HUMILIATING WILDERNESS DEATHS
A young lady pin-wheeled to her death after climbing over a barrier for a better shot on the cliffs around San Pedro California a few weeks ago. Climbing over barriers always baffles me and is as startling as it is tragic. I mean, it’s a barrier. Don’t go there! It amazes me that there is a need for barriers in the first place, as though people don’t have enough sense to not walk off a cliff. I wrote a post about a fella who climbed over a barrier to stick his hand in the Merced River up on Yosemite’s Mist Trail. He was pulled into the water and swept over 317-foot Vernal Falls before his friends could lower their cameras. In spite of the tragic morbidity, there’s a certain chagrin that hangs over such affairs – like when a guy climbed over a barrier at Machu Pichu to have his photo taken as he jumped in the air. He jumped … right off a cliff. Survivors try to dress it up best they can. On a GoFundMe page for her funeral expenses, the young lady’s family described it as “a freak and unfortunate accident”. However, two people died the week before trying to get the same view, a total of six just this year. Maybe not so “freak” after all. In their defense, we do go out of our way in education and advertising to instill the mindset that nothing should hold them back from getting what they want. Note sarcasm.
I’m not here to make something funny out of the unusual ways people die. If that is your thing, check out the Darwin Awards. I admit I have a morbid fascination in the humiliating ways people can “off” themselves and I think it comes from being embarrassed for them. I wouldn’t want to dearly depart in such an abominable fashion, as though we would enter the next life red-faced over what just happened. I’m sure we’ll have bigger things on our mind. That being said, why do we get anxious about how we appear to others?
The Coulter Pine is a tall conifer that grows in California. Its pine cone, equivalent to an over-sized Medieval mace, weighs 10 lbs and has curled hooks all over it. Local loggers call them widow-makers. Not to be out done by anything, Australia has the Bunya pine which produces 22 lb pumpkin-sized cones covered in hundreds of sharp points. So when you’re in Australia, try to get bitten by a snake or eaten by a saltwater croc, something more dignified. At the visitation it would be tough to keep a straight face when told, “He was hit by a pine cone.”
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is anxiety characterized by a significant amount of apprehension in social situations causing considerable distress and impaired ability to function in at least some parts of daily life. These fears can be triggered by perceived or actual scrutiny from others. Scrutiny from others and how we’re measuring up. A different kind of OCD – Obsessive Comparison Disorder.
Now the Cane Toad is one fugly son of a bitch. Why anything would want to mess with it in the first place is the question. But for those that do, there are consequences. Adult toads have a gland on each shoulder that secrets poison out over their skin. Ingesting this poison, like many poisons, can get you high. And like many poisons, it can kill you. You’d have to lick or eat the cane toad to get high. As far as eating one, we’ll assume nobody is going to grab one out of the muck and take a bite right there. A skilled cook can properly prepare a toad, but it begs the question, why? Let’s hope the cook isn’t hungover. As far as licking, it’s been done to get a high. How would the conversation go to explain that kind of overdose? Toad-lickers must be high to begin with. More interesting, and more poignantly desperate, is the practice of drying their skins to roll and then smoke for a buzz. Why go to the trouble of catching, killing, (ugh!) gutting, and skinning a cane toad when pot is so readily available? Its embarrassing. Try making that obituary sound good.
Scrutiny is brutal. We are constantly on stage, being judged – where we work, our education, our car, our body type, the zits on our face, our kids, etc., everything! We all have a(n imaginary) standard to live up to. And here’s the real kicker – the most vicious attacks don’t even come from other people. The real damage is from the very human tendency to criticize yourself to yourself and then imagine it as other people’s’ opinion.
Rural farmland is really just wilderness with its hair combed. Mike Edwards, founding member of Electric Light Orchestra, was ushered into The Next Big Thing when a giant hay bale rolled down a hill and into the van he was driving. João Maria de Souza of Brazil had his ticket punched when a cow fell through his roof crushing him.
