The Danger Habit
My heroes are the ones who survived doing it wrong, who made mistakes, but recovered from them.
A strong man knows how to use his strength, but a person with knowledge is even more powerful.
-Proverbs 24:5, God's Word
As a kid, I always colored outside the lines and was chided for not staying within them. In reality, it was harder to stay inside. Outside was freedom of self and expression of who God created me to be.
-Ted Gillette, Surfer, Businessman, Pastor
ore than an athletic exercise, surfing is an almost spiritual interaction with the forces of nature–forces that sometimes get the best of us. Which is what happened one Sunday afternoon when I went surfing in front of our home on the Oregon Coast with my fifteen-year-old son, Joel.
It was late January and, completely out of character, the sun was out in full force. A slight offshore wind lifted spray off the top edge of each wave. Two separate tow-surfing teams were at work in the water that day. I had done tow-surfing a few times and quickly realized that paying for the gas and breathing in the exhaust was not my cup of tea. However, walking across the street to surf with my son, unassisted by machinery, was pure and right.
Joel and I paddled out to the swells on the outside sandbar. The eight-foot waves created a wave face of well over twelve feet. In surfing we call that “double overhead.” And it was all of that and a bit more.
Looking things over, Joel decided he was out of his league and sat on his board just outside the impact zone while I tried to paddle into a few. Joel is on the high school swim team and a solid waterman for his age, but he has only been surfing for a few years, so he was intimidated on this day for good reason. I’ve been surfing on and off since I was ten years old, and I was pretty excited.
I caught my first wave, a moderate-sized one that hurled me down the line. I made a quick exit out the top of the wave as it began to close off into a thundering shore break.
As I paddled back out, Joel paddled for his first wave, a smaller swell that looked safer than the others we’d been seeing. Joel is sensible. I respect him for that. For many reasons surfing with him and talking with him are deep and meaningful. Nearly twelve years ago Joel lost his mother, my first wife, to cancer. He was only five years old then and his younger brother Joshua was only two. Since then we have been close. Surfing together is a treasure I don’t take lightly.
On this one beautiful Sunday, things suddenly changed for the worse. Much larger swells loomed on the horizon, what we sometimes call a “clean up set.” Waves come in sporadic sets and at some surf spots the sets can build up in size over time. They’re called “clean up sets” because they tend to clean up everything in their path–surfers, kelp, seals, logs…everything.
Joel began paddling as hard as he could toward shore. I paddled as hard as I could toward Hawaii. When a wave broke right in front of me, I ditched my board and swam as deep as I could. I felt my leash break and knew that my board was headed toward the beach. I was in for a fifteen-minute swim.
By this time, Joel was twenty yards closer to shore. I saw him get pummeled. The white water alone must have been eight feet high as it reached him. Later, he said it briefly pinned him to the bottom.
Surfers learn to take their time in these situations. Panicking or swimming too hard just depletes the oxygen in your blood and can hasten dehydration. That will bring on dizziness and fatigue, which increase your risk of drowning. So you just learn to relax and swim.
Which is what I did.
At one point during my long swim to the shore, I noticed a Coast Guard helicopter flying over my head. I thought, How convenient. If I were in trouble here, that guy would rescue me.
Cool! By the time I reached shallow water, I noticed a police officer walking down the beach toward my son, who was waiting near my board. Then I saw the local fire department backing their rescue jet skis toward the water while an ambulance crew unloaded equipment.
Who were they here to rescue? I came out of the water down the beach from where my son and half a dozen others were standing. As soon as he spotted me, Joel looked immensely relieved. In minutes I learned that everyone was there to rescue me. Joel had seen my board come in without me, and I was in the water too far outside the huge swells to be visible. Thinking I was in trouble, he’d called 911.
The whole experience was embarrassing for me, but for Joel it was excruciating and nearly heartbreaking. Afterward, I made sure he knew that calling 911 had been the right thing to do. I was proud of him.
Later, the more I thought about it, the more my embarrassment turned to self-doubt. My habit of taking risks to get a bigger charge out of life had inflicted direct, unnecessary pain on my son.
What kind of father does that?
If you’re like me, you can look in your past and find clues.
