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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Corona, Trump, Playgrounds, And The Importance Of Risk-Taking And Individual Responsibility

Playgrounds are not what they used to be – high jungle gyms, steep slides, and seesaws.  

Image result for images playgrounds us early 20th century

Indeed only the strong survived recess on the playground.  The schoolyard was just as dangerous. Tough kids from the ghetto claimed their turf and fought dirty; and bullies tripped, pushed, and shoved when the yard was left to them.  The place was for settling disputes, starting them, and finishing them, not to have fun. The playground and the schoolyard in those days were as educational as the schoolroom.  Life there was what was expected in the real, un-sheltered, outside adult world.

There was as much competition on the monkey bars as there would be on Wall Street.  In both places only the strongest, most daring, most able, and most fearless would survive and prosper. Fights in the schoolyard were only a prelude to what happened in the bond pits, the fashion industry, the garment district, or K Street – survival of the fittest, winner take all, a littered battlefield, and no remorse over the dead and wounded. 

On today’s playgrounds seesaws are  gone, slides are gentle and smooth, and foam rubber padded areas cushion the ground.  Swings have been engineered to go only so high and children are strapped and bolted in.  No bones can be broken, no teeth chipped, no bruises, cuts, or scrapes.

Image result for images modern safe plastic playgrounds

While these playgrounds are safer, they are pointless.   They are simply diversions – pleasant, physically undemanding, risk-free places that build nothing, teach nothing, offer nothing. 

A child in the old days had to assess risk and reward.  Climbing to a higher rung than one’s classmates meant status and a particularly male achievement; climbing to an even higher one, a more precipitous and dangerous one, meant superiority and mastery.  Yet falls were serious.  What was the risk, a child had to ask? How high was too high? What height was foolish? Who was on the higher rungs and were they worth the risk?

Surviving an old seesaw was a matter of trust.  An untrustworthy playmate would wait until his partner was high in the air and anticipating that funny dip in the stomach on the way down, and then jump off and watch him slam into the ground, fall off, and run crying.  The big questions were should I get on with him? How do I know that he will play fair?  What is his playground reputation? Can I trust him?

Children on old playgrounds learned when to stand up to bullies and tough kids, and when and how to avoid them.  One could make nice with them and curry favor; but those who did would become their lackeys and water boys, evading fights and injury but only increasing the gangs’ dominance and control.  One could stand up to them, take a beating, show strength and courage, but be banged, broken, and hobbled because of it.  Or one could calculate how to avoid them – to find safe corners, alleys of escape, better times to be outside than others.  All choices were displays of character, principle, and courage or lack of it.

Now playgrounds are risk-free, and schoolyards are policed and patrolled.  Any sign of anti-social or bullying behavior is noted and offenders suspended or expelled. Both places have become zero-tolerance territory; and in the classroom students are badgered and hectored with lessons of tolerance, inclusivity, personal worth, and the values of cooperation and consideration.

These coddled and protected children grow up risk-averse.  Rather than learning how to assess risk and determine whether it is worth taking, they are taught that life can be more productive, happy, and meaningful if risks are controlled if not eliminated.

Peter Beaumont, a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber, disagrees completely and recounts the indescribable thrill of life-threatening risks.
So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."
Image result for images mountain climbers Himalayas annapurna

Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:
Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.
At the same time our conservative and increasingly litigious society is encouraging risk-avoidance. Not only are playgrounds and schoolyards safe, but adults are hectored by government to stop smoking, wear seat belts and crash helmets, eat like ascetics, practice safe sex, drink responsibly, and a raft of other proscriptions against risk.  Little children wear helmets on three-wheelers; they do not go Trick-or-Treating even in secure, safe, neighborhoods where everyone is known.  They wear flame-retardant clothes ‘just in case’. 

The world is portrayed to children as a fundamentally dangerous place, and in order to survive, they must avoid all risk.  While much of this interdiction has a social reason behind it – one’s risk inevitably involves others – and therefore are valid; the effect of a society bound and determined to regulate behavior and to eliminate risk is to neuter the risk-taking impulse altogether.  Not only does eliminating risk squeeze the juice out of life but it cripples us when, as in the current Corona virus crisis, we must face it. 

