With Risk Comes Reward, and Potentially, a Damaged Spinal Cord

No big deal, just an escaping inmate. At least it's not
Nurse Ratched.  She really scared me.  
In 1984, my parents rented a home in downtown Salem which was just a block away from the Oregon State Hospital in which Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was based (and filmed in).  Because of this proximity, and a fear that a real life Chief, Randall McMurphey, or Nurse Ratched might be lurking nearby, my parents rarely allowed us to loiter in the front yard.  It was one of the few regulations of my freedoms imposed on me by my parents.

Do not interpret that to mean I wasn't disciplined. I've taken many a lickings--deserved most of them-- and yes, I'm still ticking just fine. But as far as risk management goes, my parents let us be kids. We discovered a lot of scientific phenomena, like gravity, Mohs scale of hardness, inertia, chaos theory, and   Kinetic energy just from crashing our bikes.

We were always crashing on our bikes. It was an awesome time. We, like the previous thousands of years of human existence before us, YOLO'd through our childhood without helmets or leashes. We burned, scraped, scuffed, bruised, cried, and dared our way through challenges until our brains hopefully fully developed. Looking back, a helmet might have been a good idea...but I, for one, am glad we didn't use them.

I know there is plenty of evidence to show that bike helmets save lives, I agree. Dead argument. What I'm arguing about is the value of learning derived from taking risks without hundreds of safety precautions in place. Allowing ourselves the possibility to push our boundaries to extremes--and when or if we fail--to feel the risk.

Pain is a great educator. It teaches us our limitations. Sometimes the reward seems greater than the risk: Jump a natural dirt mound, get a few feet of air, then land it successfully? Endorphins flood the brain. If your buddy happened to see it as well?  Even better. Pure, unadulterated happiness.

On the other side of this equation is failure. Mistime the jump, miscalculate the landing, come in too fast or slow? Disaster. Crash and burn--and maybe limp home crying. But most will live to fight another day, maybe with a really cool scar.

Via pain, I learned that being a BMX star was not a logical or realistic goal for myself. I wasn't strong enough, or brave enough to do the complex tricks that we read about in underground magazines (this was before the X-games or youtube videos). My buddy Brain was more athletic on a bike. He could manipulate the frame to look like an extension of his arms or legs in an artful expressions of his imagination. While I was decent rider, I was afraid of air. Or rather, I was afraid of the landing.

Landing brought the cruel reality of science smack into my face. It only took a few face-plants before I learned to value my brain instead of my brawn. I'd rather paint, draw, write, or intellectually discuss the possibilities of jumps and twists and metallic bipedal contraptions disrespecting scientific laws than actually attempt the acts myself.

Of course, there are those who say things like, "No pain, no gain," or "Pain is just weakness leaving the body," and I say, "Your ignorance of biological survival instincts is just intelligence lacking in your body."

I've learned a lot about pain, which is why I tend to try to avoid it now.  I learned from bad relationships what I wanted to avoid in the future.  I learned from getting spanked as a kid that I shouldn't do the acts which got me in trouble in the first place.  I learned from getting punched in the face that fighting was not the life for me. I learned not to antagonize women (the key to happy life, is a happy wife). There are risks that are just unnecessary in life, and there are risks worth taking.

I'm made many mistakes in my youth. I crash and burned, and my momma was always there to patch up my owies.  But she never said, "you're playing too hard," or "I don't like this rough activity," or "Why don't you play something safe, like video games instead?"  No, my mom, my parents, wanted us outside learning from the hard knocks of life.

I have to remember this, because I, like many of my generation tend to overprotect my kids. I hover at the playground, worried that my daughter might break her arm on the monkey-bars again (I was only ten feet away when she did it at age four); or I steer them far away from the campfire, worried they might touch the glowing hot grill. But is this any way to parent? Do we really need to accident proof our children's lives, fearing that they might find harm? Worried that they might actually learn something from pain that is all around the world?

                                    My daughter Lily after breaking her arm: "Mom, you have four eyes!" 

I can't hold my children's hands forever.  They, like I did before, have to get bumps and bruises and find their own way through the gauntlet of life.  We can't be there to catch them every time they fall...but we can be there afterwards to kiss their owies and make them all better.

If we don't let them be kids now, when they are young, they'll grow up and YOLO it up in defiance.  I'd rather they take their licks now, when they are three feet off the ground, than when they're all grown up and the fall is much greater.


  1. I hear you on this one. I know this won't be easy for me, being a first time parent. I appreciate the insight.

    As for me, I've never liked pain. I'll be the first to admit it. Pain, like, hurts and stuff.

  2. Yep. I had my fair share of stitches, scraped knees, broken bones - and I learned a great deal.
    I love that image of the kid on the Big Wheel. I had one of those. :)

  3. I kinda miss the fearlessness I had as a kid. I constantly had scabs on my knees (scars that I was embarrassed of as a teen, but proud of now). But it's true; we have to learn for ourselves. Now I know what it feels like to fall off of a bike, and I take the necessary precautions while cycling so it won't happen. It's kinda turned me into a scaredy-cat, but whatev!

    But I do like the analogy of life that you drew here too. I'm going to have to remember that when I become a parent.