The Logic of Invaluable Life — Finding Important things in Dire Straits. Part 2.
(This will make more sense if you read Part 1 first)
Greg was 50 feet in front of me. I had walked back uphill to find his tracks, so the snow was again 3-4 feet deep. I bent my left leg — my uphill leg — so that my shin could glide along the compacted snow where Greg’s snowboard had already traversed. My shin displaced my weight across its length so I didn’t sink into the snow. I used my downhill leg as a paddle, rowing me across the mountain; my poles helped me keep my balance. Greg explained that he had called Ski Patrol, and they sent someone to the edge of the resort to yell and try and find him. I hadn’t heard a thing. We were way off the map.
Despite being similar sports, there is definitely a cultural rift between skiers and snowboarders, and my first impressions of Greg hilariously fit the bill. Greg wasn’t wearing a helmet, just a winter beanie cap. When I asked if he had any food or water, Greg pulled out a flask of peach flavored vodka. Seriously. (I’ll stop there because Chelsea is a snowboarder too, and I don’t want to get in trouble). Jokes aside, Greg is a resilient and positive person. He was short, in his early thirties; a normal guy who worked in retail at a T-Mobile store. He was probably a great salesman; he had an infectious smile which I desperately needed to catch.
Greg and I started to plan. It was 3pm in the afternoon, and it was starting to get cold. “Can we get ahold of search and rescue? What can they do?”
“Yeah,” Greg said, “but if search and rescue comes and gets us with a helicopter, it’s going to cost a fortune…”
“How much would you guess,” I asked, not really caring about the answer.
“I don’t know, maybe like ten thousand? I just can’t afford that. My wife would kill me.” Greg suggested hiking back up the mountain to try and find a run. Without skis, that wouldn’t have done me much good. Quite frankly, the snow would have gotten deeper and the air colder. And there was, of course, no guarantee that walking uphill would even lead to anything.
“I don’t care, I’ll pay for it. Let’s just get the hell out of here”. I did the math in my head. A helicopter rescue could cost anywhere from $5,000-$15,000. And our lives are worth…a hell of a lot more than that! Why would anyone even think twice? Life is so precious and delicate, and we were running out of time. Why on earth would anyone wait longer than 10 seconds before realizing that there is no cost worth putting life and limb at risk? Greg agreed and reached for his phone.
Greg called 911, and they connected us to Search and Rescue for Douglas County, Nevada. We gave visual descriptions of the terrain we saw. We could see some power lines in the distance, along with a road and some crop fields where the mountain ended. They said, “hang tight, we’ll figure out where you are and come up with a plan. Keep your phone on”.
And then we waited
Greg and I huddled together. We kept the conversation light; we nerded out on which mountains we’d skied on, sports teams we watched. I thought we were in for an eventless afternoon, but then rode in our story’s newest character whom I’ll call Josh.
He flew in on his board with the whizbang of a comic book super hero. He sprayed my back with snow as he came to a full stop behind me...typical snowboarder (sorry, Chels, that’s the last one!). Josh was a 20 year old who took the exact same runs that Greg and I had.
“Dude where the fuck are we?” he said.
“We don’t know, we just got off with Search & Rescue, they said hang tight”.
“Aright, I gotta call my dad.” Josh whipped out his phone and called his father who I gathered was somewhere on the resort; frustrated because he wanted to end the day and was waiting for his son. Josh held the phone slightly away from his head, giving me the opportunity to hear the conversation, even though he wasn’t on speaker. Josh’s dad was quite the yeller which helped. The following is the exchange I heard between Josh and his father with several expletives removed.
Josh: Yeah I found these other two guys. I think we’re just on the backside of the mountain.
Father: What are you doing? Keep moving, get back to the base. Why did you even go out that far. I told you not to go out that far.
Josh: Well, we’re lost now. These guys called for search and rescue and they told us to stay put until they figure out what to do.
Father- Do you have a few thousand bucks? Cause I ain’t paying for no search and rescue. You better get down yourself.
I looked away as Josh hung up, feeling quite certain that I misheard. Boy was I wrong. Josh confirmed the conversation as first interpreted, and I looked at Greg in disbelief. “Dude. Don’t worry, I said I’ll cover it,” I begged him to stay with us, this was the safest possible place to be…with people, with cell phone service, where we could be found.
Search & Rescue called Greg back during my closing arguments. Greg told them about Josh and his eagerness to move on alone. In boilerplate fashion, the dispatch “firmly recommended” Josh to stay put, as if to renounce responsibility for what they knew would happen if he left. But the panicked teenager wasn’t about to trust me or anyone else. He knew there’d be tickets, fines, court dates, and a massive parental scolding waiting for him. Josh glared right passed me and looked at Greg, “What do you think is the quickest way to a run?” Greg pointed up hill sarcastically, thinking that would be enough to knock Josh to his senses. It was not.
