by Marcus Otte
A few months ago, I was visiting a friend at St. Mary’s College, in California. I taught the day’s lesson to his class, and afterwards we returned to his home. Upon leaving the college, we had to drive down a winding mountain road. We had not gone far, when we encountered two men, both college-age, skateboarding down the mountain. One of them was filming a video of their skating run.
We were stuck behind these skaters. But this was not annoying in the slightest, in part because it didn’t slow us down much. They flew down the mountain, swerving with the road. They were wearing helmets, but the whole thing still seemed reckless to me. The road was quite narrow. What if one of them accidentally went into the oncoming lane? Finally, near the bottom of the mountain, one of them did. For the first time, there was a sign of panic in his movement, as he regained control and hurriedly turned back into the right-hand lane. There was no oncoming traffic at that moment– but there could have been.
As we went down the mountain, I felt, in my gut, that these men were doing wrong. I felt they were taking an excessive and foolish risk, tempting fate, so to speak. But I was trying to convince myself otherwise. I doubted my judgement that this skating run was truly reckless. I wanted to simply admire these kids’ bravery, if what they were doing was admirable. I wanted to let go of any anxiety or negative judgement on the matter, and cheer them on. And perhaps I should have.
My friend pointed out something to me, that I thought was very sagacious: a virtue, such as courage, is often closer to one extreme than another. This is part of Aristotle’s teaching on the “golden mean,” and it is present today in Christian moral theology. To give some examples: generosity with money is a mean between miserliness and prodigality. Both extremes are bad, but generosity has more in common with excessive giving than it does with stinginess. Chastity or purity occupies a mean between licentiousness, on one hand, and puritanism, on the other. But it is more like puritanism. And courage lies on a mean between cowardice and recklessness, but it is more like recklessness.
It’s important for us to be willing, and even eager, to take physical risks. We should err on the side of boldness. We should enjoy danger, not just when an important cause calls for it, but out of love for the brave confrontation with danger. Courage helps us to do this, in the face of physical hazards. But, at the risk of using the word “courage” more loosely and untraditionally: we should be similarly courageous in the face of social, financial, and other risks. It is a praiseworthy leap of faith to marry and have children. There is merit in pursuing a career one loves and is talented in, but in which success is highly unlikely. It is good to give one’s proverbial “last penny” to charity. It is blessed to speak openly about Jesus and the gospel, even at the risk that others might not take you that seriously anymore. In all these domains, to act in the best way is to act from love, and “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18 NAB).