Picture this: TSA agents staring slack-jawed at monitors, screening for dangerous weapons like guns and suntan lotion in bottles larger than 3 oz. A factory worker pulling a defective toy from an assembly line so that a child doesn’t choke on the loose piece. A business manager reading a request for proposal, evaluating the cost of pursuing the project versus the fee it pays. We live in a world where every employee is hired to mitigate risk, from the guy who places the wet floor sign over a spill to the asset manager who oversees our retirement funds.
As animals, we are bred to avoid physical danger long enough to propagate. As sentient beings, we create families who will care for us emotionally and physically in our dotage. We buy houses or businesses and insure them against the cost of their replacement in case they are destroyed. Day to day, we are encouraged to avoid risk, whether by choosing to use a crosswalk, marrying a spouse with a high-paying job or having an annual physical exam. These tactics are effective for staying alive, but not necessarily for living.
Travel is one way to break free of this paradigm, if only for a few moments. As adventures are wont to do, foreign circumstances help us grow, at least until we learn to overcome and eventually predict inherent traps like lost reservations or pick-pockets. If humans are good at nothing else, it’s adapting to our surroundings, even if those surroundings are constantly changing. This means that we are always upping the ante, knowing that risk is only a teacher until we conquer it.
Trouble arises when life becomes about moving chess pieces (this job or that one? this house or that one?) rather than testing mental boundaries or exploring psychological terrain. For artists, this mindset heralds creative decline. Built to filter options, if we can only imagine solutions rather than quandaries —if we cannot allow ourselves the space for legitimate threat or the real possibility of failure— how can we create compelling art? Who wants to write, let alone read, about characters who don’t take chances, whose decks are stacked, who must merely follow the smell of cheese to find the end of the maze?
Yesterday, I met with Peter Mountford, the writer in residence at Hugo House, for commentary on the first draft of a short story. From the start, he counseled me to incorporate more risk in my work. He suggested that I allow my main character to be weaker, more diminished at the start to afford her the ability to transform rather than handing her a defensible position. While my main character is not me, I do identify with her; ultimately, the way she faces her predicament is more reflective of my own mindset about risk than hers.
What is risk, then, but an exposure to chance, to loss, to injury — a manmade concept based on attachment to physical conditions that are truly beyond our capacity to govern in the first place? Though the impact of loss is a mental construct, it’s none the less powerful enough to affect our behavior and our unconscious thought as well as our creative expression. Win or lose, the way we process risk affects the underlying nature of our existence in all its forms.
It’s not just choices like running a red light or traveling to developing nations; we believe that we can run statistics on everything. This is why the realities of middle age hit us hard. Life is a game of odds, and that is where our streak begins to fail. We think that we are in control of our bodies, for instance, until we face disease or injury in our 40s and 50s. The reality is, no matter how we maintain our physical form —with alcohol, fried food and cigarettes, or through regular exercise, an organic diet and drinking eight glasses of water each day— each of us will die. Despite efforts to avoid it, all of the yoga in the world can’t thwart this fate, although they could probably bend you into a smaller coffin.
Thus, we grow to believe that we control our careers and finances with smart, considered choices (until the economy tanks and we are laid off), or our marriages and relationships (until we divorce or move away from our friends) and the very course of our lives (until that thing that we couldn’t see coming suddenly happens.) We define risk by the fear that life will elude our projected notion of control, that we will “lose everything” if we open our bodies and chattel to chance. Is this true? Or is it more true that risk is all around us, inside and outside ourselves and our homes, if we would only acknowledge it?
For those living in Syria or Afghanistan, leaving the house is risky; do they stay inside for the rest of their lives? In China or North Korea, speaking one’s mind is risky; should entire countries remain silent? In places of civil or military strife where tensions are heightened and visible —where daily loss of limb, liberty or life is sure— risk is an easier choice in that it is unavoidable. By facing it, these people inspire the rest of us; the Dalai Lamas and Nelson Mandelas of the world are the ones we write stories about. Everyday life, in all of its chance, becomes an opportunity to do what the rest of us might only do once or twice in a lifetime: find and profess what we believe is worth risk. Usually, it’s not a suburban tract house or a Toyota.
