Thursday, October 29, 2009

Courage - the spirit of virtue

In my recent post To base jump or not to base jump? I spoke about risk and pleasure, namely that to risk one’s life for the sake of pleasure was something I could not understand. Halvor Angvik, the chap in the video hurtling down the Eiger in a wingsuit, replied he would rather say “I won’t risk going through my life without living.”

Having thought some more on the subject, I think I was wrong to say they are risking their lives for pleasure. Pleasure is not the right word. And I was wrong to dismiss such noble aims as ‘pushing beyond one’s limits’ and ‘conquering one’s fear’ with the back of the hand as being nothing more than searching for ‘a kick’. Pushing beyond limits and conquering fear are valid and important activities and deserve more respect than that.
I feel like the proverbial critic sitting safely in his armchair, speaking about those who bravely act.

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life. Aristotle (Nocomachean Ethics)

In his response, Halvor went on to say this:

Every person has to take calculated risks at some points in life to get or do something they really want, something that makes life worth living. It does not have to be physical consequences; it might be an economical compromise, related to someone you love or other things you really value in life. Some risks might be bigger than others, but once you've found out what you really want to do in life I bet you would think its worth taking some risks for.
What’s left of life if you won’t risk doing what you really want to do? Are you truly living then? I would not be.

He is absolutely right of course. Base jumping is the extreme example, but taking risks to go after what you want is part of life, or should be. Most of us would not even be here if our fathers had not taken the risk of making a first move toward our mothers. Everything good we have achieved in our life at some point involved our taking a risk. Sometimes a small one, sometimes a greater.

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow. Mary Anne Radmacher

Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one. Lauren Raffo

For man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes - obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes. Victor Hugo

When I was a young man living in England, I knew I wanted to leave and live abroad. And I knew with absolute certainty that it would happen, one way or another. So when the opportunity came to go to the Bahamas to work, I took it without a second thought. Of course I was nervous when the day approached and I was leaving my family (who I would see again only once in the next 13 years). But it was what I wanted with all my heart, so I did not bat an eyelid. Later, much later, I was to move to Canada, to French Quebec in fact, where I didn’t have a job or speak the language. Again, ‘necessity’ gave me all the courage I needed.

Necessity does the work of courage. Nicholas Murray Butler

The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. Charles Dubois

Look back on your life and you will see that all your victories, small and great, required courage and willingness to take a risk. And how many of your disappointments and failures can you put down to your fear to act or follow through?

In my posts about humility we came across this quote:

Humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue. Saint John Chrysostom

Humility may be the root of virtue, but as we shall see, courage is its spirit.

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others. Winston Churchill

Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning. Winston Churchill

Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other. Samuel Johnson

Courage is the greatest of all the virtues. Because if you haven't courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others. Samuel Johnson

One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest. Maya Angelou

With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity. Keshavan Nair

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. C.S. Lewis

Courage and resolution are the spirit and soul of virtue. Thomas Fuller

Courage is the footstool of the Virtues, upon which they stand. Robert Louis Stevenson

Courage is the basic virtue for everyone so long as he continues to grow, to move ahead. Rollo May

Nothing but courage can guide life. Marquis de Vauvenargues

True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason. Alfred North Whitehead

No passion so effectually robs the mind of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. Edmund Burke

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell

Half a man's wisdom goes with his courage. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Courage is always the surest wisdom. Wilfred Grenfell

Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit. Baltasar Gracian

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To base jump or not to base jump? Halvor Angvik's response

The blogosphere is a weird and wonderful place: in the evening you can write a post about a video you have seen of some crazy guy hurtling down the rocky face of the Eiger in a wingsuit and in the morning you can get a reply from him.
That’s right shipmates, here is Halvor Angvik’s response to my previous post To base jump or not to base jump? As you will see, Halvor comes across as a very intelligent, thinking, reasonable kind of guy. Here is his description of the science, the art and ultimately, the philosophy of base jumping.

Hi Alex. I stumbled over this blog while searching for copies of my Youtube video, which has been posted on quite a few sites after someone copied it to Liveleak recently. Internet is quite small sometimes...