As stupid as he was, Josh is a strong willed young man. He strapped into his snowboard, and twisted onto all fours facing up the mountain. Like a tiger leaping forward, Josh dug his snowboard into the snow with his toes and used it as a platform to jump and land, jump and land. 10 jumps in, I yelled at him, “Dude, don’t be an idiot! You have no idea what’s up there.” He kept going.
So here’s what I can’t figure out. In my mind, being lost in the middle of the Nevada mountainside on a February afternoon is enough of a problem that there would be no cost too large for me to get the hell out of there. More notably, if future-baby-Rajiv-junior is stuck anywhere in the world, and someone tells me “hey it’s going to cost x to save him,”
I’d be angry that they wasted time to tell me the price instead of just going to save my child. There’s no amount in the world that trumps the value of my life or the lives of close friends and family members. Right? Life is invaluable. This is a safe logical assumption most my friends, family, and I share.
But it sounds admittedly preachy; idealistic. Of course I can say life is invaluable. I’m a yuppie who works in technology in San Francisco. The Army paid for my college, I have no real debt. My parents are upper middle class professionals in Boston. We have the luxury of thinking that “problems that money can solve aren’t really problems.”
Even as new immigrants to a strange country, my parents spared no expense when raising my sister and me. Violin lessons? Summer camps at UVa? Space camp? Want to travel to a security conference in DC? Sure, why not! It’s for my children’s future! There are few things I’m certain of in life. One of them is this: if Gita or Rajagopalan Srinivasan heard I was stranded in the Nevada mountains, they would move heaven and earth to get me out of there. Nothing would stand in their way; certainly nothing as futile as money…but then again, perhaps that’s the point…
Perhaps the logic of invaluable life computes only for the privileged?
On one hand, maybe Greg, Josh, and Josh’s father have invincibility complexes. Maybe it’s not the amount of money, but the perceived level of danger, which drives their decisions. “Oh it’s not THAT bad. We aren’t really lost. We just have to man-up. This will work out, it always does”.
But it was that bad. And it would not have worked out. Greg may have had to be convinced, but he came around. We were in trouble.
It pains me to think that there are people who are less financially stable in their lives who make life and death decisions looking at their bank accounts. Maybe it’s an expensive medical procedure; seeking refuge away from violence. I have so many people in my life who could bail me out of a jam if I really needed it without so much as an eye roll.
— But hang on —
My parents weren’t always so comfortable. They came to this country with modest means. We lived in a small remote house in Roanoke, Virginia. We were a single income household until I was about eight when my mom started working again. They certainly didn’t have “helicopter rescue” funds just lying around, but I don’t think their decision making process 20 years ago would be any different than it would be today. Whether my parents are 30 or 60, wealthy or poor, if they got a call to help their son, there’d be no question what they’d do.
So no, the logic of invaluable life does not compute only for the privileged…
In fact, The Logic of Invaluable Life Computes for the Loved
My parents love me, and they love my sister. Bottom line. That’s what forces them to move boundaries. It’s not some utilitarian equation. My life is invaluable to those who love me. The lives of my family and friends are invaluable to me because I love them. It’s not money that is the limiting factor in this situation. It’s love. The love I am offered daily assures me that my life is worth more than anyone could possibly imagine, and there are those who would stand up to validate that.
Greg may have been concerned about his wife getting angry about an expensive rescue, but I like to think that after hearing the story of what happened, she would be just so happy and relieved that Greg was home safe.
I don’t want to say Josh’s father doesn’t love him. But I will say that he was not showing love to his son on that phone call. And because of that, Josh probably did not feel like his life was truly invaluable…and odds are, that wasn’t the first time.
I think about Josh a lot. I view his decision to leave us on the mountain as a poorly calculated one that was influenced by a misalignment of priorities; priorities that are shaped by the ones who love us, or should love us. When I think about people who’ve made mistakes in life, and perhaps end up hungry, in poverty, or financial trouble, I wonder how many of their poor decisions stem from having no one to validate that their life is, indeed, priceless. That is a scary way to live. The effects of that psychology could be catastrophic.
My home in San Francisco has no shortage of those in need. Poor. Mentally ill. Homeless. When I look these people in the eyes, I wonder if they were truly loved. And if not, what difference it would have made.
…Search and Rescue called back…Fun Fact: Douglas County didn’t even have a helicopter for us. How the hell do we get off this mountain? The suspense is killing me ;-)