The Rise and Fall of Dean Potter

I have to admit that I’d never heard of Dean Potter until he died a few days ago at age 43. Since then, I’ve been reading a bit about this guy, and let me say that watching videos of his most extreme adventures gives me the willies.

What killed Potter was a BASE jump, leaping not from a perfectly good airplane but from a perfectly good rock and then attempting to glide to earth with a parachute. As someone who has always struggled to deal with his fear of heights, I simply do not understand what would make a person find such a sport to be a desirable thrill. But I have a friend who has long been attracted to rock climbing, so I don’t believe that such risky behavior necessarily involves madness.

When I hear about somebody performing such feats–climbing the great rocks of Yosemite, BASE jumping, or doing that crazy high-wire bit embedded above, I’m reminded of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

So was Dan Potter putting God to the test? I know that I won’t be taking up any of his extreme sports any time soon ever, but is that really the point? If we shake our heads at a man like this dying at something that he truly enjoyed, then are we just applying our likes and dislikes as if they were absolutes? I engage in risky behavior every day, riding my bike in traffic, driving my car in the rain, or eating Fettuccine Alfredo without my cardiologist on call. At what point does the acceptance of everyday danger morph into putting God to the test? (In popular memory that Matthew 4 term was translated “foolish test,” which, while not in the original is pretty reasonable.)

How do we assess risk, not being employed in the insurance industry? Should risk be avoided altogether? Jesus certainly did not tell his followers to “go into all the world if it’s safe,” as it certainly wasn’t safe. On the other hand, He didn’t say anything about BASE jumping or skydiving or tight-rope walking. He didn’t say anything about BMX biking, skateboarding, or snowboarding.

My life verse is Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” While the things Jesus had just been mentioning were food and clothes, can’t we expect that safety and even enjoyment might fall into that category as well?

It is not for me to judge the heart of Dan Potter, to know whether he did the crazy things he did for the Kingdom of God or for the kingdom of himself. I can attempt, however, to judge my own motivations when I ride my bike in traffic, drive in the rain, or even eat that fettuccine. If my foolish actions are for my own benefit, then my sins differ from the ones Dan Potter may have committed only by being a good deal less dramatic.