Are we getting more extreme?

The New York Times reviewed Riding Giants, the new documentary about why, in its director’s words, “people choose to devote their entire lives to the pursuit of riding waves.”

The Times’ review (by Stephen Holden) takes a different view of the film. With today’s surfers seemingly obsessed with finding the biggest, most dangerous waves, does that attitude reflect a shift in society’s goals? Holden thinks so:

We’ve clearly come a long way from “The Endless Summer,” the 1966 documentary by Bruce Brown that followed two surfers around the world in search of “the perfect wave.” Focused on beauty, grace and surfing long waves rather than on mastering high ones, they embraced values that were different from those of the adventurers pushing the limits in “Riding Giants.” In today’s age of bigger-is-better, facing your fear is what really matters.

Holden may have a point: though in Endless Summer the surfers certainly faced dangers like hiking across swamps filled with crocodiles in order to find the waves, the point wasn’t to face their fears, the point was that achieving our goals sometimes requires confronting fears. Now, apparently, the goal itself is simply facing fear.

But is facing our fear what “really matters” to most of us? How many people actually confront a 60-foot wave, or go skydiving, or ski off 100-foot cliffs? Does the popularity of the X-games, or even TV shows like Survivor or Fear Factor reflect a general trend away from the pursuit of the artistic toward the pursuit of the dangerous? I suspect that it does not. While certainly there is a trend toward watching more reality TV, I think this trend also reflects the larger reality that fewer of us than ever are participating in “real” reality. Video games are now a $25 billion a year industry, larger than the entire “recreation” sector of the U.S. economy. We may like to confront our fears, but generally we prefer to do it from the security of our own armchairs.

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