Thursday, December 5, 2013

Free Diving, Extreme Sports, and the Sixth Commandment

I don’t watch much TV but this past week I happened to tune in to the weekly news and interest show, 60 Minutes. One of the stories was on a sport called “free diving.” I had not heard of it before and watched with interest, then dismay, and then disgust.

For some time, I have been concerned by the growth in popularity of what are known as extreme sports. The name of this category really says it all. These sports are all about pushing the limits: of the human body, of the environment, of physics – whatever. And the purpose appears to be nothing more than the thrill of a momentary adrenalin rush.

Culturally, I think that these sorts of things are related to the increasing narcissism in North America. In extreme forms narcissism is a psychological disorder. Note the following definition: “a mental disorder characterized by extreme self-absorption, an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and a need for attention and admiration from others.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narcissism)

According to many cultural analysts, narcissistic behavior characterizes an ever increasing segment of North Americans. In educational circles, dealing with this trend among students is receiving more and more attention.  If you think that this is not a problem among Christians, think again.

So where does free diving fit into all of this?

I think it exemplifies the most extreme of the extreme sports and as such, helps identify the inherent problems, from a Christian perspective, with these sports.

Free diving is the practice of learning to hold one’s breath for an extremely long time (upwards of 4 minutes) while diving to depths of more than 350 feet. There are controls. Most of the professional divers have a team with them to help them if they black out, resuscitate them if necessary, etc. But the bottom line is, this so-called sport can – and does – kill, regularly.

The 60 Minutes piece opened with scenes of a young man who was attempting to beat a previous U.S. record. He made it up but soon after lost consciousness. About an hour later, he was pronounced dead. About two months ago, the wife of a husband-wife diving team also died while attempting a potentially record-setting dive.

The divers shown demonstrating free-diving on the Sunday episode were interesting. The young man did complete his dive, but said that every time he dives he “hears a voice” telling him he is going to die. The young man’s mother is shown crying on the shore while she waits for him to re-surface.

The young woman on the show who also successfully completed her dive is shown kissing her young daughter good-bye before she goes out. Her reason for diving? The feeling she gets when she is down there.

Neither of these people seem to care about anyone’s feelings but their own, however. The young man is apparently oblivious to the stress this causes for the people around him, and the young woman does not seem to recognize that her temporary self-gratification, should it go horribly wrong, will leave her young daughter motherless. The purpose is to break the next record until, apparently, no more records can be broken.

For a non-Christian, perhaps we can excuse this sort of reckless disregard for not only the people around us, but also for the life they have been given. But for a Christian, this is nothing short of a violation of the sixth commandment: you shall not kill, a commandment that the church has always recognized includes the killing of oneself.

If we are to be salt and light in the world, how should the Christian community respond to the growing popularity of extreme sports, sports designed to put one’s life in peril? That’s a tough question to some degree. But blindly accepting what is trendy is not the call of Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is the polar opposite of the self-gratification we see reflected in the extreme in these sports. Christian discipleship is self-denial for the sake of others and the glory of God.