‘What is the meaning to life?’ This is a common question most contemplate of when first thinking of philosophy. Thus it may be a bit ironic that it is the subject of my last blog post for KNES 516, Philosophy of Sport. It is a question that I shall not attempt to answer directly, but instead use as a base to assess extreme and dangerous sport/activities. Three I will highlight are Wingsuit BASE Jumping, Free Soloing, and 24 Hour+ Ultra Obstacle Courses—all of which cause frequent injury and even death—yet they each have a steady following. In reflection of these, I will adopt Professor Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza’s use of the ‘sublime’ to assert why such extreme activities may help participants gain a greater understanding of the meaning of life.
I myself run Tough Mudders bi-annually and am an avid mountain backpacker. These activities have their risks—Tough Mudder consists of an elite obstacle course with freezing ice and electric shock obstacles, and backpacking in the mountains often involves extreme weather conditions and bear encounters—still, I do them because they bring about joy and reflection on my abilities and place on the earth.
When I first signed up for the Tough Mudder, everyone—including myself—thought I was crazy. Being between ten and twelve miles with 25 elite obstacles, some of which were electric, I often reflected on why I signed up in the first place. However, it motivated me to train like never before, and when I completed my first course, I came out a new person. It gave me a unique taste of my potential, and the grit to push on even when obstacles seemed impossible. Likewise, mountains have presented both a physical and mental challenge in my life. Nothing is more humbling than reaching the hard earned summit of a mountain peak, looking at the rim of the world around you, and trying to notice the view light specks of human civilization in the valleys below. Both of these activities bring about what Ilundain-Agurruza refers to as the ‘sublime’ which is what he would say makes an event an ‘experience.’
In his article, “Kant Goes Skydiving,” Ilundain-Agurruza evaluates the sublime in extreme activities like skydiving, and suggests it is a feeling or Zen-like state people experience when facing the extreme. He states, “The ‘awesomeness’ of the extreme moment is the synonymous manifestation of the sublime.” He suggests that one does not have to be doing an extreme activity to feel the sublime, but almost all extreme activities deal with the sublime. It is something that “adds a layer of additional meaning,” and “afford us insight into ourselves.” Thus, those that seek out extreme activity are not just adrenaline junkies, as most often superficially judge, but I would suggest they are true philosophers of human potential.
I may do some moderately extreme activities, and definitely strive to reach the sublime, but my efforts are marginal compared to the extremes of BASE Jumping, Free-soloing, and 24 Hour+ Ultra Obstacle Courses. Extreme activities such as these really bring participants in touch with the sublime. For each I will include a video that shows their extremes, and I challenge you, the reader to imagine what wisdom may be gained from participation in such activities.
Wingsuit Base Jumping
Whenever I watch this video, it gives me the chills. As an avid mountain climber, I have always fantasized about flying down the mountain to the valley below, and wingsuit base jumping makes this a reality. Obviously, though, even with a parachute this activity is far from safe, and is likely the most dangerous sport in the world. There have been at least 1800 base jumpers since 1981, and so far it is estimated 248 people have died by accidents. That is over ten percent! This activity is much closer to the ground than normal skydiving, and factors like a sudden wind gust or poor judgment, lead to almost certain death. This leaves one to wonder, why would one risk so much for such an activity?
Well, if one takes into account the sublime, base jumping likely tops the charts in its experience. Base jumpers literally flirt with death, and if they survive, they are rewarded with a truly sublime extreme experience. Being so close to death, relying on the most subtle movements, and entering a Zen state to succeed must truly bring about some greater wisdom of oneself. Though from a utilitarian standpoint it cannot be very well defended do to its incredibly high risk for a pastime activity, from a virtue ethics stand it likely cultivates great wisdom for the individual, while also inspiring others such as myself of the possibilities of human potential.
Whereas wingsuit base jumping relies on subtle control and absolute focus in a high speed experience, free soloing relies on body control in a slower focused experience. The price for mistake, is still very high and often death if the climb is not over water. Likewise, the wisdom from the sublime is similar. Free soloists learn to trust their body’s leverage and strength completely without the handicap of equipment.
24 Hour+ Ultra Races
I highlighted the World’s Toughest Mudder which is a little over 24 hours and includes obstacles that make a normal Tough Mudder look easy. This extreme sport, though not nearly the same encounter with death as the others, involves an extreme level of grit and endurance. Though death is not as frequent, injuries are, as one face extremes in temperature, drowsiness, and challenging obstacles. There is definitely a level of the sublime one reaches in just completing the course. As opposed to the other activities this one is most extreme in its sheer length of time. Being able to push past utter fatigue and drowsiness again enlightens one’s understanding of self and his potential.
Professor Ilundain-Agurruza said it best when he said the extreme enriches and allows us to experience “some of the most complex yet basic emotions proper to life, and in intensities that are barred from our mundane life.” We live most our lives in a society that tries to prevent all harm and pain, when pain is often our greatest teacher. Using Ilundain-Agurruza’s analogy, mountain climbing would lose its “telos,” or natural purpose, if one just takes a helicopter to the top. Even though society want to control the experience and might advocate taking the helicopter, the real experience is the climb to the top. For such extreme activities you may never be understood, but you yourself gain a wisdom beyond anything experienced in a regulated society. This is the wisdom of the sublime, and quite possibly the answer to the meaning of life.