When the kids were small, we took them to Ireland and stopped at the rugged Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are a popular tourist site, dropping precipitously 700 feet to the ocean, and extending eight miles wide. (They make an appearance in the wonderful film “The Princess Bride” as the “Cliffs of Insanity.”) I pleaded, practically on my hands and knees, for my wife and kids not to get anywhere close to the edge, but they forged ahead while I stayed far back and worried like a frantic hen. I stayed close to the parking lot because I am afraid of heights (as I have learned is the case with many pilots) and when it comes to the edge of anything you will generally not find me too close to it.
Even the relatively tame paths over the bluffs near our home in Northern California are difficult for me. (Signs that say “Danger: Bluffs Crumble” don’t help.) I work at it, and sometimes I do fine, but occasionally some implacable ghost residing in the ether will crop up and set off a panic attack that can only be eased by moving as close to Chicago as I can.
Despite my fear, and possibly because of it, I have a certain respect and even attraction to places that reside close to the impossible or unadvisable. I do understand that, for many reasons, the edge seems to be where it’s at. In his handbook “Enlightenment Step by Step,” Amit Ray, who found his way from the world of engineering to the rarefied and potentially more lucrative air of spiritual mastery, wrote “You may fall down when you dance on the edge but edge is the source of all miracles and mystery.”
I can appreciate the falling down part, but the edge actually being the source of all miracles seems hyperbolic to me. Some miracles, maybe, but all of them? I have no doubt that, sitting here in my favorite chair in my living room, as far away from any edge I know about, a miracle is about to happen any second now. It just did. And hopefully, I will be taking quite a few more breaths in the days to come.
But I do realize that when one is in the middle of things, centered and on course, life is predictable and a dreary monotony sets in. Humans are novelty-seeking critters, and it is the tangling with the unknown, forbidden, unknowable, and even dangerous that creates the anxiety and tension that is the wellspring of emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.
When I travel to foreign places, my general routine is to leave the comfort of my room and head out into unknown streets. I intentionally travel just far enough to become disoriented. It is on the edge of knowing where I am, somewhat lost, that my heart rate picks up and my adrenaline fuels just enough nervous energy to drive the vigilance that is at the root of discovery. It is the venturing forth beyond the endeavor that turns a venture into an adventure.
Beauty resides on the edges. To call someone “plain” is not a compliment. A face that lives either on the edge of ruin or the edge of pedestrian captures interest and suggests depth, because it is an invitation of sorts. Come, it says mysteriously, to the sweet tedium of the average; we are not there yet, but it will come. Or, on the edge of ruin, we are invited to hold on to the precious glimpses of youth, or the luscious narratives of this person’s past; true stories, undoubtedly, more incredible than fiction.
It is just so with personalities. We tend to be intimidated by those who are too clever, or find them remote, but instead prefer those who function on the edge of clever, showing brief moments of brilliance now and then. We like humor, don’t we, but please, not while we’re trying to be serious. We like to be understood deeply, but appreciate a break now and then. It’s nice to just float for a while, sit and drink coffee and talk about what cousin Sara might be doing in Seattle.
There is a red line on most airspeed indicators which indicates the “never exceed” speed. Exceeding that airspeed threatens the integrity of the airframe. Most pilots I know like to nudge as close as they can to that speed. We like to see how fast we can go without breaking the airplane. It is in the flirting with disaster that we learn our limits, and when we master our limits then perhaps contradictorily we know better how to stay safe.
Of course my wife and kids did just fine at the Cliffs of Moher, in spite of my protestations and the fact that, among the many wonderful characteristics of the Irish, they don’t seem to be too fond of fences. Master Death may reside just one small step off that cliff, and that is a truth that must be faced. A fence may temporarily shield us from the inevitable, but it will also keep us comfortably away from the edge. Yet, it seems, the edge is where life comes most fully alive.