I’m glad Abby Sunderland has been found, adrift but safe in the Indian Ocean. As a parent and a sister, I empathized with her family and worried that they’d never see her again.
I will admit that I also had a moment or two of wondering: “What were they thinking? How could her parents let her sail around the world?”
Then again, just a few days ago I watched my little Tiger dangle from the monkey bars where he broke his humerus last winter. I felt my stomach clench and tumble. I checked my overprotectiveness. I cheered him as he swung from one end to the other. I imagine Abby’s parents went through something similar in deciding to let their beloved daughter try to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world – with, however, one difference. They had pretty good reason to assume Abby was up to the challenge. The Tiger, by contrast, has a very dicey record on the monkey bars.
That’s why I have to agree with Hugo Schwyzer’s thoughtful post on how not all 16-year-olds are equally mature, and how Abby’s parents likely made a reasonable decision based on her capabilities. I especially appreciate his point that 18 is not a magic age of reason, nor does it revolutionize the way parents see their babies:
On the one hand, I can’t imagine being comfortable sending my own child off around the world on a sailboat by herself. But if I’m honest, I know full well that protectiveness won’t vanish when my Heloise [Hugo's baby daughter] turns 18; I’d worry just as much if she were 18 as if she were a few months younger. Lines of demarcation don’t have much effect on the heart.
But here’s where I part ways with Hugo, and with the other commentary I’ve read: I don’t think parenting is the real issue here. Yes, American culture is riven with divides between parents like me who let our ten-year-olds bike to the local libarary, and those who think this is lunacy; parents who let their four-year-olds wander the neighborhood, and parents like me who worry that such small persons will be crushed under a car.
The issue in Abby Sunderland’s situation is, rather, this: Why does anyone feel compelled to set records at the cost of life and limb? Why do so many people still feel called to climb Everest, despite the fact that not only they but their local sherpas may well expire before they reach the peak? (This happened again just recently to a British climber, though he did get to the top first. Cold comfort, I say.)
I understand the impulse to explore and discover. In junior high, I dreamed of being an astronaut. That dream died forever in 1986 along with the passengers of the Challenger. But I can see why scientists still go to wild places. I have a friend who travels to Antarctica to research low-temperature life forms, and I completely understand why she does it, even though such expeditions always involve modest risk.
What I don’t understand is the desire to set records – to push one’s body beyond its healthy boundaries – to embrace risk just for its own sake. Sailing solo around the globe makes as much sense to me as playing chicken with a train, or drag racing on the freeway.
But drag racing and playing chicken are the desperate sports of poor kids. Setting records is the province of the privileged. The assumption is that no effort will be spared in trying to save you if your boat runs awry.
I’m not saying that Abby Sunderland should have been left to drift endlessly on the open seas. Of course not. I am truly glad and relieved she was found.
And yet. Every time an extreme athlete runs into trouble, massive resources are deployed to rescue him or her. Clueless skiers go into the Sierra backcountry and get stranded in a blizzard. Mountain climbers underestimate the danger of avalanche. Solo pilots fly into oblivion. The “resources” deployed aren’t just financial; human beings often risk their own necks in hopes of saving a life.
Just to underscore how much this is a function of privilege: In the last several days, tens of thousands of children have died of preventable disease: malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, typhus, etc. ad nauseam. How many could be saved with the money spent on rescuing people (children and adults) who – from a place of tremendous economic privilege – challenge themselves to break records, or simply assume that they will be “safe” in the wild because their lives have always been safe? Again, I’m not saying in any way that Abby should have been abandoned. Not at all. Only that we should question this cultural impulse to take risks and set records just because.
Once upon a time, parts of the globe were untouched by human exploration. Perhaps the urge to explore was extraordinarily adaptive a few million years ago – even a century ago. Today? We’d be wise to ask when exploration and adventure truly serve human knowledge, and when they’re only yoked to ego.
And I’m not saying this only because I’m so cautious, I only ever climbed one tree in my childhood. Perhaps that makes me an unreliable narrator – or just a chicken. Still, I think the larger point about risk and privilege is still valid.