First of all I want to thank you for the general review of the composition and the music, and for crediting Ugress which I think make some really unique music. The original video is found on my channel: but it seems this copied version is of a pretty good quality.

As it seems you have put some thought into this, I thought you might want a response from the jumper.

I would like to start of with some technical stuff, to put us on common ground when evaluating risks. As much as I have to agree that what we do in a wingsuit is falling, under the right conditions it is a very controlled way of falling. The ratio between forward and downward movement is up to 3:1, which means you can cover great distances. The thrust generated by air resistance fighting gravity is so powerful that the smallest changes of angle on your body or wings will make radical changes on your glide path for all three axes.
As a pilot, it feels more like flying than falling, and with reference to objects in close proximity you can actually pick a line in the terrain and fly it. Nothing need be left to chance if the jump is planned right and executed in the right conditions.

To refer to this particular video, I mainly fly in close proximity parallel to the wall, with high vertical clearance to the terrain. At any given moment I can disconnect from the wall, with enough speed in the suit that it can be done in the blink of an eye. It’s also worth mentioning that I never start out that close on the first jump on a new object. I jumped one of the walls in the video 10 times on that trip and the difference between the first and the tenth jump is huge when it comes to proximity and time spent parallel to the wall.

The most dangerous thing you can do with a wingsuit is to fly close proximity OVER the terrain. That requires a lot more planning and skills. You need to know that the angle of the terrain is well within your glide ratio limits and you need to know which parts of the flight you are in the clear to break off or pull, and where you have dedicated yourself to a line you will have to finish.

When flying over terrain you never maximize your glide ratio. By using a GPS logging device, I have calculated that I use approximately 70% of my lift capabilities when I fly steep over terrain. When I have picked a line, I know that I always have reserves to pull out if for some reason I end up lower than I thought I would. This goes for the two last jumps of the video.

In the first flight, over Eiger, you can notice the camera is shaking a lot. That is because I am going so steep I’m penetrating the relative wind on an angle where I start to lose all actual lift on the wings. I’m flying almost 1:1 in ratio at some points, which means I have around 60% more lift I can use. That flight was planned using 3D maps from Google Earth and pilots, as well as the one (pilot) who showed me the line and had done it several times before in a gradual approach.
The last jump actually only has an 8-10 second section where I have dedicated myself (to a line I must finish), the rest of the flight I can always break off to the left. At the point where I’m flying through the V-crack, I am actually trying to fly even lower into the crack, but I’m going as steep as I can while still having a stable flight. That means that I have loads of reserves to "pop" up and clear it with good margins.

These facts probably won’t change your mind about base jumping being a very high-risk activity, and it shouldn’t. It is a high-risk activity because any single mistake - whether it’s misjudgement of wind and weather, your skills for a specific object, or simply a mistake during flight or deployment, or equipment maintenance and packing - will most likely kill you. It might however help you to understand that I don’t do this for the risk itself, and the kick I get from handing my life over to faith and see how I manage. Every jump is planned to every last detail, and with good margins. I never doubt that my packing or rigging is good, because I will check it again until I am 110% sure it’s good, and I never fly off a mountain unless I am sure I can make the flight. It still doesn’t make it safe, but maybe it makes you see that it’s not that irresponsible either.

This brings me over to the philosophical part of this reply. Why do I jump? It is not because I’m fearless or braver than anyone else. I think I am as scared as any person and I certainly think a lot about the consequences of my actions. Neither is it for the adrenaline rush exclusively, though it is a good side effect. : )
Fear is one of the most powerful feelings I experience. It’s hard to control once it hits you and it’s hard to rationalize once it’s there. Ever since I was a small kid I have always liked to challenge that feeling, and the huge reward of satisfaction, and in some cases euphoria, I get from defying it and going through with something I am afraid of. When I first started jumping, that was probably one of the only motivations I had. As this is something I have been doing so long, and it is definitely not something I have from my family, I am quite sure part of this need is something I’m just born with.

