Man, said the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, is an obligate aerobe. An obligate aerobe, indeed: an organism indentured to the air for as long as he, or she, may live.
It’s actually a bit more specific than that, but it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that somebody figured out it’s oxygen that makes the air indispensable. The twenty-percent solution. The rest is just white bread to oxygen’s Marmite spread.
And it’s not just we humans on the oxygen dole. Sherwin Nuland, a thoughtful Yale University surgeon and medical historian, wrote: “ Oxygen is at the focal point of the lens through which the sustaining processes of living things must be studied.” Not all living things, to be sure, but most of them.
Aren’t we freedivers a rather odd lot, then ?
Nearly all of Creation, things that crawl, squirm, wriggle, fly, walk and, yes, swim in the waters struggle endlessly and mightily for the oxygen that is the terminus of the chain of intermediate rewards. Seen this way, things like food and water, shelter, money – everything else – are all just the means to another breath. Whence this bizarre practice of voluntary denial of that which all life craves more than anything else ? What kind of creature is this that chooses not to breathe ?
I think it unlikely that anybody who’s done more than a few casual freedives has escaped being accused of, well, of being nuts. Flirtation with eternity, daring of the devil, and pathologies much darker than slight eccentricity are suggested by our observers, and in truth it’s a stigma which most freedivers relish, whether openly or a-closeted. They think we’re mad, the dullards. Hah !
Are we ? This discussion is sort of taboo, but let’s have it anyway. It always comes around to one word.
Hypoxyphila. Quick – do not Google it ! The word’s etymology is innocent, implying nothing more than a propensity to, or a veneration of the state of oxygen deficit. Besides the heavy metal band of that name (!) the Google search returns a strong impression that this propensity/veneration finds expression exclusively in the erotic domain, although the Wikipedia entry reassures us that “There is no relationship between hypoxyphilia and mental or personality disorder”. Whew.
Now, I’ve known more than a few breath-hold divers over the past several decades who may well have had mental or personality disorders, but not one was ( so far as I know) the least bit interested in the Dark Side of Apnea, you know, with the lemons and the knotted neckties and occasional obituaries afterward. I don’t know who those people are. I guess life would get a lot more interesting overnight if this column triggers a wave of freediver emails telling me I’m wrong, and confessing an interest in Autoerotic Asphyxiation, but I don’t see that happening. Freedivers may be nuts, but not that way.
I’ll offer another quote here – the last, since I get paid only for original words. Dr. Johnson : “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
It does. Our minds are generally rather less wonderfully focused because most of the time, under most circumstances, most of us don’t suppose we’re actually, really mortal. These days it’s widely considered bad manners to recall this elementary fact. Why, you’re probably thinking as you read this that I ought to be sent off to Sensitivity Training. A perhaps I should be. Apnea, I think, and apnea diving especially has an effect on our consciousness not unlike that of the prospective hanging seen by Dr. Johnson to so wonderfully focus the mind.
If we are immortal, invulnerable and to live life without end, then why would we concentrate at all ? There will, after all, always be more. And more.
The apneist is a humble student of mortality, one who engages in dialogue the most fundamental constraints on life, and in coming to know them so intimately is gifted with a moment of extraordinary being. A wonderful concentration. A change in one’s relationship to life itself, which persists to a greater or lesser degree for as long as one may live.
That doesn’t seem pathological to me, not at all, but then I’ve already broken the taboo against acknowledging that our time as young, strong and beautiful is finite, as is life itself.
Oh, dear – I’ll never eat lunch in this town again, unless . . .can you please forget this whole discussion ? There’s a giant freediving world records event going down in a couple of weeks in the Caymans, and I’ve got to get ready for it.