Built to Thrash
Living on the edge makes life more exciting, especially for people who need to escape. And as a kid, I really needed to escape some things. My heart must have been broken about five hundred times before I turned ten. Not that I’m alone in feeling that way, but those early school years were filled with experiences that made me question my worth. My memory is foggy now about much of it, but I remember mockery, meanness, getting beat up on the playground, being the last one picked for dodgeball. I remember lunches of a peanut-butter-and-jelly tortilla because we didn’t have money for bread that week.
Things got better when I stumbled into skateboarding and surfing. My father bought me a ten-foot surfboard that I couldn’t even carry to the water by myself. We lived across the street from the beach in Oxnard, California, and my parents could always find where I was surfing by looking for the line in the sand created by the tail of the forty-five-pound board I was dragging across the beach. There were summer days so hot I would do my best to run across the sand that burned my bare feet, periodically stopping to lay the board down and bury my feet deeper in the cooler part of the sand. Then I would gather the courage to make another one-hundred-foot run toward the water. The lifestyle fit me like a glove.
I also became one of the first-generation skateboarders. Without realizing it, my friends and I were on the bleeding edge of extreme sports before anyone was even using the term extreme sports. This was in the early seventies when California beach houses sold for $40,000, and Volkswagens and Datsuns were outselling American cars. We used to listen to scratched Beach Boys records on the turntable, or we got caught up in the great Los Angeles rock-radio wars between KMET and KLOS. Those were the days when we wondered if the Soviets were really going to bomb us, and President Nixon was telling us he was not a crook.
It’s hard to believe now, but my first skateboard had metal wheels fit over a metal axle with no flex at all under the board. The ungodly noise it threw off echoed between houses down Ocean Drive, letting the whole neighborhood know that the skateboarders were out. Riding the asphalt streets on metal was enough to make your teeth fillings fall out. But we loved it. Escaping from the house to ride down the street with a few long-haired friends was pure joy and freedom. I remember riding on summer nights, turning so hard on concrete that our metal wheels would throw sparks from under the board.
Clay wheels improved things, but we still had to pack grease into the ball bearings to keep them from sparking, arcing, melting down, and seizing up. All the kids on my street got pretty excited when better technology finally came to the skateboard world in the form of polyurethane Simms wheels. Heck, I listened enough to my chemistry teacher to know that poly-anything meant the new wheels were going to be really cool. Those Simms wheels opened up a whole new world of going fast and turning hard. Ramp skating took off. Covertly draining the swimming pool at an empty house became the thing to do. Skate parks opened and skateboard magazines hit the shelves of surf shops and drugstores everywhere.
One day things changed for me. It was still in the prepoly era. A few friends and I decided to take a trip to “the Cross” in Ventura. The wooden cross stood atop a manzanitaand-grass-covered hill with a three-mile road that wound its way down the hill from the cross on top to the town below. Back then, there were few homes on the way down. We thought it would be fun to ride our boards the whole way, pumping the tail hard to generate more speed, or weaving back and forth with long turns to slow ourselves down. We wanted to see who could make it to the bottom in one piece.
That was the beginning of a high-risk tradition. We’d spend summer evenings bumming rides to the top, then flying down the long descent, taking our chances. Everything would go just fine until one of us hit a rock. In those days, hitting even a small rock meant your body got launched into the air while your board stayed with the rock. What followed was a lot of tumbling, crunching, and sliding across the asphalt until you came to a bloody rest in the weeds beside the road. Every time we came around a corner and saw a cloud of red Ventura dust ahead, we knew someone had gone over the side or slid off into the bushes. I remember coming home with bloody arms, knees, elbows, hands, and a banged up chin. Except for the big smile on my face, my mother might have thought I had been in a car crash or a bad fight. I loved every minute of it.
I think that is when the danger habit actually started for me. You find something exciting, something you’re good at (that has a high probability of disaster), and you go for it, all the while thinking you’re the one kid on the street who can pull it off. I had found a way to make life interesting, to forget about the pain and the bad stuff going on around me. All I had to do was push myself past the limits others set for themselves. Plus, I had found the perfect sport–my parents didn’t understand it and all the cool kids did it. Perfect. Living like that became my fix.
