It is winter, the dormant season for plants (above ground at least) – it’s the time to plant your trees. What I find interesting is that if you plant your healthy young sapling and help it to stay upright with a big stout stake and strong straps, then it is unlikely that it will grow into a mature tree; it’ll probably fall over after you take the stake away.
The roots and the trunk are stimulated into growth when the tree is exposed to wind. It needs to be buffeted by the elements in order to grow up strong.
Young human beings know this. During the summer I was on the south Devon coast with a group of lads and I asked them what they were getting up to in the holidays, and the first thing many did was just triumphantly show me their scars. Later when I showed them a big rock in a cove and a high tide, they needed no explanations. That look on a person’s face as they steel themselves to jump into the swelling abyss is priceless. The fact that it is technically a “safe jump” is not relevant in that moment. It feels dangerous.
Exposure to danger builds courage, an important muscle. Courage facilitates Thinking Big and Aiming High. There is a triumph in the feeling of overcoming danger. It’s not about being safe, it’s about being competent, which is something that makes people much safer in the long run. It’s not about minimising risk, but optimising it, so that they can keep developing.
Humility is important too, of course – knowing that it might not be possible to get somewhere in one leap. While the other lads were bombing off that big rock into the sea, one guy’s challenge was simply to step off a small ledge and immerse himself in water. It took him 20 minutes to gather himself, stop procrastinating, and get wet. That was his edge, and his courage was just as great as the seabombers. Hopefully now he is that bit less likely to umm and ahh and whimper when it’s time to ask someone he really likes out on a date, or accept a dream job offer in Tokyo, or admit that it was him who threw that paper aeroplane in class.
I am interested in perceived danger of course (the exciting feeling that something is dangerous and unfamiliar), rather than actual danger (when there is a real chance of a calamity). Perceived danger exercises the courage muscle with all the benefit and without bodily damage.
The two can sometimes be conflated, however. Staking out a young sapling at the expense of its roots is a very tempting and easy thing to do – often it’s what the advice will be (this advice is a mis-stake!!). There doesn’t appear to be much to lose from following it… but there really is. I’m sure that’s what stories like Sleeping Beauty are trying to say. If things are made too sheltered and comfortable (for anyone but especially children), a deep slumber can ensue (or a violent uprising), and from there it takes an enormous strength of will to move on; such determination cannot be guaranteed at an earlier stage of life.
Who designed soft play areas? Whoever did was probably acting under the seemingly virtuous principles of safety and security, for the good of others. Or was it for their own sake, to make life easier? There is little virtuous about the crushing of skilled, courageous and dangerous activities. I think this every time I watch the unbelievable stunts done by the bikers and scooterers on the wonderfully unyielding concrete skate park in my village of Forest Row. They walk away with bumps and scars sometimes, but they walk also away with souls.
When harmlessness is all that’s offered up, then the Truly Perilous becomes a source of fascination, and real trouble is brewing. A careful process of toughening up (and therefore encountering the feeling of responsibility that comes with it) is vital if a person is to avoid over-dependence on one hand, or recklessness on the other; both behaviours are founded on weak roots. And people who feel free do not feel the need to escape anything.
Growing up is dangerous whether we like it or not. Opportunity and danger walk hand in hand, by their very nature. Leaving the security of home behind is dangerous, and without having had a taste of freedom, the exposure can be terrifying, or overly intoxicating. Practice is needed, courage is needed, and some genuine experience, in order to confront the unknown.
If we want our youngsters to navigate themselves around harm while they chase their crazy dreams, we need to let them feel the wind blow.
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In 2020 you’ll find me running two adventurous programmes for young men. Bookings are open; click the links for further details: