Imagine a parent who made sure his child’s food never contained any chemical additives, but who allowed that child to play with live cobras. Would that be crazy? Sure it would. It may be that historians will one day look back on our generation in much the same way. How could people live with such inconsistent attitudes toward risk as we do today?
In one sense, our culture is about as risk-averse as it possibly could be. We build public awareness campaigns and bureaucracies around danger. We tirelessly invent rules and laws to protect us from risks, some of which don’t even exist. And yet, in another sense, we are “whistling past the graveyard” when real threats are involved, willfully blind to things that should concern us.
Why are we risk-averse? Well, what’s left for a pioneer spirit? We’ve had steady food supply for about 80 years, and nearly as long since any large-scale military conflict that actually threatened our way of life. Medicine has advanced so that we don’t really fear disease, and until recently, jobs were always there if you wanted one. We have broken the sound barrier, taken to space, and have walked on the Moon. What adventure, trial, risk or danger does our culture offer to stir us? The big game on the weekend? Retirement? Is that the best we can do?
Civilizations before ours faced the real dangers that we no longer fear. But however well they survived the dangers on the road to success, the killing blow for kingdoms and empires has not been danger, but rather success itself, with its safety and indolence.
When we run out of dangers, we have nothing to battle, and nothing to conquer … and so, we feast.
We make comfort and pleasure an end to itself, which causes a cultural paradigm shift. Prosperous societies will often begin to judge life in terms of self-interest, and measure it against a scale of pleasure and pain. Anything that might diminish comfort or pleasure is to be feared or rejected.
Strain, struggle, and risk, which were once the building blocks of character, are now known only as the enemies of comfort.
And we know how this plays out, don’t we? Our culture and society will adjust to the new value set. If the highest goal is pleasure, and the greatest evil is pain, we will begin to outlaw risk. It has happened already.
It happens when an honor student gets threatened with expulsion for possession of a Swiss Army knife with a 2 1/2” blade. It happens when State officials take it upon themselves to inspect the contents of children’s brown-bagged lunches, and force them to take cafeteria food if the contents aren’t “approved”. We see it when children are made to leave class for wearing t-shirts with a pro-gun message, or (more dangerous, still) a Christian phrase. Next thing you know, you’ll harass kids for finger guns, or pantomiming battle. Oh, right, that’s happened too.
When we haven’t outlawed balls entirely (take that as you will), we have penalized athletic success if you score TOO MANY points … that is if you are allowed to keep score at all. And of course, this extends to the way kids are taught, those precious snowflakes. If a teacher gives a kid a zero for work not done, that teacher is fired, which stands in stark contrast to these other teachers who were not fired.