Your inner monologue was programmed in your vulnerable and formative years by the authority in your life. Then somewhere around age 20, you took command as you transitioned into adulthood and grew that vision of yourself into the ghostly monstrosity it is today. The thing you now believe before anything else is the lie you tell yourself about yourself thinking it comes from other people. It’s a no win. You’re anthropophobic living in a haunted house.
If there’s anything that singularly marks a downward shift in our collective soul, it’s the rise of the selfie. We’re obsessed with showing off our experiences rather than absorbing the transforming power of the immediate moment into our psyche. We are lost to the moment instead of lost in the moment. But then again, there is nothing that will jolt you into the present like getting gored by a bison while trying to get that trophy pic to post. Ask the Yellowstone Rangers about it. Then there’s the guy a year ago who ended up losing a hand trying to get a selfie with a four-foot rattlesnake. Now he and his family have to spend the rest of their lives answering that question. In China, a man died when he climbed into the walrus pen for a selfie (apparently he had a walrus fetish, so right there you know he was a few fish shy of a full chum bucket). It was a zoo, but that’s as wilderness as most folks get. The walrus, not understanding his own celebrity, dispatched him with ease along with the zoo worker who tried to rescue him. Death by zoo walrus. So preventable its embarrassing, but he did give his coworkers a great story to circulate for years to come.
It’s important to note that not all anxiety is created equal. There’s good anxiety that tunes you into the present to be your best, like taking a test, meeting the parents, or crawling on your belly through the tall grass to spear some supper while simultaneously trying to avoid being something bigger’s supper. Anxiety, in its pure form, gets a bad wrap but it’s really your friend. It’s looking out for you. When it is behaving, it helps you focus and provides enough nervous excitement to help you excel. Anxiety goes feral when it gets confused about what is good (a test, a performance) and what is a threat (getting killed). So just to be safe then, everything gets cataloged as a threat.
Two hunters in the mountains are traversing a snowfield. The first one trips and begins sliding down the slope. The second one thinks he is taking the fast way back to camp and follows suit. At the bottom of the snowfield, where the cliff is, the first hunter grabs a little tree to stop from going over. There was no tree where the second hunter was sliding and over he went.
I have social anxiety. I love music and studied it in college. You will never see me perform because I can’t. The minute you show up, I’m nervous to the point of shaking which keeps my fingers from doing what they’re supposed to do. For whatever reason, I find myself often speaking in front of a group. My voice becomes raspy and quavers. If I’m at a nice dinner with friends, I can’t even pass a plate of food because my hands are trembling so bad. It’s all because I’m reading these situations wrong. I’m perceiving these events as a threat instead of a great experience. And knowing this isn’t enough to stop it. The hilarious thing to me is that I like people and enjoy their company. I’m not going to let this thing keep me from living life. If I come over to your house, you may have to scoop my food and cut my steak but that’s OK. I trust you realize there’s more to me than my appearance. God I hope so.
Two college students in Oregon: One dares the other to swallow a Rough-skinned newt, but then warns him that this kind of newt produces a toxin that can kill a grown man even at 1/30th the strength. Of course the 29-year-old student swallows it. He died later that day when his heart and lungs failed.
Social anxiety, anxiety slipping the leash and running wild, is where our old protector the amygdala (ah-myg-dah-la) rises up out of its primordial depths to our defense. This almond-shaped part of our brain is a throwback to the days when humans were just another food source for bigger, toothier things. When certain signals are received, like a low growl in high grass, the amygdala shoves aside the cortex with all its sluggish reasoning and logic, and charges right into adrenaline infused action – fight, flight, or freeze. Act! Don’t think! The amygdala wants you to overreact because overreactions mean you live to see another sunrise. Underreactions mean you’re tomorrow’s pile of scat. Instincts aren’t designed to make sense. They’re designed to keep you alive. It still works. Follow your hunch.
You can be brilliant, but just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 455 AD, Aeschylus, the great Athenian author of tragedies, was killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle mistaking his bald head for a rock.
