That thin line between brave and stupid

Nestled on the side of what would otherwise be considered the sleepiest street of a quaint neighborhood, an elderly woman stands on the sidewalk, staring at her home while orange and yellow flames engulf the second floor. The smoke rolls upward from the shattered windows and burning rooftop, drawing the attention of residents miles from the house. Her screams are heard by a young man nearby, one of the old woman’s neighbors, who manages to calm the woman just long enough for her to sound out the words “my cat” before regressing into hysteria. Without hesitation, the young man springs from the sidewalk toward the burning house while sirens bellow in the distance.

In a different scenario, the same said elderly woman stands outside the same house. The same fire burns out of control and the same man runs in after the cat. This time, the woman’s cat watches from a treetop at the edge of the woman’s front lawn all the while.

No doubt, there’s a thin line between bravery and stupidity. In the case of the burning house, that line might have been drawn by the cat. Had the man emerged from the flames cradling a cat in his arms before it died of smoke inhalation, he would have been lauded as a hero some members of the community (perhaps a dumb one, but a hero nonetheless, particularly to the old woman). Conversely, the same man is stupid as a fence post in the second scenario.

It brings to mind the question, where is the definitive boundary that separates heroism from stupidity? I know that some would argue there is no separation of the two, only a narrow overlapping; but I think it all depends on the outcome of a given situation.

Last Sunday, news media pitched story after story about the accomplishment of daredevil, base-jumping, sky-diving enthusiast (and all around idiot) Felix Baumgartner. Baumgartner cheated death and became the first man to break the sound barrier without propulsion after a free fall from the edge of space, 24 miles above the earth, sent him hurdling toward the New Mexico desert at speeds exceeding 830 miles per hour. People were amazed, taken back at yet another great accomplishment of our time. Some even compared the feat to the moon landing, which I wholeheartedly disagree. Comparing Baumgartner’s profound skill of “falling” to the moon landing is absurd in every sense. Still, people are hailing this man a hero because his attempt was a success; the advertising gurus at Red Bull are still celebrating (since it would have been a horrible PR nightmare had something gone terribly wrong with their banner that read “mission accomplished” hanging so close to the landing site).

But what would spectators think of Baumgartner if his parachute didn’t open, leaving in his memory only that final image of him jumping from the capsule, and a Wile E. Coyote-like hole in the ground? Would he have been dubbed “Fearless Felix” if his suit ripped, depriving him of oxygen and exposing him to temperatures as low as minus-70 degrees? Would anyone drink Red Bull afterwards, knowing that Red Bull, in fact, does not give you wings? In this case, the line that separates bravery from stupidity was drawn by circumstance – the chance that nothing went wrong.

Maybe the only element separating bravery from stupidity is perspective: Do you agree with the reason for Baumgartner’s jump? To me, brave would have been floating to the edge of space with a purpose that benefits someone else (though to be fair, I hear the technology of his suit will prove beneficial in the future of space exploration). Stupid is jumping 24 miles from the earth and hoping for the best. Regardless his apparent lack of common sense, I do give Baumgartner some credit; the video of the jump is incredible to watch ... and his shorts were clean when he landed.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunshawn.

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