Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Some lessons from Fearless Felix

Watching Felix Baumgartner free-fall from space and break the sound barrier was extraordinary. As he climbed out of his little balloon with the curve of the earth below him, I was in awe of both what he had decided to do and the sheer beauty of the earth below.

But what I found equally remarkable was his attitude. Despite the seeming madness of his space dive, he says he is not an adrenaline junkie – rather, he says, he is a ‘risk manager’. He also seemed acutely aware of his family throughout the feat, saying he was worried about dying in front of his loved ones. If you google ‘Fearless Felix’ you will find many references to his family – they are obviously important to him. He seems to have used his family’s support as a foundation rather than a ceiling for achieving his outlandish dreams.

Further, as he stepped out of the capsule, he says, all he could think of was returning home alive. The world record, or so he claims, was not his primary concern at that moment. In other words, despite his ostensibly daredevil antics, when staring potential death in the face, it was his family and his life he valued the most. This is natural, although his words and deeds got me thinking about the idea of what is important in this life.

Family is obviously one of the most vital parts of our lives. Most of us would think about them at a time of danger, whether self-inflicted or not. But the notion of family can also be twisted, especially politically. More and more politicians these days are exploiting our basic urges to want to be with and to look after those closest to us.

Returning to family values is the rally- ing cry of many politicians across the globe. Even Jacob Zuma, who perhaps cannot escape the issue of family, given the size of his, recently also called for a return to family values.

But what does this really mean? Of course, it makes intuitive sense as we all care for our families, and growing up in a supportive environment of any form is important in human development. But putting your family first can also be a selfish act.

Thinking of your family in the first instance can be reduced to doing what- ever is necessary to improve their life chances. The extreme end of this equates with exploiting or harming others in the pursuit of your family’s happiness and prosperity.

My problem with the idea of family first is that it sounds wholesome, and who would disagree. But, deep down, it feeds a very conservative tendency of focusing on you and your kin above community or society.

By evoking the family as a core social principle, politicians often allow us to feel good about doing self-centred things like supporting tax breaks for people of the same social class, or welfare cuts if one is not on welfare as well.

But, returning to Fearless Felix standing outside his diminutive space capsule with the world below, one cannot but be struck by how small we all are in this universe. As he has said: “Sometimes you have to go up really high to understand how small you are.” You would think this realisation would make us as a species want to be closer, to cooperate more and work together.

Yet, perversely, it seems the more we realise the expanse of the universe and all its diversity, the more we seem to retreat into our families and the little worlds we all inhabit in our day-to-day lives. With this mindset, we are easy pickings for politicians who want us to support conservative ideas, which equates with putting your self-interests before those of society. This might in the short term make each of us feel secure, but in the long run it is a recipe for social disaster.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 26 October 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.