Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
There is nothing that my children love more, and that I love less, than amusement parks. Each summer, whether we are at a monster park like Morey’s Piers in New Jersey or a gentle kiddie park like our own Hoffman’s, my kids cannot wait to charge through the gate, grab their tickets from us, and sail off into the sky at dizzying, gravity defying heights on rides that make me physically ill just to look at them. My two older children’s taste for these thrills is so infectious that my youngest child has now begun to join them with an abandon and light heartedness that I cannot understand. My wife, who is not much less anxious than I about these rides, looks on with me in utter amazement as we wonder aloud if these are really our children, and if so, where they got their genes from. Often, only the good graces of my more adventurous sister in law, their beloved and fun loving aunt, save us from having to accompany our kids on all of these roller coasters and water slides. She has saved her nephew and nieces from the dark prisons of our cowardice and motion sickness on more than one occasion.
I knew my hang ups about being hung upside down would clash with my children’s high energy thrill seeking as early as the summer when my son was eight. Champing at the bit like a race horse about to leave the gate, he was forced to listen to our cautious lectures about safety on the monster water slide he was about to zip down. “No funny business up there,” we warned him. “Lie flat on your back, do not try to stand or sit up as you’re going down, and for heaven’s sake…” As we droned on and on, he looked up at us with his big little boy eyes that spoke volumes to us: “You are aliens from another planet, and you are driving me nuts. Now, let me go have fun.”
Some of my anxiety derives from a legitimate concern about the safety of amusement parks, and the limits of what young children should be doing at them, and some of it derives from my neurological wiring. There are folks like me who just get sick from a combination of speed, height, and sudden movements. Some of my anxiety derives from fears about being out of control that I have carried with me since I was young. For many people, roller coaster enthusiasts especially, the feeling of being out of control produces an almost euphoric rush that they crave. As a father and a rabbi, I get enough of that chaotic feeling every day, that I can live without me or my kids creating more of it. Nonetheless, when I find myself projecting these fears onto my children, I struggle to suppress that part of myself so that I can let them ride to their heart’s content. I don’t want them to grow up fearing the things that I fear, because I want them, within reasonable limits, to be much more free and at home in the world than I have been in the past.
At a deeper level, my problem with putting myself and my kids on all of those rides is that they are symbols for what the author John Irving calls the undertoad, the terrifying reality of chaos and randomness just below the surface of our journeys through life, which threatens to pull us down into death. Life isn’t scary and bumpy enough, that we have to go looking for opportunities to produce artificial encounters with mortality? However, reality is a complex balance between laying down by still waters and plummeting down raging rivers. We cannot escape this truth, and we would be fools if, in the process of protecting ourselves and our children from danger, we squelched our freedom to take risks and our courage to live fully. I imagine the roller coasters and water slides wisely chanting a chorus to me when I hesitate before saying yes to requests for an amusement park visit: “Check the height and age requirements on the tilt a whirl, and see to it that the safety belts are fastened on the Comet coaster. Then, let go of your children’s hands and allow them to experience the thrill and the risk of real life.” Though you will never catch me on anything wilder than the merry go round, that chorus is sound advice that teaches me and my children how to embrace our spinning carousel of a world everyday.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.