Monday, July 5, 2010

Risk Takers -- commentary

Sixteen-year-old sailor, Abby Sunderland, has been in the news following her rescue on her solo attempt at sailing around the world. Pundits have been quick to castigate her parents for allowing such an adventure. I say hooray for her parents and will try to put a few things in perspective.

First, most 16-year-olds have adult bodies and if physically active, they are in as great shape as they will ever be and can handle such challenges. Whether they are mature enough depends on their upbringing.

Secondly, her chance of doing this is better now than later as she has no other responsibilities. Such adventures done later in life usually involve the neglect of family or career. The movie “Seven Years in Tibet” comes to mind.

One pundit belittled the parents’ justification that driving a car down the freeway is also risky, but parents let their kids do it all the time. The pundit said the difference was that driving is necessary to get from point A to point B while sailing around the world is optional. The fallacy here is that most teenage driving is also optional. Do they really need to go to the mall or a friend’s house?

He further argued that the girl’s adventure cost the Australian government big bucks to rescue her. True, but we spend big bucks every year rescuing adventurers from Mt. McKinley, Mt. Everest, and many other places adult adventurers go. People regularly have emergencies while hiking or mountain biking on forest trails and have to be rescued. We also spend thousands getting victims from roadside accidents to emergency treatment whether their being on the road was optional or necessary.

There is a bigger issue here. It is the incessant drive by “do gooders” to eliminate all risk from our lives. If kids get hurt playing dodge ball, then we must do away with dodge ball. If kids get hurt on four wheelers, we must do away with four wheelers.

This “anti-risk spoiling life” syndrome even affects our military. A recent news article describes a 70 year tradition at the Annapolis Naval Academy where plebes, at the end of their grueling first year, scale a 21-foot obelisk. The obelisk is usually greased to make the climb more difficult. The tradition may be ended by the commanding admiral because of “unnecessary injury risk.”

I have argued and will continue to argue that our culture suffers, especially among males, from the lack of a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. I believe this lack is what drives extreme sports, gang initiations and the like. The more we work to eliminate risk, the more wimpy our culture becomes, especially our boys, and they will seek out ways to affirm their manhood. To some extent, girls undergo biological changes that confirm when they have reached adulthood. Boys, on the other hand, never quite know for sure unless there is a ritual which confers manhood on them and such rituals usually involve risk. If we shelter our kids from all risk, we will wind up with adults like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock.

We are rapidly becoming a culture that experiences all risk vicariously. I think this is behind the popularity of reality TV. We sit and watch TV as ice road truckers, crab fishermen, and NASCAR drivers take all the risks. From our TV sets we learn how to survive in the wilderness or launch a business. The only risks we have to take are those that come from obesity brought on by inactivity.

The real key to living life to the fullest is risk management. Abby Sunderland’s father schooled her in the art of sailing and through proper planning, minimized the risk. Even at that, there are some things you cannot control. The storm she encountered would have broken her mast whether she was 16 or 26.

You can teach your kids how to safely ride a four wheeler and make them wear protective clothing to minimize the injuries they will probably experience.

We learn from experience, preferably other people’s, how to manage risk. There was a time when it was considered unmanly to wear a mitt when playing baseball, whether pitching, catching or playing in the field. As a result, there were a lot of broken bones, but the players developed appropriate gear. The gear has evolved over time as a way of managing risk.

It is risky to have high school football practice in the hot August, Arkansas sun, but wise coaches learn to manage that risk. Yes, there are heat injuries and an occasional death, but we still play football.

I applaud Abby and her parents. With time, we all grow old and it is better to have memories to share with our grandkids than regrets.

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