My choices had roots in my temperament. I’ve always been described by friends and family as high-energy or ADD. From the time I was in grade school, teachers tried to get my mother to put me on Ritalin, without success. Teachers typically described me as someone who “demonstrates risky behavior.” One person called me an “unbridled horse,” which I took as a compliment.
As with almost everything, people find their own versions of risky behavior. For example, I do not drive a jacked-up Hummer or base jump off antennas. Some do. I don’t hele-ski or climb into cages for ultimate full-contact fighting. Maybe you do that. But I am certainly an extreme person by nature. And unfortunately, the personality dropped into this body by my Creator has caused me and others in my life varying amounts of grief. It is no surprise that extreme people tend to generate a lot of collateral damage. We experience a higher percentage of damaged relationships, ruined families, disappointed bosses, unhappy spouses, and financial trouble than others around us.
And where’s the thrill in that?
A number of years ago, after struggling endlessly over what direction I should pursue in my life, I went to see a doctor. That visit turned into weeks of tests and interviews with a psychologist and my family doctor. Most of the tests I was given were easy, and the initial feeling I had was that I would sail past all this with the medical proof that I was fine and everyone else around me was screwed up. I would even have a doctor’s note to prove it. But I was not so lucky.
The wrench in my plan came near the end of the psychological evaluation period (at somewhere around $200 an hour) when one of the tests they gave me had a time limit. As
I approached the last third of the questions and the clock was approaching the time limit, I began to get frustrated and make mistakes. Then I became angry. The test is designed wrong and this doctor is stupid!
I thought. The more frustrated I got, the more mistakes I made.
In the end I was diagnosed with ADHD, Impulsivity Type. (At the time, it felt more like ADHD, “I want to rip your head off ” Type.) While I am reasonably smart and normal when things are calm, under pressure my mental capacity slides to about that of a sixth grader! Oh $#@%!
Though I’m thankful for God’s guiding and healing hand in my life, once a radical, always a radical. And my danger habit still gets me in trouble. But I’m far enough down the road that it’s time to share my life message of honesty, hope, and challenge with my fellow risk addicts.
Life on the Edge
Have you recognized some of your own instincts and passions, and maybe some of your own experiences, in my story? If so, then you may have your own danger habit. I’m sharing my story so that others like me can avoid some of the pitfalls we tend to fall into, and for a larger reason too–so that you and I can reclaim the truth that we are loved by God and created for a unique and important destiny.
But maybe you would say, “Inside I’m an extreme person, but I guess I’ve mostly opted out. Look at me from the outside, and I’d look as normal as the next guy.”
I’m sharing my story for you too. I’ve made similar choices at times in my life, as you’ll see in the pages ahead. Millions of radicals are locked up in careers with annual pay raises, trying to stay ahead of the mortgage payment, trying to do the responsible, “mature” thing. Sometimes that’s absolutely the best thing to do. Problem is, you never change how you feel inside. Deep down, you know you’re wired for danger. And you feel your vulnerabilities. You hope you don’t ruin everything by running away with some mysterious lover with a tattoo on her lower back, or joining a metal band, or setting off alone around the world.
The promise of what God can do with extreme people is huge, as I will try to show you in the chapters to come. But conversely, the threat to ourselves and others if we don’t reclaim our lives for higher purposes is also huge–and tragic.
Living and working as I do inside the Oregon surfing community, I meet a lot of people who burn the candle at both ends. They always look for the edge, then jump over. Again and again, I see that the desire to push the envelope when we’re young often progresses into destructive attitudes and behaviors when we are older.
It only makes sense. We extreme people love flying high above the skate-park bowl and flying “high” after smoking a bowl. Age and greater responsibilities don’t necessarily change that. They just intensify and spread around the negative consequences.
I see people in my community who love extreme living yet have no clue why they love stuff that brings so much pain to them and others. (Truth is, they often seem to enjoy seeing themselves or others getting hurt because it takes the sting out of their own inner pain.) But pushing to get higher, crashing at a higher rate of speed, and living harder only makes sense in the darkness. It might still bring a thrill, but you just can’t build a life on it.