After some jumps however, getting over the first jumps where I didn’t really have the personal experience to know how well the equipment worked and that I could do controlled jumps relatively safely, I found that base jumping gives me more than just chasing and conquering my fear.

When it comes to jumping mountains, you get to travel and experience untouched nature and places you would never go to if it had not been for the jumping, and you meet a lot of people with the same interests on the way. The feeling of freedom I get from hiking and climbing around in the mountain, out of reach of cell coverage and civilization, knowing that I am going to fly off a mountain when I get to the top, gives me an inner peace unmatched by anything else. Everyday problems are simply left at home in the city and I feel absolutely free. Mixing that up with the excitement and the overwhelming sensation I get from the feeling of flying through the terrain, it’s hard to imagine that I will ever find anything else that will give me as much as base jumping.

"To risk your life for the sake of pleasure is something I cannot understand".
I would rather say "I won’t risk going through my life without living". Every person has to take calculated risks at some points in life to get or do something they really want, something that makes life worth living. It does not have to be physical consequences; it might be an economical compromise, related to someone you love or other things you really value in life. Some risks might be bigger than others, but once you've found out what you really want to do in life I bet you would think its worth taking some risks for.

What’s left of life if you won’t risk doing what you really want to do? Are you truly living then? I would not be.

Thank you Halvor for taking the time to clarify what we see in the video and for sharing with us your passion and motivation for base jumping. I feel so much better about it now. I have moved it down the risk scale from 99.5 to something around 93, perhaps on a level with Formula 1 racecar driving, in the rain.
And I honour you for taking the calculated risks you do to go after what you want out of life… and scaring the wits out of the rest of us with your videos. God bless you, brother.

See my other posts about courage

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To base jump or not to base jump? That is the question.

The subject of this post is a little off topic. I came across the following video recently and it blew me away. It also got me thinking. And since thinking is what this blog is about, I wanted to share the video and my thoughts with you.

The video is a spectacular composition of base jump footage shot in the Alps. In base jumping, grown men of sane mind throw themselves off a mountain and open a parachute at the last minute… for fun. The jumpers are wearing a wingsuit, which gives them some forward motion while falling and allows them some degree of control over the direction of their fall. They reach speeds of about 140mph. As one of them says in another video, ‘At first when we base jumped our goal was to get as far from the rock face as possible. But after a while that became boring, so now we play around with it a little.’ Playing around with it means they guide themselves using the wingsuit to ‘buzz’ the rock face to as close as an arm’s length away and thread themselves through little irregularities in the rock wall. The scary thing about it is you must remember they are not flying, they are falling. They cannot ‘pull up’ if they have misjudged the height of the next rock wall.

From a philosophical point of view, I think they are crazy. My opinion is the same as the one I give to people who ask me if I have ever been parachute jumping. To risk your life for the sake of pleasure is something I cannot understand. If you are talking about practicing parachute jumping as a military skill, a necessary ability in a noble cause, then I can see the point and find it worthy, and laudable.
The same goes for base jumping. The jumpers may be worthy and laudable people, but it does not come particularly from this activity. You can bombard me with the arguments ‘oh, they are pushing beyond their limits, oh they are conquering their fear’ and all that, the bottom line is they are doing it for a kick. Whereas if you were to ask a group of soldiers to learn to base jump in order to carry out a mission to save lives, it would be noble, brave and admirable. That is my view. I am open to your arguments.

Having said that, all tastes can be found in nature. That these guys and gals get a kick from doing this is a part of the human kaleidoscope. There will always be people willing to risk their lives for the thrill of it. You certainly cannot deny that what they do calls for huge dollops of courage. And it must give them a huge kick.

The music by Ugress that accompanies the video is very well chosen and the video is beautifully edited to match it. If it were not for the music, this would be just another base jump video. But the music takes the images to another level, beyond the edge of the real to a nightmare world where reason has no say. Here you have the dreadful dark awesome power and beauty of the human spirit, taunting death with a smile and a laugh, as it hurtles through space. Only to land and climb back up the mountain to do it again.

