This spring break, I encountered both my first roller coaster and my first rattlesnake. The former jostled me through a well-designed maze of turns and pyrotechnics – the latter wiggled its eponymous endpiece and slithered into the bushes when I approached. While southern California’s attractions are not limited to these alliterative hazards, my encounters with both left me thinking about the fateful love triangle of humans, fun, and danger.
Roller coasters – along with parasails, bungee cords, and the sport of football – are designed to entertain through their evocation of primal fears while mitigating the actual likelihood of death. Yet much like our hunter-gatherer predisposition to crave caloric and fattening foods, our endorphin addiction is something of a biological glitch. Football, recent studies suggest, is rife with both short- and long-term health consequences for serious players. And we only need glimpse at the mortality statistics for road racing or drug overdoses to wonder why the human brain is so monumentally bad at balancing its judgments of pleasure and peril.
We might expect a line beyond which a given activity definitively passes from some possibility of enjoyment to existential terror. And yet when I recount my rattlesnake encounter, listeners are often shocked to learn that my hiking companions and I didn’t run screaming away, but rather stepped closer as the diamondback fled into the brush. We wanted to see it, hear it, experience its presence, and the possibility of being injected with a powerful neurotoxin didn’t phase us.
This week, in the course of directing a play, I have splashed myself with dangerous chemicals, set fire to ropes, and climbed rickety ladders. My life would be considerably safer if I shied away from such activities, certainly, but I am drawn to the work nonetheless. When marine biologists are killed by the creatures they study, or war correspondents are caught in the crossfire, the tragedy of these events (in a very classical sense) lies in the choice that brought them about – the choice to actively pursue danger in the quest for knowledge and understanding. And so perhaps our biological addiction to danger can serve a profoundly non-biological purpose, in the sacrifices we make in search of otherwise unattainable truths.