2013-12-26

Panic, luck, and control

First, I want to admit that I've been putting off writing this article for some time. I didn't put it off because I didn't have any ideas on what to write about the experiences I'll share below, but because I had too many ideas. Usually, I try to plan and schedule when my articles will publish, but today I decided just to sit down and write until I hit the "Publish" button.

I've had a number of experiences this year that have shifted my perspective on the subjects of panic, luck, and control. Before I try to delve into the philosophy behind that shift, I'm going to recount the experiences that have had an impact on molding it. It's important to me that you recognize that I'm sitting here now, writing this; don't worry yourself about the scenarios themselves, that would be missing the point I'm getting at. It's important for me to share the experiences so you can understand what I'll say afterward.

As I said, I've had a number of amazing experiences this year and I look forward to elaborating on them in a future article. Life is full of good and bad experiences. Sometimes even the bad ones can be good, if you learn something. In fact, that's exactly what happened when I ran out of air while scuba diving.

I had been helping another diver who was attempting to demonstrate a shared air ascent to an instructor. When I gave him one of my regulators to use as his air supply, he struggled to get into the right position so that we could do the ascent. He must have been nervous, possibly even a little scared. The instructor eventually signalled him to cease his attempt and signalled me to return to a different position in the water. As I swam toward the new position, I noticed immediately that my regulator felt significantly different. In moments, I felt it jolt as it responded to my breathing. I recognized that jolt instantly; I was out of air. I looked down at my gauges and confirmed that I was empty. It must have happened while I was sharing air, the other diver must have been breathing heavily.

I turned to the instructor and got his attention. I signalled to him that I was out of air. As I did this, my body continued to gasp at my regulator for any air it could get. At that moment, I realized that I could decide how I wanted to respond to this situation. Would I allow myself to panic and break for the surface, risking internal injury by ascending too quickly? Or would I face this challenge and sort out my options?

I decided to choose the latter. I remember letting go of the panic and mentally giving myself time to sort things out. I signalled the instructor again and showed him my gauges. He readied himself to give me an air supply, but signalled me to swim to another diver to share air with her. (I would find out later that he did this so he wouldn't leave any of the student divers beneath without his supervision.)

My body continued to take gasps at nothing. (If any divers are reading this, I want to take a moment to tell you: keep the regulator in ALWAYS, you can NEVER override your body's desire to breathe; it's better to breathe nothing than water.) I swam to the other diver and signalled her that I was out of air. Unfortunately, she didn't realize that it wasn't a drill, so I had to work through the proper technique, all while staring at her regulator and holding back the urge to reach out and take it so I could breathe. (FYI, her secondary supply was part of her BCD.) We got through the signals and she started handing me her regulator and switched to her secondary. As I put the regulator in my mouth, I thought for an instant about clearing it of water, but I wanted to breathe so badly that I just took a breath.

I can now say that I have taken a breath full of water and I can now laugh and tell you that I wish I had cleared the regulator first. However, I now know what it feels like to be out of air underwater and to take a breath of water. Drowning would be a horrible way to die.

Once we swam to the surface, the other diver noticed that I was manually inflating my BCD (for the non-divers: so I could float). She realized then that I was really out of air. Later, she asked me about how I stayed calm under the water; my only answer was that I chose to. Panic would have done nothing to help my situation, I had to work through my options and consider the consequences. I realized that day that I would always have a choice in any situation. That realization would become even more significant when I found myself falling without control on a sky-dive.

I'm in the process of getting my parachuting license; that means a lot of training, logging quite a lot of freefall time, and more than a few solo jumps. I had completed a number of jumps by the time I experienced what I call "my first sketchy sky-dive". I call it "sketchy" because it wasn't "bad", but it certainly didn't go as planned. I say "first" because I'm certain that I'll have at least one more "sketchy" jump in the future; I don't want to have another, but I'm sure going to prepare as if I will.

Many lessons require students to demonstrate certain skills. During this jump I had to demonstrate some easy turns and docking/undocking with an instructor. My first turn went alright, but I cut too hard on my second turn and ended up on my back. I dropped quite a way while on my back, but regained control and checked my altitude. My instructor caught up and I again tried to complete my skills. I turned over again; this time I was on my back and almost head down. Every 5 seconds of freefall is about 1000 feet (30 meters). I struggled to regain control, but couldn't reposition myself. I was counting in my head as I fell; I needed to decide if I should stop trying to regain position and just deploy my canopy. I looked at my altimeter and realized that I was well below my ideal deployment altitude.

I started to reach back to deploy my 'chute. Somehow my instructor managed to catch up to me and grabbed my harness. He and I were eye-to-eye. He gave me the "pull" signal (meaning, deploy your parachute now!). I nodded and mouthed the word "pull", my hand already in place. (Later, he and I would laugh together at the expression on my face when he first grabbed me; it was a combination of "Where did you come from?" and "Holy $#!T!")

I deployed my canopy and attempted to look up at it to make sure it was "flyable". I couldn't look up. My head was being forced downward by something. I reached up and felt my risers (straps connected to the canopy) crossed behind my head. The canopy was flying backward due to my inverted deployment, I was facing the wrong way. I pushed my head beneath the risers, tried to get them to uncross. Nothing. I bounced up and down in my harness, to shake things into position. Nothing. I knew I should only try once more before cutting my main and switching to my reserve 'chute. I gave the risers the biggest shake I could manage; I pulled up on them like I wanted to climb out of my harness. They uncrossed! I was finally facing the right direction; my canopy was flyable.

As I thought through my experience, I noted that there had been no panic in my mind (on my face, maybe, but that was just funny to look at). I did what I had to do to regain control of the situation. I'd like to note that after I completed my landing and reviewed the errors (and excitement!) of my jump with my instructor, I decided to go up again on the next flight and I passed that lesson successfully.

I've spent a number of months thinking about these experiences (and others that are related, both positive and negative). There are many times in our lives that we try to control everything. We build entire industries around "giving" people control of some thing or some situation. In reality, we only ever have control of ourselves, our own minds; anything else external to that is circumstance.

Some people have said that I'm "lucky" in these situations. Others have said that it's all just "risk management". I somewhat disagree with both. Even though some of it comes down to chance and there is, of course, a lot of planning and prevention, it all comes down to how you face the situation when it occurs. Will you panic and leave it all to chance? Will you pretend that you control everything? Or will you take each situation as it presents itself, trust your instincts AND your training, lean into the challenge, and know that the moment you're in is the moment you've been living for your entire life?

When all you have is a few moments left in life, your priorities and focus become clear. You wonder why you wasted time on meaningless things and how you can make the right kind of choices in the future. You see, we don't second-guess the things we can't control; we second-guess ourselves. As I took my gasps of nothing or when I watched the sky fall away, I didn't think about blame or control, I only thought "if only...".

I have always loved my children and I greatly appreciate many people who are a part of my life, but I didn't share that gratitude until I recognized how special every moment is with them. Now, I try to let someone know what something means to me, even the smallest thank you is important. We have so much choice within ourselves; we can control the kindness and love that we share. Feeling stress about non-life-threatening situations, worrying about other people's opinions, accumulating things without purpose; it's all so empty. I choose to value the people in my life, I choose to make every moment significant. If I trust my instincts and training, face my challenges, and accept every moment as significant, then I will never think "if only..." again. Life isn't about panic, luck, and control; it's about love, respect, and trust.
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