In the pages of this book, I desperately want you to see yourself in new ways. We seekers of the “Wow” have reason to feel refreshed, not like freaks or rejects. Every radical adventure junkie who would rather skydive than go to church has been created by God to take, or at least long for, a different path. Maybe He created us to blow through the harder rock of life and make new roads where others won’t or can’t. You and I can’t do extraordinary things (we can’t even want to) without a measure of reckless passion for life, a disdain for the routine, and a thirst for some danger.
And God needs some of us to be change makers, not
routine sustainers, to live dangerously, not just enjoy reading
about it, to pioneer new ways of thinking and living because
the old ways are tired and boring.
This isn’t just a flakey spiritual idea, by the way. It’s biology.
The Radical Gene
As it turns out, research suggests that a radical gene exists in the DNA of some people. Dr. Marvin Zuckerman of the University of Delaware found that some people are prone to be addicted to the natural chemicals released in the brains of people who take extreme risks, overcome fear, or take chances that “normal” people would not take. Calling it the “sensation-seeking personality,” Zuckerman was able to create a scale of measurement to assess the underlying motivations of action-sports enthusiasts. Skydivers, extreme kayakers, and rock climbers tested among the highest on his scale.
In a 1994 issue of Psychology Today
, Zuckerman reported on his research.1 His conclusions in that article have special bearing on the purpose of this book. He says some studies are showing that a desire for risk may be innate in some people. It’s not that we have a “death wish.” Instead, risk works like a drug, triggering the parts of our brain that react to pleasure, so that taking chances becomes an addiction.
So, if we’re physically engineered by God to take high risks and they can become an addiction to us, the stakes must be a lot higher than we could have imagined.
Let me get at this puzzling possibility by starting from the addiction end of Zuckerman’s finding and pose a question: If God created us to crave behaviors that can invite addiction, damage, and even death, what important achievements that require the same temperament could He have in mind for us?
After giving it a lot of thought, here’s where I’ve come down on that question: I believe that adventure, danger, and even the tendency toward addiction are uniquely connected to the real meaning of living by faith. In other words, radical people might be on to something–or very close without knowing it–that is at the core of real, radical Christianity.
I’m not saying that radical people are more important than every other kind of person. Not long ago, a close friend of mine told me, “Just because you are louder doesn’t mean God will use you more.” She’s right. God doesn’t prefer loudmouths to introverts. He deeply loves and pursues all kinds of people. But still, if you and I are not mistakes who need to be neutralized and locked away, what could we possibly have to contribute to such a nonphysical, abstract, and “religious” topic as faith?
Let me try to explain.
The Faith-Risk Connection
One of the fathers of the Vineyard worship and church movement, John Wimber, used to say that faith was spelled “R-I-S-K.” He believed true faith requires risk, and risk-taking
can be an adventure. Even the most intelligent atheist or agnostic admits to their own dependence on the principles of “faith” when they embark on a new business venture or serious athletic accomplishment, whether it’s taking an eco-challenge or climbing Mount Everest. This is because they have to work through so many unknowns, calculating risks, and deciding to make their move without really knowing where it will land them. In a sense, this is also faith.
Following Jesus actually requires a full dose of risk-taking or it will quickly become deadening religion, not the new life He came to give. The Bible description for pursuing a healthy danger habit is “living by faith” (Romans 1:17).
Anytime I see a person move deeper into a Christian form of faith, I can almost see on their face how risky it is for them. The spiritual blinders they wore (previously blocking out the eternal love God has for their soul) are removed, and they begin to step slowly into a world they have been suspicious of, and critical of, for so long. Talk about risk! What if they are wrong? What if nobody really has the answers, and what if the Bible is just a tribal book after all, only for Jews and early Christians? What if their family and friends think they are crazy or brainwashed? But, even more threatening than all this, what if their choice to live by faith in Him actually brings them into the vicinity of a very real and powerful God, One who has an unyielding desire to completely and miraculously change their life?
Adrenaline junkies have this godly attribute running amok in their lives without realizing that God has created them for a much greater, even eternal, purpose. Statements like these might rattle you at first because you’re like so many risk takers who are congenitally suspicious of religion, church, and hype of all kinds. If so, I hope you’ll open your mind to another way of viewing your life.
Recently I watched a show on FUEL TV about BASE jumpers–people who skydive from towers, monoliths, and bridges. They must have interviewed five or six guys who shared the joys of propelling their bodies at 150 miles per hour toward the ground nine hundred feet below.
