Is safer really better?

I'm a risk-taker. According to life insurance companies, I exhibit a "habitual pattern of high-risk behavior". I love the personal growth that comes from confronting my fears, the exhilaration of pushing my boundaries, and the magic of experiencing life at the edge.

Which is why it seriously bothers me that people are trying to make the world "safe" by their standards. Somewhere in the last 50-75 years, society decided that taking risks was not acceptable, that people like me should not be allowed to explore the world on our terms.

It started with little things: you must wear a seatbelt, or a bicycle helmet, or a reflective vest. Each is a good idea, to be sure. But there is a difference between doing something because it's a good idea and doing something because you have no choice. In the former case, you make a responsible decision for yourself or choose to accept the consequence to your person; in the latter, you make a social decision or face penalization by others, others whose values you may not share. You might be making the same decision either way, but not for the same reasons... and most certainly not for the right reasons.

The scope of safety regulation slowly grew: over the years the set of rules has grown to encompass most aspects of daily life.

The problem is not that safety should be encouraged, it's that safety should not be mandated.

We learn to follow rules which are created by others based on judgments and experiences foreign to us. But very few ever learn to make those same judgments themselves. We do what we're told and are criticized for trying to actually understand (or even worse, question) the rules: we are told to follow.

Do you know why the speed limit was initially set to 55? I'll give you a big hint: it wasn't for safety reasons. But it got spun that way over the years (another big hint: "55 saves lives" was a misrepresentation of an entirely unrelated phenomenon...). Instead of understanding why the rules exist, we just obey them, more or less.

But we don't learn anything that way. Well, we learn how to avoid a ticket. What we don't learn is how to analyze a situation and make reasonable decisions based on our values and goals. That requires experience, and experience requires taking risks. And risk must not be allowed.

And so we get ourselves into big trouble. And our experience tells us there will always be someone to rescue us, no matter how far beyond our limits we go. Something has been lost as a result:

Adventurers of my generation, who started exploring in the 1960s, used the phrase “out there” as a term of highest praise. “Man, Bonatti was really out there on the Dru.” The two words capture it all — out there, near the limits of what is humanly possible, out there where nobody can save you.

Nowadays very few adventurers are truly out there as Mr. Bonatti was. I would argue that it’s their psychic and experiential loss.

In being told how to live safely, in being expected to follow rules without understanding, in expecting that we will be rescued if we get in over our heads, we lose both the ability to think critically about our actions and the opportunity to see how much we really are capable of.

Because another thing happens when we don't take real risks with real consequences: we fail to realize our true potential. Without failure, we stop learning. If we believe we must avoid risk, we never fail, so we never grow.

Living, really living, requires taking chances. It requires learning by making mistakes. It requires taking risks. It requires doing things that could lead to physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual pain.

If we teach ourselves that risk can be avoided, we stop growing, and we start dying.

I, for one, don't like the trend.


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