Friday, July 16, 2021


Conceptually, there is a difference between having a high tolerance for risk and enjoying taking risks. I understand the joy of taking risks ever more remotely as I age.  I used to climb up cliffs barefoot in my swimsuit, sometimes over the water - not such a big deal - sometimes over rock when I was 14-15. I climbed buildings for the adrenaline rush.  It now seems like another human being who did that. I get nervous on the roof of my shed now. Yet I do recall the feeling of great aliveness, of mastery over my environment, the physical pleasure of it.

I am reluctant to call those good feelings virtuous in any way. As there are uses for high risk behaviors that the tribe needs, in fighting fires, in going to war, in building things in dangerous environments it is good that a percentage of people actively enjoy these things, as you can find more volunteers to do them. Though my impression is that most dangerous professions quickly train people to reduce risk. "We've got plenty of danger to go around here, son. You don't need to go looking for extra." That certainly was the case in dealing with violent psychiatric patients, especially over time.  When I started we still had a few guys who liked going at it with people, who were over-ready to engage with taking others down. The profession changed and those guys either learned to tone it down or were moved along.

As time went on, I thought I still had a high tolerance for risk, even as I moved increasingly away from risky activities. Part of this is aging, having seen things go awry quickly a hundred times when unnecessary risks are taken.  Aging also makes you less able to conquer your environment.  No more jumping fences or hopping from rack to rock in the stream. Eyesight is worse, reflexes are slower, and even if your reaction time is still good, you are moving much more weight around than you were when you were fifteen.

There is a personality - I encountered one today and thought immediately of a half-dozen others - that revels in the idea of risk, and considers those who don't embrace it with them to be timid, uncourageous, unmasculine. Well, maybe.  But I think the fact that this feels good to them undercuts the idea that there is much virtue in it. They take physical pleasure in the adrenaline of working without a net. I have strong suspicions that this one man, no longer young, enjoys thinking of himself as a person who has a high tolerance for risk.  But he doesn't, necessarily.  Enjoying the chemicals isn't the same thing. 

I think it is easy to fool ourselves on this one. In both directions, perhaps. We also tell ourselves that we are wiser in taking fewer risks because we take less pleasure in the adrenaline rush and sense of mastery that once drove us. Separating out what is biology and what is character isn't easy. 

The occasion, BTW, was being asked to drive a multiply unsafe vehicle with no seat belt, and the risk-taker was an Eastern European who is tasked with keeping the vehicle in repair. He is a bit of a braggart about what risks he routinely endures and thinks others should, too.  About driving, about covid, about refusing safety equipment.


Mike Guenther said...

I know what you mean. I was a carpenter for over 40 years. Back in the day, up into my 30's, I'd commonly walk four or six inch walls, hanging rafters 50 or 60 feet off the ground, sometimes.

As I got older, I started started straddling the walls and scotching along it on my ass, then started using a ladder and moving it along the wall as needed. Now, you couldn't get me on a wall for love nor money.

Grim said...

I have written about this question of virtue and vice where fears are concerned. It's a difficult one, I think. Aristotle's treatment is that what he calls 'rashness' is a vice, and a vice of which I was regularly guilty as a young man. But there is another vice, which he describes as a nameless vice common to the Celts, of simply not being afraid of plainly dangerous things. I often wonder about that one.

On the other hand, virtue is an excellence of capacity that enables pragmatically good results -- your examples here are things like fighting fires. Maybe enjoying these things would be a virtue if you cultivated it. Imagine someone who begins being afraid, but adopts practices of meditation designed not only to quell the fear but to find a way of enjoying the experience. Training for quelling the fear is classic Aristotelian courage, obviously a virtue. But if you could train to find good, enjoyable things about it so that you became even better at the dangerous but needful thing, perhaps you would become even a better firefighter (or whatever). That seems like cultivated virtue on the same model, and perhaps a greater virtue because it is a further increase in capacity.

Airborne school is one of my favorite examples. Naturally you ought to feel at least nervous the first time you jump out of a plane, even if you checked your kit and are as sure as possible that everything will work. The point of the exercise is to cultivate courage, the ability to do the dangerous thing in spite of the fear, and eventually not even to be particularly afraid of it. But some guys really get to like skydiving, HALO jumps, and the like. Presumably they started off afraid too, but attained not merely courage but something more. This seems like virtue to me.

Your driver sounds like he's experiencing rashness, which is a clear-cut vice. But there is a kind of debatable ground with safety precautions. Some motorcycle riders swear by the mantra of "All the Gear, All the Time." I do not; I wear safety gear in proportion to the condition of the road. On a clear day on a rural highway in summer weather, I don't usually wear leathers because I think the heat is at least as big a danger as the possibility of an accident. If I get caught in the rain, even in summer, I do put them on. I usually only wear gloves in the winter, against cold more than against the danger of accidents; only sometimes do I wear gloves in hot weather, usually again in case of rain or if I have to go down a particularly treacherous road. I always wear goggles and a helmet, though, no matter what.

When I'm felling trees, too, always googles and a helmet. I don't like gloves when using any kind of powersaw; too much risk of getting the glove caught in the moving teeth. But that is a rational calculation, and thus I think virtuous.

james said...

WRT ladders and walls and suchlike things. I've rarely been excited by risks, and have never succeeded in working past a fear of heights (I've tried). As I've gotten older, I've gotten a bit more averse--partly because I can't trust my body as much. Running on a clean sidewalk seems harmless -- I had a knee bend backwards on me doing that. (I missed the bus.) If I can't trust it for something that simple...

Narr said...

I was bold to the point of foolhardy as a teen, not only in impromptu parkour in daylight (climbing to the top of the school building on Saturday afternoon) or commando expeditions in darkness (slipping out the window at 2am and heading a few blocks south to the underpass under the expressway for Molotov cocktail experiments), but also borrowing some scenery flats from the high-school auditorium backstage one dark night. We also returned them the same way.

Any one of those stunts could have had me in juvenile court, like my older brother a few years before. He took the Army over probation (in 1966); no telling what would have happened to my mother and two younger bros.

Since then I have been (unless drunk, which I haven't been more than two or three times since about 1983) the mildest and most cautious of men.

Cousin Eddie

Anonymous said...

As one who wanders rather widely in the BC bush I can tell you part of what makes things seem riskier than they were, is the lack of really good balance aging bestows on one.

As I'm always alone I am careful and take no chances, and even that has become more difficult as I get older.

stevo said...

I think I get it. I go to work, raise my kids, help my wife, no matter what. But few things are more entertaing to me than seeing someone with the balls to say "Fuck it, I'm going for it"

Cranberry said...

What is risk? How accurate are our appraisals of the consequence of failing at a risky maneuver?

I think there's something to be said for childhood physical play, including falling from trees, etc., to calibrate a sense of physical consequences for failure. If they've never had the experience, some people become overly afraid of normal events. Falling from a swing may be painful. You might break a bone. In the course of normal events, though, it is not a death sentence.

So I think the bubble-wrapping of childhood physical play could lead to young adults who are more anxious than their ancestors, for no discernible reason.

I was surprised when taking the 23 and Me online game that claims to measure risk-taking. I would have said that I'm risk averse. I'm afraid of heights; as a child, I remember my father carrying me up an open staircase. I'm doubly unlikely to climb up on ladders, as a relative died falling from a ladder, over a wall.

When the stakes are low, however, I am apparently more likely to take risks than the norm. This is my largest problem with strategy games. I am quite likely to make a bold, risky move that loses all.

But it's fun.

And sometimes it pays off. When it pays off, it can have large rewards.