As I watched them talk to the camera, I was struck by the fact that these same individuals could be changing the world if they would only align their addiction to danger with an authentic faith. Instead, they might as well be any small group of friends at any skate park or BMX track near you. They represent a subculture of hard-charging postmodern adventure seekers who live for themselves without apology.
You have to love their honesty, though. Most of the young people I know who avoid religion and love the adrenaline cultures are also painfully honest about themselves. They readily admit they are screwed up, and they can easily share their deepest heartaches and desires with each other. (And isn’t that something the church is missing?) Yet my friends from that world are living with the consequences of being disconnected from their Creator and the Lover of their soul. In the end, I see many left holding binding addictions, empty friendships, empty bank accounts, and empty spiritual lives.
That’s what can happen when an adventurer doesn’t make the faith-risk connection, never finds a higher purpose (than selfish thrills) for the amazing way God made them, never signs up for the biggest thrill of all–a full-on, radical pursuit of God’s best.
At Play with the Father
Some time ago I was staying in Hawaii with my family for the Christian Surfers National Leadership Conference. While there, my then six-year-old son, Caleb, started surfing with me. After months of planning the trip and talking to Caleb about how to surf, and how warm the water is in Hawaii, and how “cool” surfers are in Hawaii, we rented a long board off the beach in Waikiki and walked into the water.
We started by lying together on the deck of a ten-foot-long board and paddling out the one hundred yards to find waves among the hundreds of other pasty white tourists. On the way out, Caleb had some questions: What if I fall? What if we can’t catch a wave? But once we were in position, he was ready. We slowly turned the board around and waited.
When a wave came, I started paddling as hard as I could while Caleb got ready to stand up in front of me and surf. He caught on pretty fast. Sometimes he would jump up before we even caught the wave. But when his timing was right, and the wave propelled us toward shore, you could have created cake frosting with the joy that poured out of Caleb’s body. It was the most wonderful experience.
Oh, I forgot to mention that Caleb can’t swim. I suppose that is what made my wife a bit nervous. Of course, to me, the high stakes were somehow part of what made the experience so thrilling for both of us. (Note: The water was crystal clear and about four feet deep, so if Caleb had slipped off the board, I could have easily grabbed him and lifted him to safety. This was not a Michael Jackson-dangling-his-son-over-the-balcony scene.)
I tell this story because that day became a turning point for Caleb. He had ventured into a place of danger with his loving and protective father and emerged from the water alive and changed. From that day on, he has called himself a surfer.
High-stakes adventure with the protection of a loving father–that was the E-Ticket Ride for Caleb that day, and the one for you and me in our pursuit of a meaningful life. Make no mistake, the stakes for us are also high. The notion of leaving behind what the “world” expects of us is one thing, but the business of bearing our own soul to our Creator is another, and one does not really know where it leads. We wonder, What if it leads to my early death? What if God calls me to poverty or a prison ministry? What if I am tortured on the mission field? What if I never get married? Hmmm.
For my son Caleb the questions, I think, were similar: What if my dad paddles for a wave too big for me? What if he just rolls off the back of the surfboard and lets me fall and drown? As a loving father who intimately knows the sport of surfing, I would never let Caleb go. I would never let him drown. I would never take a wave too big for him. But I would also never–get this–in a million trillion years let him just sit on the beach in perfect safety.
I love him too much.
He’s my dear child. He’s not made for that kind of life. He’s been specifically created for so much more, and he’s been gifted with a passion to pursue.
So it is with you and me as we travel through this gift of life with our heavenly Father.
Some of us are made to be adventurers, artists, wanderers, hard-charging extreme people, and we’ve known it from our earliest years. Adventure is in our spiritual DNA. But God made us that way for a reason. From the time of our first breath, God wanted us to be charged up with passion for the life He gave us.
As you and I go forward in our journey of understanding, healing, and growth in this life of faith, God travels with us. He won’t let us spiral into oblivion. On the other hand, He won’t let us just waste away on the beach either.
The ride up ahead is too promising for that.
Excerpted from The Danger Habit by Mike Barrett. Copyright © 2007 by Mike Barrett. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.