Saturday, August 16, 2014


I made an interesting connection this week between two seemingly different ideas.

First, I was reading for the third time a book called "Deep Survival," that investigates why some people survive catastrophes and others don't. It spends a lot of time on neuropsychology, and how our brain often gets us into trouble in potentially dangerous situations such as mountan climbing or auto racing.

An expert forest fire fighter explained in the book how he got caught in a bad situation by waiting too long to retreat from a threatening fire:
"We'd been through a similar situation and emerged just fine.... If you've  tallied a lot of experience in dangerous, iffy environments without significant calamity, the mental path of least resistance is to assume it was your skill and savvy that told the tale." Then the author continues: "That same trap kills a lot of experienced climbers, skiers, hikers, boaters, cavers, and so on."  


Notice the people he refers to in that last sentence: People who are in what are called "boundary situations," i.e. that are inherently dangerous, where one simple mistake can get you killed. Making a mistake while sitting on your sofa is one thing, but a trivial slipup while driving a race car at 220 miles an hour is likely to get you killed.

Earlier in the book the author makes the point that surprisingly often the people who are victims of bad accidents are the ones who are the best trained and most experienced. Their long experience and training can actually work against them by setting up "markers" in their brain that fool them into misjudging the seriousness or danger of certain situations. (Like the fire fighter quoted above.) An example is what sometimes happens on Mount Hood in Oregon, which is considered by many a rather easy climb, a "beginner's mountain." Someone who's climbed in the Himalayas has certain mental markers or images that can lull him into complacency on Mount Hood. He'll ignore certain danger signs (gathering storm clouds, the treacherous condition of the ice, etc.) that he would never ignore on a more "serious" climb. And suddenly, Blam! Another dead climber on Mount Hood.


The same day that I read that chapter, I was proofreading the page proofs for the revised edition of my Lenten book, Pilgrim Road. I was reading the chapter for Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent, in which I reflect on the teaching of St. Caesarius, bishop of Arles. I came upon this paragraph I'd written, describing myself in the process of reading one of his sermons:

This sermon turns out to be on one of his favorite subjects: the dangers posed by "little" sins, those trivial faults that are a normal part of daily life. One reason they're dangerous, the bishop argues, is that we are in a battle with an enemy;  there's no room for letting down our guard. People who figure that they're safe because they don't have any grave sins are likely to get overconfident. "It is exactly at this point that they get seriously wounded because they are not expecting the attack."

Interesting how Caesarius warns us that "we are in a battle with an enemy." In the vocabulary of the book Deep Survival, the bishop is saying that the Christian life is actually a "boundary situation" that requires constant vigilance. Just as in any boundary situation, there are forces present that can quickly bring about our downfall, as surely as, say, the force of gravity on the side of a mountain or the crushing water pressure 300 feet below the ocean surface.
Temptation of Christ in the Desert

We Christians are making a dangerous mistake if we think of our Christian life as simply a day hike on Mount Hood during which we can afford to be be a little negligent. We've done it lots of times before, after all, with no bad effects. We're experts, right? Experienced and knowledgeable.Then suddenly, Blam! We get "seriously wounded because we were not expecting the attack."

Caesarius is echoing the warning from the First Letter of Peter, "Brothers, be sober and watchful, for the enemy, the devil, goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour."

"Be sober and watchful!" Not bad advice, especially for those of us who think of ourselves as experienced climbers.


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