February 25, 2001

SHARP SCISSORS! SHARP KNIVES!! I can still recall the neighbor girl's alarm as she streaked across the lawn to report to us that our kids had sharp utensils in their play area. The kids (and their playmate) are now in their 20s and never suffered any harm from all the hours they spent cutting up discarded garden vegetables in their make- believe kitchen in the side yard. They had a lot of fun and I suspect that the gain from their creative exercises was far greater than the risk from using adult tools.

It distresses me that the prevailing attitude towards risk is one of intolerance, rather than of management. Anymore, risk is to be avoided, and if its shadow is cast across our path, it is somebody else's fault, and somebody else's job to remove it. At this point in history, we have come a long way in creating an environment that is short of risk and long on rewards. Paradoxically, most people spend their evenings watching actors shoot, rob, and rape each other on TV. Perhaps we have come too far for our own good.

Somebody has to create and maintain the infrastructure that supports this shell of safety that so many people worry for. Someone has to walk the high steel and someone else must toil in the mines. Farmers and sailors still have to manage their risks with the weather. At the risk of getting burned, somebody has to tend the fire that our species mastered a million years ago.

The recent motor racing crash provides us with some insight towards risk. Racing is a popular sport precisely because race car drivers work with sharp scissors. They are exceptionally quick and accurate, yet maintain the judgement to pursue prudent risks while avoiding recklessness. Fans demand cutting- edge performance and reward only the best of the best with their adulation.

Tears were shed across the country, and blame was immediately tossed about. There were cries of foul, and fingers pointed at those responsible for his seat belt, and at others who could have required other safety equipment. He made a life out of entertaining other people with his shows of skill, received his rewards, and left a legacy. If he had never learned to handle exceptional risks he would have been just another average guy; somebody's uncle Dale who drove a taxicab for a living, and died in a car wreck.

I remember a few years ago watching a the President signing a bill which purported to make the workplace safer. In his best "I feel your pain" voice, he exclaimed what a tragedy it was for even one person to lose their life at work. The bill he was signing with such ceremony was purported to go one more step in bringing safety to a workplace that is already so safe that manufacturing jobs are driven overseas.

Yes, it is too bad that people die at work, and it is also too bad that they die at home, and too bad that they die at play. It's too bad that old and lonesome people, swaddled in diapers, die in nursing homes too. Once we are born, some combination of death and disability becomes a certainty. It is important that we make the best of the years in between by learning to handle sharp scissors rather than clinging to the scissors we had in elementary school.

The "Eleventh Law of Power"* states, in part, "...make people depend upon you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear. Never teach them enough so that they can do without you" If we relinquish our individual responsibility to perceive, assess and manage our own risks, we surrender our independence. We become nothing more than the child- like wards of a higher authority.

I fly along in the night, grateful for the information network that provides a thorough weather report. It frustrates me though, that the report is cluttered with lengthy and obligatory warnings of such things as "low clouds may obscure mountains". It disturbs me that so many people confuse "consumer journalism" with the real news of what is happening around them. I lose heart when I think of politicians that follow public opinion polls rather than lead and educate their constituents.

Silly me. My writings will not stem the nation's embrace of the Nanny State, but perhaps these thoughts will survive the great book- burnings. Someone may have the chance to know that it was not my hand that voted them down the river.

*The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene, Penguin, 1998

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