients to overcome.

As human beings in a social culture we often ignore or mistrust those “gut” feelings. And sometimes we should, but more often we should pay careful attention and be willing to act accordingly. There is something in that “second sense” that is valuable in our impulse toward life. We encounter it in many diverse situations: going into unknown territory, meeting a new person, entering a group situation in which we are immediately uncomfortable.

I thought I was paying attention. I concentrated with intensity on planting my feet just right, grabbing the cord on the pole just right. The breaking of those two bones sounded like a gun going off, one that had hit me right in the foot. Looking back on previous experiences, I realize there had been several braking mechanisms on those zip lines that allowed for a soft landing. All of those were missing on this one.

So here is my second take on this experience: the world is full of kind, caring and competent human beings. Once the accident had happened, I was surrounded by just those people, at the zip line, in transit, and at the hospital. And I believe that our own personal desire to be open to such caring, available to kindness, and our willingness to accept and return good spirits, even in the midst of pain, are often the very ingredient that elicits good responses from others.

In my driver, I found a young man in a new country himself, in a new job, planning his upcoming wedding from afar and preparing for his wife-to-be to join him in their new abode. In my nurse, I found an extremely intelligent young man who carries dictionaries of different languages in his pockets and has taught himself to speak several languages through the internet and television. I can vouch for his French. In my doctor I found a man of great patience and calm competence, diligent in familiarizing himself with every detail of my complicated medical conditions and tailoring his treatment of two broken bones accordingly. The following day I found three cheerful, attentive attendants at the dolphin swim (that I had planned with my grandsons): two handsome young men who carried me up an 18′ flight of steps to watch the twins and their mom frolic with the dolphins, and a lovely young woman who conversed with me and worried about my being too much in the sun. And above all, the grandsons, who swam with me in my waterproof cast, tried to teach me to play chess, pushed my wheelchair, helped me up when I fell once trying to negotiate the walker, and spent an hour playing an ingenious game of making up hilarious “it could be worse” scenarios.

Indeed, life offers us wonderful things even in adversity. It could be worse.

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