Thursday, June 28, 2012

Of footballs and rock falls

Two seemingly unrelated stories appeared in the newspaper recently.  The first was a front page article reporting that Pop Warner football had announced some new rules designed to protect kids from the possibility of concussions.  The youth football league set restrictions on how much time could be spent on tackling and blocking drills in practice, and also eliminated “full-speed, head-on drills in which players are more than three yards apart.”  They are the first to formally place restrictions on contact in practices, a decision which was made out of the growing concern over concussions and their long-term effects.  A local parent quoted in the article praised the move, saying, “Anything they can do to help our kids be safer is great.”  

Also in the same section of the paper on that same day was a story about some closures within Yosemite National Park due to “falling rocks.”  Parts of several popular lodging areas are being permanently shut down due to the danger.  In a report, the Park Service said, “Rock falls are common in Yosemite Valley, California, posing substantial hazard and risk to the approximately four million annual visitors to Yosemite National Park.”  According to the newspaper, “officials went on to say that dangers exist in nearly every national park but they are particularly acute in Yosemite, given its unstable geology, which causes rock falls weekly.”  Yosemite geologist Greg Stock went on to say, “There are no absolutely safe areas in Yosemite Valley.”

If I had seen either of those articles on its own, I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it.  “Good, protect those kids from brain injuries,” probably would have been the extent of it, or, “Good, protect those oblivious campers,” and that would have been that.  But there was something about the way those two stories appeared one right after the other, and the way they both spoke to the issue of safety that made me stop and reflect.  And the more I thought about it, the more something began to emerge from the juxtaposition of these two stories that bothered me. 

Now personally, I welcome Pop Warner’s concern for limiting kids’ concussions, and I have no problem with the Park Service wanting to prevent campers from being flattened by boulders.  But the thing that struck me about these two problems was that neither one was new.  The dangers have been present all along.  For example, yes, we’ve learned a lot scientifically about brain trauma and its long-term effects lately, but we’ve also known for a very long time that getting smacked in the head repeatedly isn’t exactly healthy, haven’t we?   And those rocks have been falling in the same places in Yosemite Valley for eons, and only now have we decided to do something about it.  At some point, you have to ask yourself why didn’t previous generations have rules about how much head-hitting is allowed in football practice, and why did they build those cabins in the first place?

Please don’t tell me that the answer is we’re smarter now than they were.  We may know more, but that’s not the same as being smarter. 

I think the answer is that our perspective is different from earlier generations.  The way we look at safety and danger has changed. On the whole, we’ve grown less tolerant of risk than we used to be.  And our intolerance seems to be mutating into a kind of myopia, into a drive that focuses on the dangers in everything around us, no matter how minute. 

Have you ever had to clean a really messy room?  It always starts the same way, by assessing the situation.  You scan the room, and your focus naturally goes to the biggest messes first.  You say to yourself, If I can just get these parts clean, the room will look okay.  So you work on those, and get them squared away.  But then you notice things that you thought were okay, but now that the big messes are gone, they stick out like a sore thumb.  So you clean them up, and then you notice more, and more, and more.  I call this the law of multiplication by subtraction.  It’s the same thing when it comes to dangers.  Because once you eliminate the big dangers, the ones that seemed smaller at first become big, and then when you get rid of those, you’ll see more, and they’ll seem just as big and scary as the others were, and so on.  Where does it end?

I’ll tell you where it ends, with you strapped securely into a rocking chair, staring wildly at the ceiling and humming “Ain’t We Got Fun?”

At some point, this aversion to danger has gotten under our collective skins, into our heads, and it’s messing with our minds.  Somewhere along the way we have failed to keep things in a healthy perspective. 

We forget that perspective is subjective.  We want to believe that our personal perspective is objective reality.  And once we believe that, it becomes it.  Perspective determines focus, and focus informs perspective.  When our perspective is healthy, our focus tends to support it.  But when our perspective gets out of whack, our focus reinforces that, turning it into a vicious, and increasingly destructive, cycle.

People say that the world is no longer a safe place to be.  I say it’s the way we look at the world that isn’t safe.   

People lament that it’s no longer safe to let your kids play outside, because predators are lurking in the shadows, just waiting for the opportunity to snatch innocent children.  I say the problem is with us, that we see child molesters and kidnappers hiding behind every tree and sitting in every idling car. 

Stranger danger! Stranger danger! How easy is that to remember! 

How hard to forget?

I say if there really are as many predators out there as we think there are, what is wrong with us that we’re producing these people, and why aren’t we fixing that?  Instead, we’re creating a generation of fat, lazy, unhealthy kids because we don’t dare kick them off the TV or the Xbox and send them outside, where we can’t monitor them.  And guess what?  When they grow up, they’re going to be even more scared of the rest of the world than we are, because they had us for teachers.   

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Trust me on this. 

Alright, don’t trust me.  Do you trust Abraham Lincoln?

That’s right.  Abraham Lincoln.  Guess what he said.  “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.”  

That’s how perspective becomes reality.  That’s how we get to a place where strangers = dangers, and kids can’t play outside on their own anymore. 

We are scaring ourselves to death.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Trust me on this. 

Trust Abe.  

Sometimes I just want to hug that man.  He's been dead for 147 years now, and he's still trying to save us.


  1. Hmmm.... interesting to think about. The US population has increased by about 40% since 1980.
    To me that means 40% more child molesters out there too. Sometimes knowledge propogates fear- like having access to websites like familywatchdog where you can see all the registered sex offenders that live in your neighborhood (and that's not even all of them!)and scares the you- know- what out of you to find out. Our solution is to take our kids to the park supervised, but that means *we* have to get off our lazy behinds to do that. I choose not let them roam around free and ride their bikes for miles alone like I did when I was 8.
    I agree 100% with the words of Abe Lincoln. We all have spectacles in which we view the world and if they are skewed with negativity, that is what we will see.
    I think by pure numbers statistics appear more important- more kids = more kids playing football= more football related injuries. More people= more campers= more people getting flattened by falling rocks. More cars and children= more accidents= changes in carseat laws to improve safety. So- hmmmmm, where to draw the line? Yes, I'm glad I am not allowed hold my baby in my lap while I'm driving but I can't live in a bubble either. So do I not do the research and assess the risk, say stick my head in the sand and pretend it doesn't exist? There's got to be balance somewhere, but where is it?
    Populations are expanding exponentially due to safety advancement and good medical care. Natural selection has got to rear it's ugly head up here somewhere, now with limited access to places where rocks can fall on our heads. My guess is all this knowledge and subsequent worrying will wind a good majority of us out of commission in a loony-bin with no one to care for us. <-- just kidding about that part!

    1. 'Knowledge propagates fear'-that's really true in some ways, isn't it? And I always thought one of the main purposes of knowledge was to dispel fear... And have we reached the point where we have begun to fear knowledge itself? Sometimes it feels that way to me. Anyway, it raises a great question.

      I agree that balance in all things is the key, and also what makes this job we have so difficult (parenting). It's so much easier to just buy into the program, and not have to work through every little thing that comes along. I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments and for making this a better blog!

  2. PS- I love your perspective and how you think about things. It makes me think about things that I never would have thought about! Or, in the words of the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz "I could think of things I never thunk before, and then I sit, and think some more!" :)

    1. Thanks! I just really appreciate having you along for the ride!