I admit that I am thankful, as only a pampered Westerner can be, for the brand of risk we have in the United States, the luxury to be sated and unsatisfied at once. Still, there is a spectrum of threat here. You don’t see me quitting my job in Seattle to start a business in Detroit or New York City even though the scrappiness of the idea appeals to me. You don’t see me walking alone though the Central District at 2 am even though I’m curious what happens there at night. You don’t see me spending my retirement to travel the world, even though that’s exactly what I’d do if I money wasn’t an object. Am I a coward? A hypocrite? Wasting my life?
How many would say the same: that if money (read: the illusion of security) was no object —if there was no perceived risk to their standard of life or wellbeing— they would not live as they do today? Does this mean that we should quit our jobs and become explorers or vagabonds — and that anything less is settling? Should we give away our possessions or renounce the institution of marriage? Would we feel any more fulfilled in these scenarios than the ones in which we currently live?
In the end there are fine lines between commitment, attachment and value. I think it’s possible to honor society’s norms —jobs, marriage, family, commerce— without becoming slaves to them. One can enjoy the fruits of labor without being so inured to physical possessions that their absence makes life unlivable. As adaptive creatures, I also believe it’s possible to survive without needing as much in spite of the fact that our species falls prey to pleasure and a widely held belief that possessions are the source of it. Assigning value to such things is unwisely risky if you ask me (and there I go, evaluating): a house or a car do not signify worthiness, and their absence doesn’t confer failure. Yet when we lose things, we bring ourselves low.
Family and relationships are similarly burdened with expectation for producing contentment. As I watch my friends propagate, buying first and second homes for their expanding broods, I naturally question my own choices. Settling down and raising a family seems wisely selfish from a certain perspective, not the least love. Sometimes, I envy what they have, or at least, I can feel the value of their choices. Should I make a point of starting a family so that I don’t miss out on motherhood? Will I be sorry that I didn’t do what most everyone else is doing? Will I be more alone at the end of my life if I don’t have children? In those moments, I pause to confirm my own priorities. In the happy times, their lives look attractive, but in practice, I don’t want it enough. Maybe that’s being wisely selfish, too.
In reality, either path involves risk. There is no eluding it when people or possessions are involved, and I certainly have both. Call it a soul or an essence, the spirit inside is the only thing that cannot be lost or destroyed and is, if anything can be, the only thing we have dominion over. This is the gold.
For me, risk resides in this third place, the domain between experiencing, loving and losing — the space where resilience lives. A chasm surrounds it, breeding greed and desire in its depths, the illusion that it’s possible to govern our physical world, or that doing so will lead to fulfillment. This is where mindless habits arise, where ego and expectation thrive. Distracted by bus schedules, grocery shopping and perfunctory affection, we lose our way to the core of ourselves, and with that, a genuine connection with others. How many times do we say, “I love you,” as automatically as we say hello? The charm and benefit of risk is lost when we resign ourselves to everyday distraction.
Risk is about being awake, of not accepting things as they seem, of finding passages that deserve our energy and effort to navigate. We are not the authors of our lives but the narrators. Our power resides in revealing character, in shifting the point of view and in translating dialogue and action. We cannot be so attached to the story —especially not the story we tell about ourselves— that we cannot adapt when the plot shifts, when our characters become lost, when calamity levels everything in its path. As narrators, we cannot hold tight to a single perspective. We must learn to inhabit multiple viewpoints, or wind up trapped and oblivious to the rest of the cast and the story.
More so than gambling or eating day-old sushi, riding this wave is what’s risky, if you ask me. We may find that we don’t know ourselves, that we have a thin support system; we may discover that we have a lot of work to do if we truly want to change. While risk is different for each of us, it’s hard not to cling to what we own and know, no matter how positive or dire our circumstances are. Life without chains is unthinkable, it seems. Even as we seek liberation –by this, I mean freedom from fear– we have come to rely on it; even when we’re successful, we find it difficult to release burdens that we call ours.
Maybe what’s risky, then, is to search in the first place — to try and fail again and again to find what is true for ourselves rather than accepting what is true for others — to attempt to rise above both peace and war, to search for the unfamiliar, whatever and wherever that is, every day of our lives. As narrators, we should seek characters capable of shedding preconceived notions in all the forms they take. There is not a single right answer as we are taught to believe; we can learn from them all.
In training ourselves to question rather than accept, to meet rather than defray risk each day, to embrace its shiny Janus head for the good of ourselves and others, perhaps risk will come to hold a different meaning, and with it, so might our experience of the world.