Note: See the jumper Halvor Angvik’s response to this post here.

Thanks to Halvor Angvik for the video and editing, to Ugress for the music, and to Pakiavelli for publishing to Youtube

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chester Cathedral - through young eyes

While in Chester last month I visited Chester Cathedral. I have also visited the cathedrals in York, Lincoln and Durham on previous visits long before I began this blog. Chester ranks up there with the most notable, tracing its founding to just after the Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago.

Whilst I was there it just so happened that a group of pre-schoolers were visiting the cathedral. About a hundred of them were sitting on the floor of the nave right in front of the organ.

There they were, a little bundle of young lives, some still clutching their favourite teddy bears, full of innocence and hope, the joy and treasure of the community. I was reminded of a quote of Carl Sandburg:

A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.

They were listening attentively to a guide who was explaining to them the functioning of the great organ, and as he explained the organ’s capabilities the organist would demonstrate them. The sounds ranged from something like the low tremor of an earthquake to the airy notes of a pipe whistle soaring into realms only dogs can hear.

It was quite touching to feel at the same time the weight of the ages in these old, holy stones and the fragility of the new life in these little children. It was also pleasing to see that they had been brought to this place at such an early age to be imbued with its power.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Black Prince

As I crossed the street from Leeds Station my eye fell on a striking equestrian statue some distance on the left. I went over to have a look at it. Now I must have crossed that street a dozen times in all my trips to England but never once did I seem to notice this statue, an amazing lack of observation on my part that I cannot explain. It was a statue of the Black Prince, no less.

The Black Prince was the son of Edward III, the victor of the Battle of Crécy, where a small English army destroyed a large French one by the use of the medieval equivalent of the tactical nuclear weapon: the longbow.

The prince ‘won his spurs’ (became a knight) at the age of 16 at that battle. There is a passage in Froissart that tells us something about the way the prince won his spurs and the sang froid and hard love of Edward III.

In the morning, the day of the battle, certain Frenchmen and Germans perforce broke through the archers of the prince’s battalion, and came and fought with the men-of-arms hand to hand. Then the second battalion of the Englishmen came to succour the prince’s battalion, the which was time, for they had then much ado; and those with the prince sent a messenger to the king, who was on the little windmill hill.
Then the knight said to the king, “Sir, the Earl of Warwick and the Earl of Stafford, Sir Reginald Cobham, and other such as be about the prince your son, are fiercely fought withal, and are sore handled: wherefore they desire you that you and your battalion will come and aid them, for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.”
Then the king said, “Is my son dead, or hurt, or on the earth felled?”
“No, Sir,” said the knight, “but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.”
“Well,” said the king, “return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me, whatever adventure befalleth, as long as my son is alive; and also say to them, that they suffer him this day to win his spurs, for if God be pleased, I will that this day’s work be his, and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.”
Then the knight returned again to them, and showed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them; and they repented in that they had sent to the king as they did.

Thus the Black Prince won his spurs that day and went on to defeat the French himself at the Battle at Poitiers, fulfilling all his father’s hopes for him.

And such was Edward III in a time when a good king could bring glory and prosperity to his people and a bad king utter ruin. Soon the powers of kings would be curtailed by parliament, which is in effect an insurance policy against the consequences of having a bad king. Looking at the economic mess we are in today, some might prefer taking their chances with a king.

The Black Prince is buried in Canterbury Cathedral and what seems to be (I have not been there) a magnificent gilded copper effigy rests above his tomb, portraying the prince as the epitome of the chivalric knight.

David Green (in his book The Black Prince) notes that the tomb undoubtedly retained an aura many years after the prince’s death, for Shakespeare/De Vere has the archbishop of Canterbury say to Henry V:

Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
While his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.

Photo of tomb effigy from Wikimedia

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ship's log - October 2009

Well, shipmates, its nice to be back in Montreal. The long day of the flight back from England and the jet lag have been the devil to get over. But I am now at the point where I feel I can safely say I may live, with the blessing. I will resume more normal posting in the next few days.

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond