I’m currently reading the new hotness in teen dystopian fiction, Divergent. It’s a fun…ahem…diversion from reality into a world where people have to choose their “faction” at sixteen. There are five factions and each represents a different moral high ground that shapes the lives of their members. Amity value peace above all else. Erudite values knowledge. Candor, truth. Abnegation, selflessness. And Dauntless, courage. Of course, the worst thing in the world is to be different and possibly fit into more than one of these factions. That makes you…gasp!…divergent! Heaven forbid you try to be multi-layered and a more complete person in the future. It might get you killed.
It’s a good read, if a bit forgettable and paint by numbers in its attempt to make a central theme of adolescence (identity) into something that the entire world ascribes to as well. But it presents it all in an interesting way, and provokes an even more interesting question: If you had to choose just one faction to belong to, which would it be?
For reference, I am Erudite. Your mother is Candor.
But a long time ago, when we were teens, we might have chosen Dauntless.
In the book, one of the very first tests after the main character, Tris, chooses Dauntless is to jump off a building into a dark abyss below. They have no way of knowing it, but at the bottom is a net that catches them. The only way they can find out it’s there is to jump. To be dauntless. To be brave.
This is an important trait to have. In the real world, it also helps to have some intelligence, too. To know when it’s stupid to be brave.
I learned this lesson as a teenager. Rewind back to my senior year in high school. A bunch of my buddies and me decide to head to Lake Cumberland. It’s this huge lake cut into the limestone hills of Western Kentucky. People go there to drive boats, drink beers and not always in that order.
When you’re a senior in high school, Blue, you’re young, dumb and immortal. Nothing in the world can hurt you. You’ve made it through high school, dammit. You’ve made it through the gauntlet of adolescence, with a driver’s license to show for your troubles. It’s the best year of your life, the full bloom of that flower before the harsh winds of the world make you realize you’re a delicate, little flower and you’re about to get CRUSHED under the boot of reality. College puts this off, but only for a few years.
So us dumb, invincible seniors went to Lake Cumberland for a spring weekend. We were on the cusp of graduation and in the mood to celebrate. We rented a boat, a hotel room, and got on with the business of being young and dumb. Most of my buddies got there a day before I arrived with the second group.
When we got there, everyone recalled their first day on the water. The boat was rad. The water was awesome. And they found the cliffs. Remember how I said the lake was surrounded by limestone? In places, the ground rose up in stratified layers of rock. It felt less like a lake and more like a fjord with walls of rock towering above us on either side.
The cliffs weren’t just there for viewing. They were there for jumping. The next day, they took us to the spot.
The top loomed 70 feet above the surface. When people leapt off the side, it took 3 Mississippi’s and a few screams before the splash. It was LONG way down, and we watched more than a few jumpers howling in pain when they surfaced.
Naturally, being young, dumb and immortal, we climbed straight up to the top. It never dawned on us that maybe we should practice on the smaller cliffs rising up like steps to the side. It never dawned on our buddies that maybe they should tell us to do that because they did it the day before.
This was the extent of the discussion prior to the climb:
“Should we wear shoes?”
“Up to you. They help when you hit the water but you might lose them.”
We climbed. At the top, the boats at the bottom looked like matchbox toys. The water was asphalt. None of this registered with me. The only thought running through my stupid head was that I needed to do this because everyone else had already done it. I needed to have the experience. Sometimes, Blue, feeling alive is more important than staying alive.
I curled my bare feet around the edge of the rock, felt the wind underneath me, and leapt into the air. About halfway down, I realized it would have been helpful to practice on the smaller cliffs first. It wasn’t about overcoming fear. It was about overcoming physics. When you jump from 70 feet in the air, the air does things to you it doesn’t do at lower heights.
As I fell, the air shoved my legs up. I was so busy trying to keep my stomach in its cavity that I failed to notice my precarious position in time. Instead of hitting the water like a pencil, with my legs pointing the way, I landed like a chair.
Instantaneously and mercilessly, the cool waters of Cumberland went straight through my colon, shooting their way through my entire digestive tract, blasting out my nostrils on the other end. When I surfaced, I couldn’t feel my legs. I was greeted with howls of laughter as I dragged myself back onto the boat, and for the rest of the day, I was young but no longer dumb.
I stayed on the boat. It hurt to walk for two days.
The lesson here is simple, Blue. Be brave, but be brave AND smart. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to have some thrills every now and again. You only live once, after all, but be careful and pick your adventures. You only die once, too. Pick your spots, and don’t worry, when you’re old enough, I know a spot to go cliff jumping. We’ll start with the 10-foot drop, and go from there.