Danger! Thoreau on risk (Walden 107)

Some of Thoreau’s many visitors thought it was dangerous for him to live alone in the woods:

“The old, infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger — what danger is there if you don’t think of any? — and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment’s warning. To them the village was literally a community, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.”

That last sentence is what really sticks with me. As a general thing we do a lousy job of risk assessment. We tend to worry about small but spectacular risks while ignoring the quiet but more likely and more deadly ones. (The US has built an entire “national security” policy on this bias.)

As Henry saw it, the biggest and most obvious risk for most of us came from a lack of attention, lack of imagination, or maybe — as he suggests here — from fear. The danger is that you’ll miss your own life as it sneaks past while you’re worrying about other things.

And so we conclude the chapter, “Visitors.”

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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