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A Mortal Risk

It's a gut-wrenching thing to watch a catastrophe unfold, like the story of the Titantic-seeking submersible where five men died in an underwater implosion. No matter the foolhardiness of the endeavor, no one deserves to die an agonizing death. But we forget all too easily how mortal we are; we under-appreciate our risk of mortality in what we undertake.

Risk of mortality really means how easily would you succumb to death if you deviated off course from the ideal of what you expected? We all expect the perfect outcome, for things to flow smoothly, but if they don't, if things break down, don't work, don't function like they should, how reversible is the alternate outcome? Hospice for one is a great place to study this; palliative management is about attempting to reverse what can be reversed, and aggressively managing the rest.

Our modern world is built upon attempts to mitigate mortality risk. For example, with the technology of driving there's an inherent risk of dying; but we have tried to minimize that risk by regulating and optimizing our vehicles, our preparatory training, and our driving environments. We stand ready for accidents to triage them rapidly to where they should go. We have done a good job of making traveling through driving appear safe.

But the rougher the terrain, the harsher the environment, the more physically foreign and challenging the task is to us, the more difficult it is then to "reverse" things if something goes wrong. Alex Honnold, in the fantastic 2018 documentary "Free Solo," made it clear that he understood the risk of mortality of his mind-defying endeavor. He wanted to free-solo climb the face of El Capitan in Yosemite, a 900 meter vertical wall slab where the slightest maneuveral mistake was immediately deadly. Because he understood that the mortality risk was 100% with one false move, with one tiny deviation off course, he literally choreographed with painstaking practice move-by-move his ascent up the wall. It is that kind of humble comprehension of the real risk which allows one to succeed at such a high-stakes endeavor.

The same thought process should have been applied to the submersible. The truth was that the risk of mortality - no matter that it had been done before - was very high. This was because, again, there was virtually no margin for error. If anything, however mundane, went wrong, rectifying that issue deep in the inhospitable ocean - as hostile of an environment as the sheer face of El Capitan, the dizzying peak of Mount Everest, or the silent vastness of deep outer space - would be nigh impossible - without having conceived of and planned for it in excruciating detail beforehand. And even then, even with having planned, and conceived, and planned again, there still would be a sizeable risk, because we don't know what we don't know, and these environments are alien to us.

Again, cautionary tales are outright painful. But this tragic story has a powerful lesson. It asks us to stop underestimating our risk of mortality, even here on earth. Technology gives us the illusion of control and stability, but time and again, it is no match for the true forces of nature. If we want to be intrepid adventurers, we need to be as humbly realistic and prepared as possible, driven by an obsession with perfection and anticipating every outcome. Death, as we know readily from hospice, is always lurking nearby.


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