Those of us over about age 30 can remember the days before America was (at least less of) a Nanny State.
Some friends of ours just got back from a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico. They brought their kids to a park there to play, and saw all the equipment that is no longer allowed on American playgrounds – teeter totters, tire swings, carousels. That equipment had been given or sold to Mexico because it is now deemed to be too dangerous for use by kids in America (or at least in California).
Okay, the medical doctors reading this may say, "Yes, but we've seen all the injuries and it's better now with these rules and standards." Is it really? How badly can a kid hurt himself on a tire swing? How many do? For the record, our kids wear bike helmets and seat belts. I'm not against taking safety precautions; that's not my point.
There's a pattern here that extends deep into our behavior and our psyches, and I don't like what I see.
Prominent on my mind whenever I think of doing something nowadays – in a way that it was not done earlier – is the thought, "Is this okay to do? Is it allowed?" That this question gets a front row seat in the drama of my life is disturbing to me.
There is a sense of adventure that is important in life, a sense that you are taking a risk and that you accept that risk. When you fail or get hurt it can be awful, of course, but when you come through it with your skin you feel stronger, more vibrant and more alive. The colors of your life become a bit more vivid; the light of the day burns a little brighter, a little bolder. The day closes with a quality of delight and satisfaction that is a little more memorable.
Disneyland is a safe and wonderful place. I like Disneyland. I'm always impressed with the spirit and charm that is created there. But at Disneyland you can go on the scariest ride – you can go on it many times in a row – and you won't get that same feeling of true adventure.
This is the world we are making for ourselves.
There's a great scene in the movie, "Star Trek: Generations" that makes this point. Kirk is in "The Nexus," a place where you get to endlessly live your happiest times but it isn't real. There's no time, there's no risk – and therefore no meaning to anything that you do. (It's worth watching; begin at about eight minutes into this clip: Piccard Meets Kirk.)
I'm not meaning to be glib or naïve here. It's easy to say something like "no risk, no fun," but a risk means that you could lose something valuable; with a big enough risk it could be something as dear to you as your life. An irresponsible risk could cost somebody else theirs.
There are real dangers in the world, and part of the wonder of our civilization is that we aren't faced with many of those dangers anymore. I don't have to worry much about a marauding tribe coming into my neighborhood and slaughtering everyone; I don't have to worry about smallpox or getting a cut and dying of a bacterial infection.
My family lives in a neighborhood that is pretty safe, I drive carefully – though a little on the fast side – and we take reasonable precautions to avoid stupid risks. Life is too precious to take stupid risks – but life is also too precious to take no risks at all.
It is central to a free society that we each may choose our own level of risk. One man's stupid risk is another man's comfortable lifestyle. For a given person, a great adventure may involve surfing a giant wave or climbing Mount Everest; for another it may be a trip to the beach or a hike in the woods.
There is no objective measure of what the right level of risk and adventure is for you. This is an element of life that is as personal as who you fall in love with or what sort of work inspires you. With the narrowing of human experience that comes from growing Nanny-State control, that personal range is getting squeezed.
What's important for freedom is that you have the right to choose your level of risk for yourself, that the government doesn't choose it for you and that you take the responsibility to accept the consequences of your choice – which includes the consequences of regret for having not taken a risk you wish you would have.
While the Nanny State continues to ever-constrict the range of action-oriented risk, it is also narrowing the range of our normal psychological functioning. Parents, teachers and doctors are too quick to put a sad kid on an antidepressant, a kid with some anxiety on a tranquilizer, an antsy kid on Ritalin, all in the name of easing their psychological troubles.
But without the opportunity to wrestle with our psychological troubles when we are young and supported by caring adults, we limit our capacity and resilience later on when other psychological troubles arise – a loss, a trauma, a daunting challenge. And when such troubles do hit, as they likely will, there may not be a loving, caring adult who can support you.
Pain, fear, sadness, anger… these are all part of life and how we deal with them is part of what makes us who we are. Here's Kirk again, to a person who offers to take his pain away.
Here is where we run into another problem with our risk-erasing culture: When people get used to Disneyland as a way of life, they come to expect Disneyland always.
When my family and I visited the Grand Canyon several years ago, one of the rangers told me about a man and his two older sons who had gone for a backpacking trip in the canyon. This is the wilderness; the dangers and risks have not been sanitized for your convenience and anyone undertaking a trip like this should be prepared for it.
This fellow had brought with him a signaling device to be used in an emergency, in case somebody was in grave danger and needed to be rescued. The first day they came across a small body of water, and he wasn't sure if it was okay to drink. He called for help.
The rescue team came, and finding that they had been called for frivolous reasons, gave the man a firm scolding, leaving him and his sons to their trip.
He did this two more times. That third time, they made him and his sons come out with them.
This was a man who had not prepared himself and his sons for the wilderness. He was expecting Disneyland; he had prepared himself for Disneyland, including bringing a panic button along in case the ride got rough. But this was not a simulation and he was lucky that this time the consequences were only embarrassment.
Another person working at the Grand Canyon told me that they lose about 20 people a year off the edge of the Canyon – some by doing incredibly stupid things, others just naively and tragically moving too close to the edge for a better picture. At least some of these folks, I suspect, are people who have not been prepared by what once were the normal risks of life to deal with what are still the normal risks of life.
There is a quality of fun and exhilaration to facing risks, accepting responsibility for those risks and coming through them in one piece. There can also be tragedy when you don't come through them in one piece.
When the government is obsessively involved in protecting us from ourselves it becomes the government's business what we do in our personal lives. This is how the Nanny State, professing good intentions all the way, becomes a Leninist State in which, as Lenin declared, "Nothing is private."
You can have a relatively safe life, I suppose, by trying to avoid taking any risk, but without some degree of risk, whatever that means personally to you, there is no fun, no adventure and no expansive joy. There is no bureaucrat or politician in the world who should determine where that line is for you.
Whatever your comfort level is, it should be your birthright as an American to choose your personal level of risk for yourself.