The Trouble with Roller Coasters

To be clear, I’m actually a big fan of roller coasters.

Except for the oddly-named “Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit” coaster at Universal Studios in Florida, of course. That thing was brutal. I walked away from it almost three years ago feeling as if I’d just been mugged in a dark alley, and had to scramble to make sure my glasses were still on my face and my wallet in my pocket.

Putting that bad experience aside, though, roller coasters offer the promise of excitement. It’s a thrilling high-speed ride around twists and turns, suspenseful climbs, precipitous drops, loop-de-loops, and sometimes even corkscrews, sidewinders, and banana rolls.

(I swear I didn’t make any of those up.)

For many, by the time they reach the end of a coaster ride, having yelled their heads off, adrenaline buzzing through their veins, they can hardly wait to stand in a half-hour (or longer) line to do it all over again.

Life can be a bit like that, right? Unpredictable and uncontrollable events regularly keep us guessing about what’s around the next corner, building suspense and forcing us to think on our feet.

If you don’t believe me, just read the news headlines. Although I’m guessing that when this whole 2020 ride is over, not many people will be interested in paying money, much less standing in line, to do it all over again.

So then what’s the trouble with roller coasters?

Well for one, they’re not actually all that unpredictable. At least not after the first time you ride one.

In fact, a lot of work and money and time, not to mention nuts and bolts, goes into making roller coasters incredibly predictable. It takes years to envision, plan, design, and build one, and the list of safety codes is even longer than the waiting lines.

When it really comes down to it, we only trust roller coasters precisely because we know they’re NOT actually dangerous … even if riding one does get our hearts pumping.

And yet, being able to predict an outcome isn’t the same thing as being able to control one.

In the case of a roller coaster, it’s a “ride” after all. What you’re sitting in might be called a “car,” but unlike a real car (or even a bumper car), you don’t get to drive it. Just sit down, put the bar over your lap, and enjoy the scenery. There’s no controlling the experience.

So imagine if life really were like a roller coaster. If we knew exactly what was going to happen and had no ability to control the outcome. How long would that stay interesting? How many times can you ride the same roller coaster, no matter how well-designed and thrilling it is, before it starts to get boring?

So the trouble with roller coasters is that they suck as a metaphor for life. 

If anything, life is interesting precisely because it’s NOT predictable and because we DO have some measure of control over it.

Yes, some parts of our story may indeed be written for us. Where we’re born, who we’re born to, and how tall we are, for instance. Or which side of the road we’re required by law to drive on. Or whether we have to wear seat belts. Or stay in our homes for a few months. Or wear masks in grocery stores.

Yet from a fairly young age, and increasingly as we get older, we have the ability to choose our own path. If we don’t want to go fast or do a loop-de-loop, we don’t have to. If we prefer ferris wheels instead, that’s fine too.

Even during a pandemic, we have choices. They may not always be choices we like, or ones that are predictable, but we do have them.

Growing up, there was an ice cream store across the river from us that made their own ice cream in small batches, with flavors that had exotic names like African Violet, Swedish Ollaliberry, and Caribbean Spicy Tree Bark.

(Again, I swear I didn’t make any of those up.)

The challenge was, you never knew what they’d have the day you went. There was a good chance they might be out of your favorite flavor. And yet, that place always had a line around the corner on weekends and summer nights … and nobody I knew ever walked away without buying something.

Because whether we’re talking about life or ice cream or that roller coaster you’re riding for the first time, unpredictability isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

Many of us aren’t sure what’s going to happen for us, personally or professionally, in the next few months, much less the next year or so. Will our company still be in business? Will our kids be going back to school? Will we or somebody we love get sick?

Not-knowing is hard. Scary even. But what’s the alternative?

Any good story worth telling (or living) hinges to some extent on not knowing what’s going to happen next. And any good story worth hearing relies on the choices that are made by a person or a character who didn’t know what the outcome would be.

The trouble with roller coasters is that they’re not real. They’re a fiction. There’s no true danger, and therefore no true opportunity for growth.

Life, on the other hand, is all too real. It offers endless opportunities for growth. But only if we’re willing to open our eyes to them. To embrace what’s possible within the sometimes disheartening limitations of unpredictability, rather than rail against those limitations and cry foul.

For many, that’s a ride worth standing in line for.