It’s 2am and I’m on watch as we sail from Tahiti to the Tuamotus. Fakarava actually. The crew is below, asleep. My cockpit companions: the pale glow of the wind instruments, the effervescent fizz of the dying bow waves, the black-velvet star carpet. On the western horizon, slipping behind us, a thunderhead occasionally and silently shivers in a ruddy neon then winks out leaving us argonauts, alone in the stars. There is nothing out here. Or rather refreshingly, nothing that would be found in the pages of any newspaper, or insta story, or on someone’s facebook page. A hundred miles in any direction finds empty sea. And especially absent is the overwhelming and deafening fear of Covid, the election, finally the tribal drums are too distant to be heard. This depth of solitude presents the deepest emptiness, one could feel very lonely so removed. But silence begs questioning, and so I find myself out here, way out here, in this quiet cockpit. It feels far, far away from the world, and tonight, tight to a dying, ascetic wind, I realize the land we’ve left is barely holding on itself.
America, the Western world, the land and people we love are desperately grasping for something. The last tendrils of the lifeline slipping too rapidly through panicking fingers. One can feel it. Fear is in the rhetoric. The world seems lost, looking for substance in a time that has never been more empty of meaning, more devoid of truth and realness, replaced with the fickle, phyrric promises of progress, of technology, of safety.
Am I not wrong? Has not fear infiltrated every facet of the American debate? But is it founded? In nearly every face I see in the media, in advertising, behind the layers, of makeup, of chant, of labeling, and name calling the core is fear. Once you realize it’s the prime medium, you see its ridiculous presence in everything. This dialectic has been building long before covid. But is the western world really this dangerous? Is crime at an all time high? Are babies being snatched? Is it hard to find food and shelter? Has personal risk increased exponentially in the last few decades? No. The answer to all is resoundingly no, the exact opposite is true.
We really work to mitigate risk, compulsively so. But I wonder, do we do so smartly?
Preppers prep. I’ve prepped. It’s foolish not to be prepared. Our boat is always ready for the worst. But to what extent should we work to reduce risk? At what inflection point does the preparation draw diminishing returns? And what, and best considered, who influences our risk assessment? Is there bias in our assumptions? Who is telling us what’s dangerous, who is selling the assessment, and what are the motives?
How does this assault of information change our lives, our habits, our minds, and likely also the structure of our cortices? Our massive OCD obsession with risk and safety debases any trust we have in ourselves, each other, or the future, and like a beaten child we become evermore hyper vigilant, hyper surveillant, suspicious.
You know your nation’s ability to understand danger is truly compromised when you find it preparing for the worst, by hoarding toilet paper.
There are other signs.
The masked, and helmeted junior first learning to ride a bicycle under the shepherded guidance of a wild-eyed and tearful, chest-clutching, Tiger-Karen. In the open park. On Sof-turf.
Gloves on. Knee pads.
Airbags. Seven. Per passenger. But cup holders for sodas.
Handbags clutched. Perhaps packing.
Fear begets loudness, and aggression.
Clickbait diatribes on hand gels.
I too am a Scientist, but I am not afraid. I am not fearful. The data, the numbers speak differently to me for some reason. I’m not speaking about Covid, but rather about our culture, which seems to have incorporated risk awareness, risk mitigation and as core components to such a degree that we no longer judge actual dangers correctly. Why? There’s money to be made in fear. The fear-industrial complex.
Think of the Isles of Amazon. What percentage of items purport to reduce risk, increase safety? For all this effort, is life any better?
Are Americans happy? There seems a great disconnect and thus discontentment. Have we sold happiness for safety? Did we ever have to? There may be unintended, and insidious consequences that have so slowly woven themselves into our lives that we now accept them as normal. Life is probably much safer, but is it richer?
Other sailors are surprised we’re Americans. So are the Polynesians. Because we are so rare out here. Other nationalities now make up the bulk of sailors, the bulk of travelers in the past several years. Some Australian friends commented, as this is their second go around the world, on the last lap about ten years ago there were so many more Americans out here sailing. Why?
It is a lot safer to stay at home.
I am by no means arguing that we should throw caution to the wind, act recklessly, or not seek to reduce liabilities when we reasonably can. Wear a helmet. Wear a mask. Put your seatbelt on. All sound practices. The slippery slope starts at ostensible risk reduction but continues on easily into experience reduction. It’s a natural course, but perhaps we should actually reflect, more importantly, upon why we’re alive. Nothing is free. There is no catching without fishing. There’s very little reward without risk.
We can make things safer, but coning down outcomes into the always anticipated, results in outcomes of never surprising. Never delightful. Joy suffers. It is perhaps extinguished. The natural consequence of risk reduction is the elimination of possibility, of serendipity and ultimately of freedom.
People react to our American flag so positively out here. It is, and Americans are, a symbol of hope and dreams that become reality. That’s what America was for so long, to so many people especially outside of America, and still is in their minds, albeit a bit rattled right now. My hope is that as this scourge comes to a close we ask ourselves collectively. Is it worth it? Are we loosing something with this, what appears to me near pathological, preoccupation with safety?
After this line of squalls, the wind has shifted in the darkness. I can feel the boat lean more, and pickup speed. 6 knots. Not bad. Upwind in calm seas. I know my crew below all just smiled. They now know the feel of this boat like I do. I adjust the rudder, and now we’re right on the rhumb line to a favorite atoll.
I thought it might happen.
There’s smart risk and dumb risk. Take a few more smart ones. Live a little. We’re going to be dead a long time. Memento Mori.