How Knowing You are Perfectly Safe Can Help with Roller Coasters and Enlightenment

Recently, while riding roller coasters with my kids, I had a thought about how it's a great metaphor for spiritually grounded living.

The ride begins and I squeal with delight.

First the rise, then the drop, then the squeal around the corner as it speeds up. Cheering and shouting with glee I look next to me to check on my child, to see how he’s enjoying it so far.

I panic.

His eyes are sealed tight. Mouth locked, as if holding his breath and/or holding back screams of terror. I see his fingers clutching the bar in front, hanging on for dear life. Reaching over as far as I can, while gravity and inertia do their best to prevent me, I place a hand on his arm and shout, “ARE YOU OKAY!?!”

He doesn’t answer.

Silent.

Still.

I think he might be ready to puke? Or lash out in panic?

This is his first time riding The Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld, and already I can tell it will be his last.

I spend the rest of the ride shouting out affirmations, “I’M RIGHT HERE, BUDDY! IT’S OKAY! THIS IS THE LAST TURN! IT’S ALMOST OVER!”

Wooosh... the ride comes to a halt. Our bodies jerk forward at the sudden stop in momentum.

My son’s eyes blast open.

His mouth spreads in to a... wait... smile?

Is that a smile?!

He looks over at me filled with what is now clearly joy.

“Bud, are you okay?” I ask, now thoroughly confused by the contrast between his face and presence during the ten seconds of the actual ride with what I was now witnessing while we waited to disembark.

“Yeah!” he exclaims, as though it’s strange that I asked.

“So, like, you enjoy’d that?”

“Uh huh, it was great!”

Well okay then. Glad to hear it.

PERFECTLY SAFE

According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the odds of getting injured on a coaster is one in 24 million, while the odds of dying is one in 750 million.

I think it’s safe to say, roller coasters are perfectly safe.

And yet, the whole point of the coaster is to create the illusion of danger: falling, twisting, turning, flipping!!

If it felt safe, it wouldn’t be all that fun.

The other day, after spending a few hours at SeaWorld and riding some of the rides, I was talking about this concept with one of my kids who isn’t all that keen for the thrill of the coasters (not the same one from the story above). They shared how they didn’t enjoy the feeling of falling, twisting, and flipping, because they didn’t enjoy the feeling of not being safe.

Even though they may fully comprehend the rational argument, even though they may entirely understand the overwhelming statistical safety of roller coasters, such mental data is irrelevant compared to the physiological response of, “Holy crap I’m going to die!”

I suppose that’s the difference between those who love extreme sports and thrill rides with those who do not. For the one who loves them, they can tolerate (and even enjoy) the bodily sensation of flowing adrenaline, increased heart rate, and the edge of danger. Whereas obviously if a person doesn’t enjoy those sensations, they will not willingly put themselves in such a situation—let alone stand in a line for an hour just to do so.

Which got me thinking: how much—if any—impact can it have on the person who doesn’t enjoy such thrill rides to double down about the objective safety of the experience?

Can insisting on the perfectly-safe-ness of roller coasters make an impact? If the scale of 1 to 10 is

  • 1 = I’ll never, ever, ever ride a roller coaster, and 

  • 10 = I would like to crush Six Flags before breakfast each day,

is it possible to move a 1 up the scale via statistical analyses, rational thinking, and firm assertion that they will be safe?

Maybe. However, this might be where the term “irrational fear” comes from, because we’re talking about a response stemming from something beyond or irrespective of rational thinking. So perhaps if someone is truly a 1, there’s little to no hope to move them (at least, not with rational thinking and stats).

But imagine a person who’s more on the 2 or 4 end of the scale. Now (at least, in my thinking), there might be at least some way in which assurance of safety can move the needle. Not solely, of course, for we have pretty good research that shows how the way people overcome their fears is through repeated tiny bits of exposure to their fear that gradually increases until the fear is neutralized. Simply studying about a thing in a lab won’t alleviate our fear, we need to face it and have experiential interaction.

But I have to think, that if in conjunction with such exposure there is also repetition of truth based messages such as, “this is perfectly safe, you are okay, all will be okay,” that it will ultimately be more helpful than not.

In other words, what if meditating on what is True—even, or perhaps especially, if such messages run counter to how it may feel or seem—can make a substantive difference in how we experience life as it relates to things such as fear, anxiety, and worry?

THE KEY TO ENLIGHTENMENT

My hunch is that such a posture is the key to enlightenment (or at least one of the keys).

A posture that remains firmly rooted in a belief, or in an acceptance, that everything is okay, that all is well, and that nothing ultimately can undo or threaten that.

Of course, almost every aspect of life suggests otherwise, doesn’t it?

