There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences. – P.J. O’Rourke
My fifteen-year-old son came to me a few days back and told me he and his buddies were making plans for a backcountry pack trip this summer. He wanted to know if it would be ok if he went and if maybe I could drive them to the trailhead. I chuckled at the thought and wondered what the hell he was thinking? He doesn’t have a drivers license yet and legally can’t carry a rifle without an adult present but he thinks I am going to hand him a pack and send him on an overnighter ten miles from the nearest road into the Cascades with just a can of pepper spray, a sleeping bag and a tube of matches.
I laughed then almost told him no. Almost.
He’s at a funny stage right now. He’s taller than me and looking more like a man every day. I have to remind myself constantly that he is no longer a boy and that means a few different things. As my old man was often fond of saying, “You want more freedom? That means more responsibility.”
So I told him maybe. We’ll see. His mother was not impressed. Her thinking was that it should have been a definite NO. But we’ll see.
It wasn’t too long ago that was me standing in his socks, shorter of course by quite a stretch, but in the same pair of socks nonetheless. Brother, did I have ideas. The world was my oyster and I was going to enjoy every part of it. I don’t recall being able to take off into the bush overnight on my own quite at that stage but shortly after I turned sixteen and had my first pick up I was gone like the wind.
My parents never really stepped on me too much. I had a lot of freedom but was expected to make the right choices. Most of the time I made out pretty well but in hindsight, on a few occasions, I probably should have ended up dead. Of course, that was the way it was for most young men in my time who grew up in small town North America, wherever that may have been.
Our parents knew something then that parents today have forgotten: that young men sowing their oats, with freedom and a world of possibilities to explore were part of what made the west, particularly this continent, the place it is. Life is risky, but without ‘risk’ there is neither reward or progress.
‘Risk’ is, by and large, although not exclusively, the root of property. Without it we’d still be eating mold off the surface of a rock wall somewhere in central or southern Africa, afraid to venture much further than the mouth of the cave. A life without risk is not much of a life really, at least not for young men. Boys that never leave the basement and spend more time in front of a screen than outside, in books or engaged in sports of some kind remain caught in a time vortex, many never truly becoming grown-ups.
Indeed, what we feed the mind and the body we become.
The flip side to risk, of course, is ‘duty’. That is, the duty to either reap the rewards of our successes or to suffer the consequence of our error. Kids that do not take risks do not fail. This would explain, in part, the nature of the modern, and I uses the term loosely, ‘university’.
Losing builds character as richly as success does, sometimes more so, and if our kids aren’t out there taking risks (hopefully calculated ones) then they are learning nothing and they will not be prepared to become adults.
Someone one once said that the difference between men and boys is the size and cost of their toys. This, of course, is the reward for becoming a man and assuming risk successfully for if truth be told, for many of us, we never quit dreaming of many of the things we dreamed when we were young.
Much of it gets set aside, of course, as duty calls in the form of family, business, and community. But the dreams still live and the rewards that risk creates are part of what makes those dreams a reality.
When I was a lot younger than my son is now I had a little plastic gray colored, spring loaded rifle that shot rubber darts. I had a variety of animal targets to go with it: lions and elephants and giraffes. It was a safari set and I spent more hours than I could count stalking game in my bedroom and in the windrows and the grass that lined the ditches outside our prairie home. At some stage, I shelved the plastic critters and headed out into the field across the road to chase songbirds, because you know, they moved, and came so close on one occasion that the rubber dart I fired actually bounced off a robin, who then had the audacity to simply shake his feathers and fly away.
My parents were amused by it all I think, they let me roam and when I turned from a child into a teenager the passion grew from plastic to blued steel, from squirrels, robins, and sparrows to deer and then as I matured from deer to everything else.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve come full circle, back to the elephants that haunted my dreams when I was a child. They are still just beyond my reach, although I walk from time to time in their tracks. One day, before I “shake off this mortal coil” the beast I stalked in my bedroom at five and I will have a final rendezvous. No matter the results it will be a glorious end to a life lived well.
In thinking about it I realize my son and I are not so different. Today he is dreaming of friends and packing into the mountains and exploring on his own and tomorrow he will harness that energy, curiosity, and drive and turn it into something else. Just like I did. And I suspect he will have his successes and his failures, like most of us do, and he will have to learn from all of it.
So in the meantime, the answer is still maybe. Which makes me wonder, how bad does he really want it? And will his mother survive the gray hairs that follow? I know mine did and probably so did yours. And I suspect we’re all better off for it. Because with freedom comes responsibility and for young men, that’s a lesson worth learning.