at your fingertips

During the Korean War, G.’s unit was involved in routine parachute training. One day, as the group was preparing for a drop, it was discovered that there were not enough regular parachutes to go around, and one of the right-handed men was forced to take a left-handed chute. “It is the same as the others,” the ordnance sergeant assured him, “but the rip cord hangs on the left side of the harness. You can release the chute with either hand, but it is easier to do it with the left.” The team boarded the plane, went up to eight thousand feet, and over the target area one after the other they jumped out. Everything went well, except for one of the men: his parachute never opened, and he fell straight to his death on the desert below.

G. was part of the investigating team sent to determine why the chute didn’t open. The dead soldier was the one who had been given the left-handed release latch. The uniform on the right side of his chest, where the rip cord for a regular parachute would have been, had been completely torn off; even the flesh of his chest had been gouged out in long gashes by his bloody right hand. A few inches to the left was the actual rip cord, apparently untouched. There had been nothing wrong with the parachute. The problem had been that, while falling through that awful eternity, the man had become fixated on the idea that to open the chute he had to find the release in the accustomed place. His fear was so intense that it blinded him to the fact that safety was literally at his fingertips.

“Flow the Psychology of Optimal Experience” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Chapter 9 `Cheating Chaos`

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