Why does a kid ride a rollercoaster? Why does an outdoorsman shoot a rapids, climb a peak, hunt shark with a spear gun? Is it just the adrenaline rush? It can’t be. I can get that from a couple pots of sweet coffee. So why do we get such a kick out of being terrified?

As a pilot, when training for my instrument rating, I asked my instructor what he liked most about that kind of flying. “The shock and delight of making it back alive,” he said.

One day we flew through a series of imbedded thunderstorms. If I hadn’t cinched in my belt the turbulence would have thrust my head through the canopy of my Cessna 172. More lightning than I’d ever seen. The cloud to ground discharges looked to be eight inches in diameter and close. I longed to pop the window of my little plane and measure one. My instructor told me what to do. “Just keep it level.  Make slow, gentle corrections or you’ll tear off a wing.  Don’t worry about altitude—I’ve known a plane to get spit out at 28,000 feet and another driven to the ground.” With those words of encouragement, my eyes widened and I set to the challenge.

With our destination closed due to zero visibility, we headed to our alternate, Chicago’s Midway Airport. The rain drove down so hard it raised a fog high into the sky and we busted minimums tracking our instruments to the runway, only to dimly see the “rabbit” as we flew just a few feet over the thing. (The rabbit is that blinking chevron of lights at the end of major runways.) My instructor called for the controls and flared for landing, then lost sight of the runway in the pounding rain. I popped the window and stuck my head out, caught sight of the center stripe, and shouted for him to plant it on the ground.

I was shocked and delighted to make it back alive.

We taxied to the FBO and after a quick inspection for hail damage, he handed me a cigar and we just sat there, stunned. Then a strange thing happened. A strong urge built up within me to fly back into those clouds. Does that make any sense? No. Is it human? Yes. Also human was a three-day headache from the severe turbulence.

Life and death is the issue here. When you push the limits so far that your life is at risk, you experience something wonderful that I have no name for. What good is a rollercoaster that doesn’t make you doubt—even for a moment—that you’ll survive the ride? What use is a rapids that provides no life-and-death challenge? It’s true, you know. One of my family drown in a kayak.

We can experience something akin to that thrill vicariously if we identify closely with the person in danger. At a circus, watching a daring trapeze act. During a spectacular crash at the Indy 500. When reading an exciting scene from a really good suspense novel.

Do you care about the character, maybe identify with the character? Are you seeing events unfold through that character’s point of view? Then you are experiencing the danger as if you were there. At a film or reading a good book, I become so involved in the story that I feel as if I were there, but find myself helpless to influence events.

In the end, we appreciate everything in light of its contrast. Life and death. The human struggle. The shock and delight of making it back alive.

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