When a policeman is shot and killed, it is not hard to understand; life in the streets is dangerous, but we know someone must live it if we expect to have a minimum of order and security. So, when that happens, the gossip is about knowing exactly what has occurred: Was it a coward criminal deed? Was it during combat? Or was it the policeman’s corruption that eventually killed him? But we never hear someone questioning the “merit” of such death — policemen and criminals die by the bullet, and that’s it. But when someone dies by jumping from a precipice with small wings between the arms, then the gossip is of a different nature.
Those who have a bit of common sense avoid uttering the question that hovers in their minds: “The guy died because of it, so I’ll keep my mouth shut“, they think. They do well. But others can’t resist and don’t take long before blathering about what happened. They look outraged as if the fact mattered to them, appalled by the lack of zeal for one’s own life, by the irresponsibility displayed, by the plain stupidity of it all.
I pity those people. They only think they live.
Those people cling to what they call “life” with tooth and nail, doing everything they can to incur the least danger possible. They seem to be striving to perpetuate their existence on the planet. They are people who, as Jorge Luis Borges put it in “Instantes“, don’t go “anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bag, an umbrella and a parachute”. They don’t realize that even a parachute is not enough at times.
The inexorable truth that passes unnoticed by them is that we are never in control. Even those who admit that we are under a grander design don’t hesitate to proffer a quick solution: “We should minimize risks“, they say. Perhaps, in doing so they might extend their tourist visa here on Earth and, when it’s time to die, at least they would have lived the most. Really?
Wake up at the time dictated by your boss, or much earlier because of the inhuman traffic you have to put up with; rot in your car amidst the damp air regurgitated by the air-conditioner that temporarily protects you from the outside world which besets you so much; work your ass off all day every day in a joyless (but “safe”) job, pretending to be the one possessor of truth in meetings that go nowhere, and constantly lowering your head to people worse than you just because you fear them; go home in shame and anger at the end of the day not knowing if the feeling is because of the useless hours you’ve just “lived” or if it’s out of anticipation from meeting your “soul-mate”, who awaits you at home with as little drive to see you as you her; gazing every night at your son and see someone that could be much better than you one day, but who, because you resent him, will never receive more from you than a “good night” and an occasional pat in the shoulder between your third and your sixth beer.
Is that living?
Sadly, these people do have slightly more chance of surviving and thus transmitting their mediocre genes. But not of living. Because Death is a part of Life just like breathing. And just like everything in life it must be faced not with fear, but with respect. Those who live in fear only half live, and those who pass through life “in a white cloud” waste their only opportunity of living. Those who believe in God and Paradise might have another chance, but what if they are wrong? What if they don’t deserve it? Because if there is a God and He created the seas and the mountains and the skies, doesn’t He want us to relish them? Would He rather that we rejoice in the creation of Men? Money, drugs, cars, power?
I am glad there are those who jump from the precipice.
But then comes a more impertinent guy who has the guts to pose the fatidic question: “Was it worth it?” And, unwillingly, I am obliged to respond.
I begin by setting one thing straight. Just like Nelson Mandela opened his first court statement of 1962 by declaring he did not recognize the right of that court to judge his case — because how could a white racist court judge a black revolutionary? — I begin by acknowledging I won’t convince anyone. No one has the right or capacity to judge those who fly — no one but their kin. How could those who live crawling understand those who crave the skies? But I dare an answer anyway, even if just because I too need to understand it.
No, it was not worth it.
A few days ago, a great brother died. As a Special Operations man he was my brother-in-arms, just like all the men from my unit, who live, kill and die with me every day. He was also a great friend of friends of mine and a person who made me feel special and a little happier just by shaking my hand. He left behind family and a one-year son. A sensational life is over. Many cried and will cry for him for a long time. Parents lost a great son. The combat frogmen that worked with him lost a great partner. His country lost a great combatant. The World lost a great man.
But he knew the sublime sensation of what it is to fly! He knew the gentle emptiness of not having the ground underneath his feet and the certainty of not needing such trivial support. He felt the calm freedom of zooming down the mountain like a falling rock and knowing that gravity would soon be tamed. He saw quartz crystals pass just inches from his head, racing at hundreds of miles per hour, and he felt the heat that emanated from the rock and the might of such witnesses of Earth’s eternity. He saw the canopies of the trees awaiting him with open arms and then crying his absence when the air molecules below compressed on a whim and suddenly moved him forward. What a sensational moment the time when God holds you up with all His strength! Or is it not God who transforms the man-who-walks into rock-that-falls and finally into the warrior-who-flies? I don’t know, for I have been an agnostic all my life, but perhaps, those who have lived their lives fearing God instead of living His greatest gift might answer the question. All I know is that my friend felt the wind vibrating and compressing his face and he listened to its roar as he cut the surrounding medium. And that’s when he realized that, instead of falling helpless, he could influence his ways to the flavor of the turbulence. No, there was no complete control. But who wants that? There was instead a harmony that can only be felt when both parts agree — not when one dominates the other. It was a tacit pact among singular creations: the void between the Mountain and the Sea on one side and the audacious man on the other — or better, both together, on the same side. While flying, he saw vultures gliding ahead in total oblivion and he chased them until, surprised, they finally fled away. They must have thought “I didn’t know there were blue-eyed vultures“. No, there are not. But there are men who look at Death in the eye and with a roguish smile throw themselves into the void — not as if saying “I am better than you“, but, instead, “Thank you for making life so beautiful“. Because what would be of Life without Death? I don’t know. Maybe we could ask those who have perfect control over their lives, who will never know victory over death (even if elusive), but who will instead boast about their defeat to life (even if constant, throughout their whole lives).
No, it was not worth it. IT IS WORTH IT!
The pain of those who stay — parents, brothers, friends — doesn’t usually allow them to feel it, but deep inside they know the truth: he wouldn’t have been who he was if deprived of flying. It is not and it has never been an option. Just like artists have chosen Death over not exercising their Art, those who fly also chose Her over having their wings cut off. Death will come to all, but how many can say they know what it is to fly? Who but the birds and men like your son, dear parents? As much as the pain makes you suffer, please remember this: you only feel it so strong and visceral because he who left you paid homage to his life every day and, by doing so, filled yours with a rare and beautiful energy.
And that’s why at this moment of grief I can’t do anything else but exhort all of us to imitate him:
Let us jump gentleman! Let us fly, and let us combat!
And let us die, if necessary.
But we shall never look back, from wherever we might be, and realize we have never lived. Hopefully, in this way, our place will “never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.
Our place will be by his side. And what greater honor can we wish for?
1. I wrote this piece a few days after he died, but that was a couple of years ago. At the time, I sent this text to his family and friends; now, I send it to you.