Just because someone did something extraordinarily stupid does not mean that another fool should repeat the act. And C.S. Lewis would agree.
This summer a (likely unemployed) Coloradan decided to push a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak – a 14,115 foot American landmark – using his nose. Talk about stupid. His ambition was to be the first person in the twenty-first century to accomplish this pseudo-impressive goal.
That’s right, “in the twenty-first century.” Oddly, he is the fourth man (women are too intelligent, IMHO) to waste time in this pursuit, but the others proved their mettle in the twentieth century.
Simple stupidity is not the oddest motivator of irrational actions. Some people feel compelled to pursue death-defying activities. Those of us who would prefer to avoid danger whenever possible, are confused by others who embrace it.
Quite recently, “the body of an American mountaineer whose daring achievements brought her acclaim among some of the world’s most elite climbers was found . . . on a peak in Nepal.” Apparently, she climbed the “world’s eighth-highest peak” so she could ski down from its peak.
Hilaree Nelson, 49, and her romantic and climbing partner, Jim Morrison, were trying to ski down Manaslu . . . An avalanche apparently blew her off a cliff onto the south face of the mountain, opposite of their intended route of descent.
Tragic, most would agree. Foolish, many would add.
Doing something silly falls lower on the FDS (foolishness disorder spectrum) than does taking arbitrary and utterly unnecessary risks.
C.S. Lewis offers some interesting counsel to a woman who shared concern about the marital frustrations of someone close to her. (Yes, people actively sought his advice.) He ranks ignorance very low on the scale of relationship problems.
It is a great joy to be able to ‘feel’ God’s love as a reality, and one must give thanks for it and use it. But you must be prepared for the feeling dying away again, for feelings are by nature impermanent.
The great thing is to continue to believe when the feeling is absent: & these periods do quite as much for one as those when the feeling is present. It sounds to me as if Genia had a pretty good husband on the whole.
So much matrimonial misery comes to me in my mail that I feel those whose partner has no worse fault than being stupider than themselves may be said to have drawn a prize! It hardly amounts to a Problem. (Correspondence, 1953).
So it is, that while obviously undesirable, stupidity is not a bad thing in itself. In “The World’s Last Night,” Lewis includes the trait in a curious list. And the passage suggests to me the dangers implicit in allowing one‘s ignorance to jeopardize their wellbeing.
Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.
It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.
It is precisely when what I would identify as stupidity inspires dangerous activities, that C.S. Lewis would rule it to be detrimental. And this brings us to the question of why some few people do what the majority of us “saner” people would avoid.
Why Do People Pursue Risky Activities
For our discussion here, I am not including people who face danger due to their vocations. Doubtless some “first responders” and military members relish brushes with death, but they are in the minority. Most are not eager to court death.
It has been debated as to why some people are drawn to the most hazardous of so-called “extreme sports.” The uncharitable might attribute a vulnerability to the siren call of danger to mere stupidity, but there are other factors at work.
However, some people are conditioned by their upbringing to participate in unsafe behaviors (e.g. base jumping, smoking or alligator wrestling). And, in recent years, we have been hearing more about genetic dispositions to such activities. It appears there is some merit to the notion of there being a “risk taking gene.”
A major 2019 study reported in in Nature Genetics “identified . . . 99 [genetic] loci associated with general risk tolerance.” An accessible discussion of the study says, “the genetic variants identified in the study open a new avenue of research on the biological mechanisms that influence a person’s willingness to take risks.”
In any case, DNA is only one, limited factor. Researchers confirmed “non-genetic factors matter more for risk tolerance than genetic factors. The study shows evidence of shared genetic influences across both an overall measure of risk tolerance and many specific risky behaviors.”
Lacking the fear gene is not quite the same thing as being courageous. As noted above, a person may face danger because of a valid reason. Thus “first responders” and most military members I served as a chaplain were not foolhardy. They didn’t take unnecessary risks. But most were willing to place themselves between very real threats and those they were protecting.
And for the less daring among us, perhaps we can avoid foolish pursuits that are merely a waste of time. It seems apparent to me that time spent serving others in a food bank, or mowing the lawn of a disabled neighbor, constitute a far better use of our time.