In search of safety

Posted by Ken Campbell April 1, 2009 0 Comment 732 views

Buck Tilton, co-founder of the Wilderness Medical Institute has this to say: “Adventure, then, is a stretch of the mind, an expansion of the heart. Without adventure, life becomes a book with only one page. Without adventure, the human spirit withers, and then dies. ‘Give me the storm and tempest of thought and action,’ wrote Robert Ingersoll, ‘rather than the dead calm of ignorance and faith.'”

I’ve been thinking about the notion of safety lately, especially since I got an email about the article that I wrote for this month’s Sea Kayaker magazine. The writer of the email is a fairly well known Seattle paddler, and he took issue with my Sea Kayaker piece, more or less because I had failed to sufficiently emphasize (in his judgement), the dangers of coastal kayaking. The photos that were used, he said, made the area look too easy and were misleading at best. I had also neglected to cast the region using sufficiently dark adjectives, like dangerous, and deathly and doomed. Essentially, it was not that he had a beef with the facts that I had presented, it was that he didn’t believe I had told my story with enough emphasis on how unsafe it all could be.

My response is that I wasn’t thinking about it that way. Sure, bad things can happen, the weather can change, the wind can start to blow, volcanoes erupt, the Yankees win. If I tell someone that the sunset is beautiful, am I being negligent if I don’t tell them not to stare at it? Do I have an obligation to spell everything out? After all my years in the Air Force, where safety was a constant theme, and after these last couple of decades in the outdoor biz, where safety is presented as the most important thing, I have come to believe that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. I am starting to think that it is possible to be too safe.

Can we not all agree that we are adults, that we all have the responsibility to adequately provide for our own safety, to pull our own asses out of whatever tight spots we may lodge them in? Can we say that we’ll do our best to learn what we need to know to operate in whatever environment we have chosen, without harming ourselves or others? More importantly, can we agree that, while adventure without regard to safety may be foolish, safety without the joy that adventure brings is the root of all boredom? That, while safety is an important thing, it is not the most important thing?

Maybe we really are a nation of lawyers now, a collection of sad and soulless accountants. Maybe we have sacrificed that last tough gristle of adventure that we had left on the altar of safety, that our wide-eyed nature has been legislated, regulated and exterminated in the name of caution. I don’t really know what to tell the writer of that email; I think we have vastly different priorities.

For her part, Helen Keller probably had the most direct and sensible thing to say on the subject: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

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