Thoreau observes that “we sit more risks than we run,” meaning that what we don’t do is also a risk. Indeed, playing life safe is the biggest risk of all, because life returns the least to those who play it safe.
For example, most relationships need to break up periodically, if only to clear the waters; if only, as Heraclitus observes, to turn into their opposites, so that the opposite (the break-up) has the possibility of turning back into a positive and refreshed connection. However, most relationships can’t risk breaking up. There is too much fear of the intervening space, so the partners cling (usually one partner clings and the other allows himself or herself to be clung to), taking the greater risk of resisting this Heraclitean rhythm and thus slowly suffocating in a half-hearted embrace.
The same is so often true for our relationships with our work. For example, the clearest improvement in my writing came several years ago when I gave up writing altogether (permanently, I thought at the time). There were several of us in my circle then, young aspiring writers, and the others kept on, struggling, clinging to their dedication, but rutted in the sense that “being a writer” had become more important than having anything to say. When I came back to writing a couple of years later (really when writing came back to me), I observed how much farther ahead I was for having done no writing at all. For one thing, I had been freed of the burdensome desire to be “discovered” by a publisher, and was now just writing, putting my work in whatever available local publication wanted it, or publishing it myself. So I started to get response, criticism, encouragement, while my colleagues were still, in a sense, too much in the closet, too private, obsessed with finding that magic formula that would catch the eye of Harper and Row, redrafting and re-redrafting themselves daft, attending prestigious writing conferences to meet the right people, buying expensive word processor computers to increase their efficiency — but getting staler with every dying word.
There are two risks, really: (1) letting go when the signs are there and (2) not letting go when the signs are there. In both cases we lose everything, but in the first there is always the chance, the promise really, that we’ll be born again.
Petersburg, West Virginia
Sometimes the risk is only my own production: should I say something to this stranger? One time, I wanted to invite a fellow pianist out to lunch. Forcing myself past my awe (she’s so beautiful, she’s so good, she’s so beautiful) I invited myself into her practice room and began to shake violently. I pretended I was cold.
But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes I’m really at risk: I tear across intersections, taking chances with traffic — I mean, very large, metallic objects whose momentum grossly exceeds my own capacity for impact — as if there were some importance to “catching a bus.”
I used to fake my way through subway turnstiles (by pulling the bar and limp-legging), out of some kind of “steal-this-book” sentiment, not to mention unmitigated frugality, but even though I never got caught, I began to feel tense every time I needed to ride, so I just stopped.
Then again, some risks seem so monumental I can’t believe that they got decided by me sitting down and saying, “Fuck it, I’m not going to ‘finish my education,’ I’m going to scrounge for a living and try to be real and try to be happy and if I’m broken and wasted and have no future at forty-nine, well, I’ll just have to figure something out then, won’t I?”
And there’s a risk from not going to the dentist; but who really knows if drilling holes in your teeth and filling them with metal is such a good idea? Has the first generation of dental care recipients grown old and toothsome yet? I don’t know.
However, by far the most interesting risk-taking for me is also the most impalpable: occasionally I’ll be playing the piano, earnest and not very good and bent on improvement, when a door will open and then I’m halfway through it. If I stop I lose the chance, but it’s scary, because through that door I’m not me anymore; I’ve got to become something changed. That’s what it’s all about, but it’s a risk.
Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts
When I was sixteen, Mike drove his MG forty miles an hour up beside the Ford sedan down the winding highway on the way back from the swimming hole, and I climbed from the MG through the window of the Ford into the back seat, where my girlfriend was riding.
When I was eighteen, I climbed over the windshield and sat on the hood of a Pontiac convertible and played bongo drums, while Dale piloted the car down the Skyway at eighty miles an hour. I don’t know how he could see where he was going, with me in front of him, but we were both drunk and didn’t worry about details like that.
Until I was twenty-seven, I prided myself on being the first one into Chico Creek every spring. The last time I did it, I was alone and dove off the bridge into water high enough to be called flood-stage. It was a half-mile of wild water and an eternity of knowing that I’d finally done the irreversible and drowned my damn-fool self. But I gained the bank, let my frozen body get warm, and walked naked up the road beside the creek to where I’d left my clothes, wondering why I would take such risks when I really did want to live.
I understand something now that I didn’t understand then. “Primitive” cultures initiated members into adulthood, with the support of the family and the culture, with strong religious beliefs and long tradition behind the rites, because the need to be educated, escorted, and accepted into adulthood is a basic human need. Contemporary culture threw out all this “superstition,” left itself spiritually bankrupt, and left children emerging into adulthood on their own.
Initiation rites often involved physical deprivation, pain, and risk-taking, but with support, guidance, and protection provided by adults. The rites we invent ourselves, with only a dim understanding of what we are about, leave some of us dead, some crippled, and many of us with an unsatisfactory, uncompleted transition behind us, without the religious weight or the support from the culture we should have had, without bringing us fully into adulthood.
At age three, adventurous and curious, I wandered in any direction whenever the opportunity arose. It didn’t often arise, for my mother’s determination to keep me safe meant many sunny days spent tethered to the clothesline with slack enough to reach from the sandbox near the porch steps to the driveway. To all outward appearances a “satisfactory adjustment” was made. Certainly my mother was vindicated in that her child is still alive.
There was a price, of course. It was internal and creates tension still. Terrified of movement, at the same time I feel restless and ill at ease when staying too long anywhere. One foot perpetually out the door, warning friends not to count on me, I linger on and on in the same spot. There is a raging need in me to see the world, to say hello to people in their own language, to make friends with everything that is utterly different from myself.
A torn newspaper clipping shows me in a group of little children holding a long rope, shepherded by the large gruff school custodian who was charged with getting twenty-five children from school to the main highway, three blocks away. Home was four blocks beyond, and I walked them uneventfully by myself daily, but it is the memory of the rope that remains.
Happily, it was also a rope that underscored for me the essence of risk-taking. Part of my training to become a psychotherapist was a back-pack hike along the C&O canal for five days, including a stop at Carderock for instruction in rock climbing and rapelling. Frozen to the top of that huge rock outcropping, I watched as if in a dream while the guides laid the line and demonstrated. Then some other voice, some other will (was it my three-year-old?) took over, reached through, and I exultantly walked, no, soared down the face of the cliff, defying gravity and internal prohibitions.
Since that time I make it a point to challenge myself whenever I find something in me tying me to a clothesline. I go deliberately toward my fear. Most often the new situation or challenge brings new knowledge about life and the real limits to my well-being, rather than those imposed by the needs and fears of others.
I try to stay loose about taking risks, listening to my intuition to find out when the time is right. It’s wanting to be in control all the time that makes things hard. I want some sovereignty over myself, but I don’t want to prevent new things from coming into my life, threatening as they sometimes are. Our language predisposes us toward control; “to take a risk,” we say, like you would take a bath or a walk. In reality, the risk takes us; it takes us into new territory, drops us off and says, “Good luck!”
I try to remember this when I’m about to do something risky — figuring out what to do with my life, writing honestly to my distant sweetheart, playing music, walking in the woods in pitch-black night, riding my bike in city traffic — in hopes that my body will do its job enthusiastically, uninterrupted by superfluous thinking. I also try to remember — especially when I’ve just risked “successfully” and I’m feeling cocky and heroic — that we all live among heroes, and although we may not know the conditions and consequences of their risks, we’re all in some kind of new territory, doing the best we can.
Mark E. Forry
Los Angeles, California