The decreasing-circumference curve

Reader Contribution by Staff
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In July of 2007 I nearly killed myself. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I almost died from a terminal case of poor visualization.

That’s right, poor visualization almost ended my life.

The motorcycle is a beautiful machine. In motion it is graceful, yet it defies the physical senses. When a motorcycle carves through a corner it solves a ridiculously complex equation involving speed, the rider, the road, the tires and a thousand other elements that allow the motorcyclist and motorcycle to lean into the corner at an angle that appears — in video or photographs — perfectly impossible. Until the rider gets used to it, it doesn’t feel any more plausible than it looks.

The decreasing-circumference curve is the bane of the inexperienced rider. In the mountains, curves are not always symmetrical. If you enter a turn with a gentle arc and that arc gradually becomes smaller, then you are in a decreasing-circumference curve. This presents a serious problem when you enter the corner too fast and then discover it closing down on you. It’s your classic rookie error, and I made it.

There’s only one way out and slowing down is not an option. To brake a motorcycle in a high-speed corner is disastrous. You’ll lose traction and lay the machine down on its side. So the experienced rider leans deeper into the irrational angle and holds his intent. He visualizes a successful outcome. He experiences the exhilaration of successfully testing his own courage and skill against the laws of nature.

I, on the other hand, lost my nerve. Rather than visualizing myself – and the motorcycle – carving our way out of our predicament I became trapped in a tentative state of mind in the middle of the turn. I let fear take over. Even though I was following two other riders who had successfully negotiated the corner, even though logic dictated that I could follow those other riders, I lost my confidence. I just couldn’t see myself completing that turn at that speed. I couldn’t visualize it and, for lack of a clear mental picture, I became trapped in the curve. Instinctively, I tried to slow the motorcycle down. In an automobile that would have been precisely the right answer. On the motorcycle it was a bad decision and could have been disastrous. The motorcycle and I went sideways, bounced off a fortuitous guardrail and I went down in the middle of the road at about 45 miles per hour.

I walked away after ruining a good helmet and about $1,000 worth of excellent protective clothing. Well, “walked” might be inaccurate. I hobbled away. It was about a year before I healed up completely.

Naturally I did a lot of reflecting about how the accident could have been avoided.

The most obvious answer to that question is, of course, “Don’t ride motorcycles.” My wife and a number of friends have brought this simple solution to my attention repeatedly. Duly noted.

But as I considered the lessons I took from the experience – while massaging the deep bruises on my legs, arms and torso – it dawned on me that our species is, in a manner of speaking, right in the middle of a decreasing-circumference curve. Global climate change has created a worldwide sense that if we don’t do something soon we may have messed up our environment for the long term. We’re moving fast toward some form of environmental reckoning.  The path we are on necessitates a change in attitude.

At the moment we have our attention trained on conservation, effectively the middle of the curve. Instinctively, we want to slow down our personal consumption.

A wreck is imminent if we just follow our instincts.  Voices around the globe are calling for us to, “Slow down!” But we’re in the middle of a bunch of phenomena we don’t know how to interrupt. We are focusing our attentions in the wrong place. Motorcyclists, mountain-bikers, skiers and steeplechasers all learn the same lesson: When you have a lot of forward momentum you have to train your attention beyond the short-term challenges. You need to be thinking ahead. You need to form a picture of yourself successfully negotiating the coming obstacles. You have to visualize the successful outcome. Your reflexes and, hopefully, some previous visualization are taking care of the ruts under the tires of your bicycle. Your attention should be trained on the area where you will arrive in the next few seconds. Your mind visualizes the best route and your body begins making adjustments in your approach.

If you focus on the intermediate obstacle, you’re likely to hit that obstacle.

It’s recently occurred to me that I don’t hear anyone describing the world in which we want to live 20 years from now. Almost no one, it seems, is visualizing the successful outcome. We’re too busy arguing about where to drill for oil.

As far as we know, there is only one species in the universe capable of conceptualizing its own impact on its habitat. That’s us.

If we are defined by our capacity for objective thought, then we are now living in one of the definitive moments in human history. Our ability to conceptualize our own role in nature defines us as human beings. Our capacity for creating solutions to complex problems is the primary factor in our success as a species. In the Judeo-Christian Bible we defined ourselves as human beings when we ate the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge” and spontaneously realized we were naked. In a phrase, we became self-aware.

Today we have to face the challenge of solving the definitive human riddle. We are aware that we have an impact on the environment. We are aware that our population has been growing exponentially. We are aware that no species can expand infinitely on this finite planet. With this awareness comes responsibility. We are capable of moderating our impact on the planet. We are capable of conceptualizing a sustainable human habitat and executing a plan to create that habitat. Yes, we face complex problems. But we’ve solved complex problems before. Perhaps the more vexing puzzle is how to defeat our biological programming — the programming that, in the words of the Judeo-Christian Bible, tells us to “go forth and multiply.”

It’s a good thing we enjoy solving puzzles.

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