Our first reaction is a flummoxed panic, to run indoors, to put on mask, gloves, and protective clothing, and stay put.  Despite the fact that Corona is not everyone’s disease, it is being taught that it is.  Only the immunologically compromised will get seriously ill or die, 20-25 percent of the rest of population will contract the virus and show no signs of illness, and those who do exhibit signs will be sick for a few weeks and recover.  Is this a recipe for panic? Basis for a universal protective algorithm?

‘We are all adults here’ is the meme gone viral.  We can assess risk and determine our own course of action to protect ourselves and others but not to be shut down.  The damage to the economy, civil liberties, public and private institutions, families, and friendships might not be worth the draconian and authoritarian zero tolerance approach to Corona.

Image result for images large group of people masks corona

Risk-taking has inherent personal and social value. It is at the very heart of human experience, of all choice, morality, and ethics.  Risk aversion, such as what now drives American military strategy (not victory at all costs but with minimal casualties), what determines our approach to disease, death, and dying; and what has increasingly limited how we take advantage of life’s promises, is bad philosophy and bad policy.  

Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:
So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.
For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.
Risk need not be extreme or life-threatening to give context or meaning.  Drugs, alcohol, sex, and tobacco are all a risky but highly pleasurable business.  Moreover taking risks, no matter how benign, makes a social statement – a signifier and meme deliberately and purposefully expressive of personality and character. 

A former colleague, émigré from Eastern Europe and a longtime resident of Paris in the late Fifties, an American but a Left Bank intellectual who found bohemian, literary Paris more reflective of who he felt he was than anything of the Midwest where his family still lived or even New York where he currently lived.  Smoking was as much a part of the Parisian scene of his era as anything.  Café, cognac, and Gauloises were indispensable to afternoons at Flore or Deux Magots.  It wasn’t so much the coffee which was not particularly good, nor the inexpensive brandy, nor certainly the harsh, acrid cigarettes, but the ensemble, the image, the sense of intellectual camaraderie and social indifference.  A marker of membership in France’s most exclusive club.

The rates for infidelity keep rising.  It is exhilarating to have sexual adventures, particularly where there is risk involved.  It is one thing to have girlfriends when you are single; but to risk your marriage or your long-term relationship is something else altogether.  The thrill of new sex, different laughter, different eyes, different spirit are all the more heightened if the liaison is dangereuse.

An older friend said that after years of exercise, right behavior, and proper nutrition – all designed to prolong his life, avoid debilitating illness, and maintain mobility – he quit the gym, returned to three-martini lunches, marbled beef, and expensive Mayflower Hotel hookers.  He knew precisely what he was doing.  Life had turned out to be far less meaningful and productive than he had hoped it would be as a younger man.

There was no sense in prolonging such a life if it meant emotional parsimony and limitation.  He knew that his new, or rather old behavior was risky and threatening to his health, marriage, and whatever legacy he might pass on; but he understood precisely what he was doing.  He was never foolish.

Image result for images treadmills at a gym

Most men settle into predictable, highly socialized later years; but as they near the end of their lives they don’t  reminisce about their marriage, their profession, or even their children, but of their adventures.  Few as they might have been, their romances are what they remember before they die. Romances that came with cost; romances that ended badly; romances that were pursued but never completed – all are more indelibly imprinted than anything more enduring.

Whether risk-taking is hardwired in our brains and linked to pleasure centers; or is a higher-order cognitive process which factors meaning, purpose, and being, the tendency today is to avoid it – or at least to confine it within Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Avoidable personal risk is considered anti-social, pre-evolutionary, and dismissive of human progressive potential.  A long, productive, unblemished, purposeful life is honored.  Yet in the final accounting has not the mountain climber had the more fulfilled life? Or the libertine? Risk is no simple matter, and the most evolved understand, embrace it, and take it.

Because of a risk-aversion policy taught to us as children and then promoted as the only right adult behavior, we are increasingly timorous if not afraid of our own shadows.  Not that many generations ago when life expectancy was much shorter, life and death were balanced.  Life was to be lived and death was not to be feared.  Death gave meaning to life not hopelessness.  A heroic death on the battlefield at 25 was far better than one in bed of an infected insect bite.  Life was accepting risk and challenge without fear of death.

Long life has made us fearful, timid, and restrictively careful.  Better high jungle gyms and seesaws, illicit and dangerous liaisons, and good food and wine than soft landings, faithful marriages, and a proper diet.

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