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Safety is not a virtue: Teaching self-sacrificial courage to our children

Daniel Kish has been sightless since he was a year old. He was born with an aggressive form of eye cancer and had both eyes removed by the age of one. He is a man of many talents. He likes to hike, mountain bike, make music, cook and write. He enjoys children and loves nature. He has earned two master’s degrees from the University of California Riverside.

Kish is emphatic that there is nothing exceptional about him or his abilities. He uses clicking noises with his tongue to understand his environment. He calls his self-taught method “flash sonar,” but it is technically referred to as echolocation, where he listens to the echoes as they bounce off of surfaces. Daniel says, “I wasn't aware I was doing it, just as sighted people don't consciously teach themselves to see.”

He was a rambunctious child, and everyone assured his mother that the most important thing was to keep her blind child safe by limiting his activities and opportunities to get hurt. Daniel’s grandmother actually told his mom, “You should wrap him in cotton balls, so he will not get hurt when he bounces into things.”

When he would climb trees, neighbors and police officers would knock on his mother’s door and tell her that blind children should not climb trees because it is too dangerous. She was constantly asked, “How can you let him do that?” His mother rejected all of the advice and embraced a “no-limits because of blindness” philosophy in raising her son. According to Daniel Kish, the low expectations for what blind people can do functions to limit what they can actually do.

Daniel Kish concludes the TED talk he gave with an important takeaway, “We get so overwhelmed by challenges—and I do too, but I was raised without fear. There were lots of things to be afraid of, but the emphasis was on facing fear.” His words are reminiscent of those of Theodore Roosevelt, “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” Regarding this courageous and fearless mentality as a blind person, Daniel Kish says, “Running into a pole is a drag but never being allowed to run into a pole is a disaster.”

In the This American Life episode about Daniel Kish, he says, “Often, sighted people will jump in a half a second too soon, and they rob the blind student from that learning moment.” My son, Will, a high school senior, pointed out this podcast about Daniel Kish to me. He said, “This is what you would be like if you were blind, and this is the way you and mom try to raise us.” I doubt that is true about me, but I am thrilled he understands that we are not raising him to believe that his safety is the top priority.

But here is my fear: Many of our children are not blind, but we are still wrapping them in cotton balls.

Daniel Kish’s story causes my mind to race with implications for Christian parenting and discipleship. Merriam-Webster defines courage as, “The ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.” Courage always demands a dose of danger. Our current cultural cult of safety treats willingly pursuing a difficult or dangerous task as foolish, sinful even—not heroic. G.K. Chesterton argues, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. 'He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,' [Matt. 16:25].”

Genuine Christian courage, according to Chesterton, combines “a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying.” Recklessness and self-protecting safety both have the same sinful root: self-centeredness. A culture where everyone values safety-first is a very dangerous place to live. This ought to be self-evident to the followers of a crucified Messiah who are called to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Rather than promoting human flourishing, a self-referential worldview is the root of all sin and human languishing. Taking up our cross and following him is not a call to safety-first (Luke 9:23). Love, biblically understood, is always courageous and sacrificial. Fulfilling the Great Commission demands calculated risk-taking. Biblically, safety is not a virtue, but self-sacrificial courage certainly is. It is difficult to cultivate self-sacrificial courage wrapped in cotton balls.



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