  • We get hungry every couple hours and our body sends us messages about not being okay.

  • We require sleep every day, without which our body slowly shuts down as it tells us how not-okay it’s doing.

  • We read the news about wars and rumors of wars and wonder about our physical safety.

  • We experience the chaos of a global pandemic that very much shouts, “things are not okay!”

  • We go bankrupt, we lose the business, we get hit with unforeseen medical expenses, and all of it reminds us of just how not-okay things are.

Life is a constant reminder of struggle, strife, and suffering. No one escapes this.

And yet some manage to live... what... unbothered by it all?

No, that’s not the right way to put it.

Unmoved by it all?

Yeah, that’s better.

For it’s not that the chaos and suffering of the world around them doesn’t bother them, it’s more like it doesn’t move them away from their fundamental stance of (to quote Julian of Norwich), “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It’s as though they know that they are perfectly safe, even though the twists, turns, and fallings of life signal to their body, “OMG we’re going to die!”

FOCUS YOUR THOUGHTS ON WHAT IS TRUE AND LOVELY

St. Paul once wrote a letter (while in prison, mind you) to the church in Philippi and one of the things closest to his heart at that point was this concept of finding the joy and the peace in life when everything seems to be the opposite. Toward the end of the letter he wrote,

6 Don't be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. 8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:6-9 CEB

While I acknowledge that these verses have been (mis)used by some in the church to practice a form of spiritual bypassing and to reinforce ideas about a God who magically protects you if you just believe the right things, I also want to suggest that there is some real, deep spiritual wisdom in these words.

I think the point Paul was trying to make is similar to what I’ve been writing about, how there is a way to engage with the chaos and suffering of life that can still leave us anchored in this “all shall be well” posture (or, as Paul called it, “the peace of God that exceeds all understanding”). And that way, that path, seems to be rooted in a focusing of our thoughts on that which is true, that which is pure, that which is lovely.

Again, not in a spiritual bypassing sort of way. Not in a pollyanna, head in the sand, just-ignore-the-pain-all-around-you sort of way. But in a way that understands (or at least, chooses to practice a kind of belief that might one day lead toward an understanding) that we are, in the final assessment, perfectly safe.

That we are okay.

And that (to quote Marcus Borg) the Whole is Good—which is to say, God, the Source of All, the Ground of our Being, is ultimately good and loving and safe.

ROLLER COASTERS AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

If you’re truly a 1 on the scale of Fear and Anxiety (about roller coasters or about life), then likely more help will be required to ever move to a 2 (or further) than can be gained through practices like focusing our thoughts on what is true. But I suggest that if we are anything other than a 1, then we really truly can benefit from a repeated practice of focusing on what is most true—while we slowly and cautiously engage with that which terrifies us, whether that be something like roller coasters or simply the everyday living of life.

Grounding our thoughts in the anchor of our “perfectly safe-ness” can, over time, build up greater resiliency against the constant waves of life that thrash their chaos and suffering against us.

We’ll never be rid of them, but we can become less and less moved by them.

Part of what makes roller coasters so fun (for me, at least) is that I get to practice the experience of engaging with something incredibly thrilling within the context of knowing that I am perfectly safe. I think such an experience is a pretty good metaphor for the spiritual life.

Yes, of course there is real suffering in the world. I’m not suggesting that starvation or physical suffering or psychological trauma are all just like the twists and turns of a roller coaster.

But what I am suggesting is that it seems to me that those who have figured out paths toward a kind of enlightenment have—in some form or fashion—found a way to experience such real suffering as a kind of “but it’s not harming the real me, it’s not impacting what is most Real.” So that, if asked, they might actually say something like, “Yes, this pain is happening, but it’s no more a threat to me than the loop-de-loop of the Electric Eel at SeaWorld.”

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

Whatever kind of suffering, pain, or trial you might be enduring right now, perhaps today you’ll take a moment to focus your thoughts on that which is true, that which is lovely.

“I am safe. I am loved. I am okay.”

Not to ignore or repress, but to practice grounding in what is Real.

And maybe you set aside some time to do it tomorrow.

And maybe even the next day.

And who knows, maybe you start making a habit of it so that slowly,

over time,

the next roller coaster of your life that sweeps through and tries to knock you off your feet suddenly becomes a little less terrifying because you believe with just a bit more tenacity that you are perfectly safe.

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What do you think?

Have you ever overcome a fear through a combination of “grounding in what is objectively true” mixed with slow, repeated exposure and practice?

Do you tend to agree or disagree with the idea that we are, in the final measure of things, “okay?”

If we are truly, really, okay, then how might such a Reality impact our everyday life?

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