The amygdala didn’t stay behind when humanity moved out of the jungle for the ‘burbs. Faithful guardian that it is, it marched right along with us adapting to our changing culture. It dutifully warns us to stay out of dark alleys and cut bait with certain people. But obvious stuff like this is child’s play that even the cortex could handle. The amygdala is sniffing the wind for something more sinister.
Diarrhea along with farts are the low-hanging fruit of humor, especially around a campfire. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses their dignity. You drink water that something has used for a toilet or you don’t clean your hands after filling your own cat-hole, and Giardia lamblia moves in and is fruitful and multiplies. Your rotten-egg burps and cramps are breaking news that you’ve become a petri dish teeming with “Montezuma’s Revenge.” A fart is funny. It never gets old. Writhing around in the dirt shitting yourself to death isn’t, especially to your tent mates. You’re too weak to move about. You lie outside the tent in your underwear exploding every 30 minutes or so like a New Year’s party popper until the dehydration kills you. On the bright side, if you survive you’ll be getting a new sleeping bag and pad for Christmas.
Fear of social scrutiny or humiliation, such as speaking in public, is greater than the fear of death. It’s an attack and our amygdala, who is always on our side, predictably prompts an overreaction. It is an overreaction to what is largely an attack from our own critical inner narrative. We fight back by constructing a favorable public image, we flee into self-medicating addiction (think outside the drugs and booze box), or we freeze into reclusivity. Social anxiety is a “condition of lost opportunities” where individuals make major life choices to accommodate their anxiety. We go to extremes to deal with the notion we’re being scrutinized. Deathed to impress.
The Cassowary is monstrous bird six-feet tall and second heaviest next to the ostrich. Their muscular legs have a large claw on the end of its middle toe which is quite attention-getting in itself, a baseball bat with a knife sticking out. An agitated Cassowary can leave you looking like you got tossed in a McCormick Reaper. It does not help at all that this avian behemoth has the soulless expression of a psychopath listening to you beg for your life – you’re already dead – the same look I give people who don’t move their dog when I’m mountain biking or trail running. Phillip McClean tried to kill one by clubbing it. One lightning-like slash later, imagine his surprise as he lay on the ground trying to staunch his gushing carotid artery. He bled out in seconds. Killed by a giant chicken.
Social anxiety stems from ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth – the idea that we are how we appear – and that’s a bad god. Carefully handled, wealth, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical beauty, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fine things to have around. Making them the standard by which all other values are measured, making them your masters, looking to them to prove your life and save your social soul is a maddening downward spiral. We should be happy, but they just aren’t up to it.
Robert Mwaijega, a Tanzanian fisherman, died when one of his catch jumped out of the net and into his mouth. Before his mates knew what was happening, the fish squirmed its way down his throat becoming lodged in his chest, killing him.
In the great cathedral of this wilderness we call Life, it seems we’re ushering out the greater things once and for all through the front door, replacing them with things brought in through the loading dock. What I am is replaced by the notion of what you think I am. BEING sits locked outside on the steps picking at some dried gum while inside APPEARING is celebrated and adored. Our soul as a people continues to starve and wither and we can’t figure out why. What an awful and embarrassing way to die. And in the Great Whatever that lies beyond this life, how are going to explain that?
Jimi Heselden, owner of Segway, Inc., was killed when he drove his Segway off a cliff and he fell 213 feet into a river. A 44-year-old Montana man died while venturing out onto a highway at night in a hairy camouflage suit and was hit by a car. He was wearing the suit in hopes of convincing people they had seen Bigfoot. Richard Summer handcuffed himself to a tree and threw the key out of reach. His skeleton was found, still handcuffed, 3 years later. A Belarusian fisherman bit the dust by a beaver. While attempting to grab the animal to have his picture taken with it, the beaver bit the man in the leg severing the femoral artery.
Here’s my dream: that I, that we, get out of the haunted house altogether and really live. Live! To be grasped now by things bigger than ourselves and go beyond the veil of appearances into higher and greater concerns. Living authentically. If we set aside our anxiety over appearances, our self-criticism and doubts (none of which matter to the Big Picture of Things), then scrutiny has lost its power and we are free. Picture yourself free.
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