When we were younger, my brother and I loved to climb trees, and the older we got the higher we would climb. In fact, my grandparents, when they lived in Hamilton, had a large Maple in their backyard that was perfect for us to race up until we were well above all the neighbouring rooftops.
When you're seven, you know that you won't fall—but actually, we could have. And subliminally, this was part of what made it so exhilarating.
I remember, also, an older boy down the road whose parents once bought him a whole bunch of mountain climbing equipment. Unfortunately we lived in Niagara where the only "mountain" was the limestone escarpment surrounding Lake Ontario, but this budding mountaineer would not be put off. He set up his gear—pulleys and ropes, cinches and carabiners—and proceeded to scale the summit of . . . a cherry tree.
Yes, it was ridiculous. But it was also interesting, because as they climbed, they took unnecessary risks, reached for impossible branches, and ended up dangling from the ropes. They climbed in such a way that was so stultifyingly safe it wasn't even worth the effort.
I thought of these moments recently as I sat in our graduate office amid yet another conversation around the bleak prospects of finding work after finishing doctoral studies. There was more than angst in the general tenor of the conversation, there was outrage at the injustice of it all: "After putting in this amount of time and money, we should be guaranteed teaching positions at respectable universities and receive a respectable pay." For them, the freedom to pursue happiness was being quashed by institutional shifts largely indifferent to their plight.
Why should one who can annotate The Divine Comedy with the best of them simply be handed a tenured position? And who should guarantee that everyone who knows how to tease out the most nuanced gendered reading of The Canterbury Tales can put food on the table and a roof over their heads? In fact, no matter the discipline or trade, why should anyone anywhere simply be given a job as if it were a diploma?
I wonder if such sentiments are symptomatic of the larger problem: an increasingly risk-averse generation that has been raised in a world where social safety nets are ubiquitous and the ideology of "too big too fail" has trickled down to the discontented hordes of the unemployed. I don't mean to sound Ayn Randian here, but a healthy dose of Self Reliance might not hurt.
Too many safety nets can mire you in a permanent state of ennui, or just as troubling, it can make you live quite recklessly. I think we err on the side of recklessness when we are buffered from the consequences of our actions—for example, our credit card debt, abortion rates, or subprime mortgage disaster.
Separate our actions from our consequences, and we're safe and sound—but not really living.
I can imagine such a world where we are so claustrophobically safe that we could be nicely cushioned from the adverse consequence of our choices; indeed, such places exist. Yet I want more from a free society.
Like climbing a tree, I want real danger coupled with my liberty. If I am free to choose let me also, then, be free to fall. Wasn't that part of the deal in Eden? If the system changes and tenure no longer exists, indeed if Western civilization collapses and there are no more universities in which to teach, let me have my wits about me to do what I can with what I have, where I am. And, of course, let me find my happiness in this pursuit.