potter_jumpDean Potter jumped off a cliff 2,286m (7,500ft) up and died.  He had done this and other stunts taunting death many times; in the end death won.

Dean is a celebrity among many people who risk their lives to base jump, climb, dive, and engage in other activities known as “extreme sports.”

I have no criticism of those who engage in extreme sports, even when like Dean they hit the wall.

I do think that his death affords an opportunity to explore an interesting distinction – that is: our culture commonly reviles people who kill themselves, but does not revile (and even honors) people who get themselves killed.

Dean Potter got himself killed, but he did not kill himself.  That distinction is at the core of why folks dead people like Dean are treated heroically, even spiritually, in the media while suicides are publicly called out as “cowards.”potter_moon

The legal status of killing oneself has changed in the US from being a felony in all 50 states to currently having no explicit criminal sanction, but will likely invoke State health authority.

Getting oneself killed has never been criminal, so far as I am aware, so that jumping out of an airplane, a cliff, or building is one’s own business, unless it involves trespassing.

People who get away with such activities are not treated publicly as criminals, but as celebrities.

There is something fascinating about people who risk their lives for fun andhoudini_water_torture profit.  In 19th century England attempted suicide was punishable by the death penalty.  At the same time people paid to see performers go over waterfalls in a barrel and for Houdini to court death chained in tank of water.

Perhaps the distinction is based in the intention.  The serious suicide intends to kill themselves and die.  The daredevil is not overtly trying to kill themselves and die, but rather to come close to death and escape its grasp.

Dean Potter did not jump off a cliff because he wanted to die.  He expected to live to tell the tale of his near-death experience.  He spoke of his experience of fear and his intense awareness that he might die.

It by surviving that the daredevil represents a triumph over death.  We honor the risk takers because they show it possible to overcome the fears that we experience.

potter_flight_frontalAccordingly, when the risk ends in death such as Dean Potter, our sense of the risk is verified and we know that he was playing it for real.

I suspect that the more successful we are at preventing death by disease, accidents, and violence, as our natural life spans increase, our value for living will grow.  One effect of this value is that daredevils – those who risk death – will become more special and interesting for us because they will be risking even more.

To be clear – I find daredevils fascinating and followed Dean Potter’s adventures.  I am not criticizing him or other risk takers.

I do think it is relevant to re-think how we classify those who get themselves killed and those who kill themselves.

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