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What Separates Us?

Society talks a lot about what separates us as individuals. I hear it at work – a person either, ‘gets it or they don’t.’ An athlete either has it or they don’t. Same with writers and singers and artists. But it’s so often subjective; there’s always that wide gray strip down the middle made up of shades of talent that are highly influenced by drive and attitude.  A lousy attitude or a poor work ethic can bench a brilliant athlete. In turn, hard work and perseverance can get a less talented artist on the best seller list. But there’s another quality that separates us, one less talked about. I’m reading a book right now about courage at its mind-blowing best.

The book is called, Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean. It’s a nonfiction account of a group of 15 smokejumpers, or airborne firefighters, who faced a horrific fire in remote Montana in 1949. Twelve of the men were killed. It’s a fantastic book; not only because it tells the tale of the smokejumpers, but because it illustrates the incredible courage it takes to do the job. It’s not just parachuting out of a plane. It’s flying into forest fires with highly unpredictable wind conditions, unfathomable temperatures, flying so low the plane will occasionally bring back debris from the tops of the trees in the landing gear. Here, Maclean describes a jump.

“Jumping is one of the few jobs in the world that leads to one moment when you must be just highly selected pieces of yourself that fit exactly the pieces of your training, your pieces of equipment having been made with those pieces of yourself and your training in mind. Each of the crew is sitting between the other’s legs, and all this is leading to a single act performed between heaven and earth by you alone, all your pieces having to be for this one moment just one piece. If you are alive at the end of the act, it has taken about a minute – less, if you are not alive. The jump is that kind of beauty when everything has to be in perfect unison in order for men to commit themselves to what once done cannot be recalled and at best can only be slightly modified. It becomes the perfectly coordinated effort when a woof is heard on earth as the parachute explodes open within five seconds after the jumper steps into the sky.”

I can’t stop thinking about the courage it takes to step out of that plane. To parachute into a fire. That thought alone is enough to shut me down. What kind person has that combination of physical and mental courage that at its best can’t be faked or imitated or even learned?