The Moral Necessity of Danger
On the graffiti I saw in a Naples subway station—and the creation of non-sterile environments in which truth, goodness, and beauty can flourish.
About 10 years ago I was wandering the neighborhood around Da Concettina ai Tre Santi in Naples, my belly filled with one of their famous fried pizzas (with ricotta), when I looked across the street and saw a metro station with graffiti emblazoned on the side of its entryway. It said:
“Take the subway. You’ll find zeal there.”
Oddly, it was written in English.
An arrow pointed down the stairs.
I had somewhere to be and I was already late, so I didn’t follow the sign. But I gave it a double-take, and then a triple and quadruple-take. This strange message was seared in my memory for the rest of the day.
I had a dream that night about a pack of wild dogs—a couple German Shepherds, the others mixed-breed, tough-looking canines. They befriended me on the streets of the city. They looked at me with sad eyes, and they had peroxide dripping from their beards. I don’t know how I knew it was peroxide, but I just knew.
At that moment I heard (in my head) a line from the Mumford & Songs song, The Cave: “The heart has left no food for you to eat.”
What might this mean? I thought. (To be clear: the real line is “the harvest left no food for you to eat.” But some of the greatest lines in music history—the ones that yield the greatest meanings—are the misheard ones. That’s because we mishear in the exact way we want to, or need to…)
As I looked again at the metro station—now in my dream—it seemed to me like this was my version of Dante’s inferno, the pack of dogs my Virgil.
They beckoned me to the entrance and barked and howled, staring intently at me, begging me to go down with them. I felt trepidation about what I might find down there, but I knew I had to go.
And that’s when the dream ended. I woke up.
A small thing happened this past week that reminded me of my time in Naples. Very trivial—but they brought this experience back to me vividly.
I toured two very different ‘health clubs’ in West Michigan. One of them was in the style of a standard, luxury Globo Gym: a pristine, massive facility; basketball courts; olympic-size swimming pool; high-end juice bar; brand new equipment; people in very expensive-looking workout gear on the glute machines and ab rollers. The total Equinoxification of American health clubs is nearly complete. Luckily, I’m in a small town where vestiges of a past age remain.
Then I toured a second place right down the street named FLEX Fitness—an old-school bodybuilding-style gym that has been around since the early 80’s. And, believe me, it looks like they have made zero upgrades since the early 80’s except for new equipment. (The free-weight equipment selection is impressive; nothing is falling apart; it’s just completely no frills.)
It was a very different experience walking through Flex. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, the camaraderie was palpable; cutoff t-shirts everywhere; the smell of sweat; the sound of grunts on squat racks and the distinctive ssst-ssst-ssst hissing sound as a guy struggles to get one last rep on the bench; locker rooms where you have to bring your own combo lock and test a few doors before you find one that works. Not surprisingly, the monthly rate at Flex is about 80% less than the larger athletic facility.
My head was drawn toward the fancy gym (towel service, spa, courts, sanitized equipment, which made me feel comfortable, but most importantly it all seemed more ‘efficient; for instance, I could shower there on my way somewhere if I needed to)—but my heart was drawn to Flex.
It came back to the question: what might I find there that I would never be able to find at the more sanitized place?
Of course, there’s only one way to really know.
I’m writing this after a walk along the weedy sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s extremely windy, especially in the winter. I spot bald eagles cruising over the shoreline about every other day. It’s a wild place, and the lake feels dangerous in a beautiful way.
It makes me think about things that no other place does.
Like: Love is dangerous because freedom is dangerous, and there is no love at all unless it is free.
It seems to me that our leaders are trying to engineer a society that seeks to eliminate or reduce risk practically to zero, which necessarily limits development—not unlike refusing to allow my kid to ever participate in sports or snowboard the difficult trails on a mountain. Sure, I would reduce his risk of injury. But at what cost to his soul?
We never ask at what cost because what may have been goes unrealized, unfulfilled, unexplored. When it comes to the safe, pusillanimous desires being peddled to young people especially (inventing a new Tik-Tok dance or becoming an influencer in any way entails no risk, except to one’s ego), the real cost is love.
The more that things are done under the appearance of love—what the Italians call the ‘bella figura’, or ‘cutting a beautiful figure’ (and social media is full of them)—the less we can see the actual face of love. And that face is often bloodied and bruised.
We sanitize nearly everything important in our culture. Death, offices, school, films, speech.
Perhaps this is done out of a desire to bring order out of chaos—or to shield ourselves and others from having to grapple with the full range of human emotions and possibilities before us. It sometimes seems like if we were exposed to them, we would just melt, or spontaneously combust. (Have you ever had the experience of deep, deep engagement with another person in real life and felt like you were about to OD on something? Someone says something vulnerable or wounding; the parties to the conversation then can’t withstand more than a half a second of eye contact; they turn away, stare into their drink, and take a sip to numb themselves from the fire of the spirit they felt tinged by.)
The mediated reality of technology—the Imitatio Machina, as I call it—is one of the largest reasons people aren’t able to adhere to reality for more than a few seconds. It’s as if reality has been covered up by the slickest sheet of ice imaginable and we’re just skating over it. Thickening one’s desires involves breaking through.
We need chests thick enough to withstand the heartache and the overwhelming joy that being a human fully alive feels like. William Blake says it like this in one of his great poems:
”And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
Learning to bear the beams of love is one the chief tasks of life, I believe—and that involves going down into your own Naples metro station, whatever that looks like…and finding the zeal to do it.
I’ll tell you how the Naples story ended. But first: why environment matters. They are not all equally conducive to the discernment of desire, or to the building up of thick desires.
It’s worth asking: Where do you have to go to find zeal? It may not be a subway station in Naples, and it may not be a physical place at all.