Safety Is (Also) Not Last

 A couple of decades ago, tragedy struck not a family in our parish but a family close to one of our families. A teenager and a few of his friends were on the roof of an empty parking garage, racing their cars and, it seems, daring each other to go faster and faster. One of them hit the edge guard and, I think, his car lofted over it into the air, crashing to the ground. However it happened, the driver was dead on the spot.
    The lesson was plain, if hard. It is not a sign of bravery to be foolish. Aristotle says true courage is somewhere between timidity and recklessness. We can be too careful, and as a result fail to act when we should. At the other extreme, we can be too careless, and act when we should hold back.
    T. S. Eliot writes: “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.” Learning to wait is an important part of life. Yet the Christian end is not a Buddhist stillness: the end is to act when the time is right.
    A standard example for students of morality runs like this. It is wrong to cut off someone else’s leg. But it is not wrong for a surgeon to remove a gangrenous leg. What’s the difference? From a bare description, they look the same: a torturer and a doctor each perform the same action. Indeed, in an isolated place—a desert, a battlefield—the two actions could bring equal pain to the person whose leg is being cut off. The difference, of course, is not only in the intention (the doctor intends to save a life, the torturer to inflict pain) but also in the presence of the gangrene.
    Surgeons impress me. They care about their patients’ well being. They have love, empathy, and in general the good of their patients in mind. But when the time comes, they do not hesitate to act decisively, with knives and saws and the other proper tools of their craft.
    It is wrong to operate needlessly, and wrong to hesitate to cut when it is time to cut. Surgeons learn to care and not to care.
    I am impressed also by people who have been trained in the military. Soldiers learn to acknowledge fear and to bracket it. They are taught to manage risk. You can’t be a soldier and not take on risk, all the way to the risk of death to yourselves and others. But risk needs management. It can be managed, in the best circumstances, in a layered, intelligent manner. An order is handed down. The officer transmits the order to his or her people. It is not negotiable, but in carrying it out they have a measure of discretion. “We have to do this, but what is the best way for us to do this?” Time permitting, there may be discussion. Decisions are made, then it goes on down to the next level, and so forth.
    What one sees in this training is a general outlook to do things in the smartest way they can—and an important part of “smartest” involves safety—without being held back by the risks to safety. Risk is a given; how will we manage risk?
    God clearly wants us to learn (through this Virus, as always) that love of one another is different from sentimental care. Love learns when to care and when not to care. Love takes on risks, but does so without being reckless. When the Word of God took on our humanity, he knew it would kill him. But there was nothing reckless about it.
    But just for fun: The film “Safety Last” is hilarious. From 1923, starring Harold Lloyd (who is worthy of the fame of Charlie Chaplin) and Mildred Davis, it will give you 70 minutes of fun.
    My local newspaper once reported, with regard to a minor accident, that the driver was charged with “wreckless driving.” I sent it to the New Yorker and got a polite note of thanks, saying this is a common error.


The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."