I wrote this just before what I’ve come to call “The Italian Incident” 5 years ago, just after writing a different article, Choose Your Risk, which you can read here. It remains true, if not truer now than ever to me.
After beginning the discussion on risk, my brain started churning through some of the responses and push-back left in the comments and I think the discussion isn’t even close to over just yet.
The first thing that needs qualification is that my point is not that we ought to engage in risk for the sake of risk. My point is that we’ve one short life and while we’ll all look differently at what it means to fully live that life with no regrets, it is often the fear of risk that stands in the way. Overcoming that fear gets us to a place where we can more intentionally engage life, become the people we long to be. Just getting over fear for the sake of risking without examining the results of those risks is, to my mind, pointless.
The second thing I think that needs to be picked apart is the “what about my stupid job?” mentality, which I think has been so beat into us we can no longer see it for what it is. We’ve been conditioned (in a non-paranoid, no-conspiracy-theory kind of way) into leaving school, getting a job, working until retirement, and being a productive bee in the hive. it doesn’t have to be this way. People make a living in thousands of unlikely ways and it’s truly unlikely for most of us that we’ll end up dead on the side of the road while people pass by, shake their heads, and mumble, sotto voce, “see, he shouldn’t have quit his job.” Once above the survival line – and I’d argue we need much, much, less to be happy than we think – it’s important to remember that we work to live, we do not live to work. When work gets in the way of you living your life – then that work no longer serves you and it’s time to change.
Clear your debt as fast as you can. Live on less. Pull your kids from one of their over-priced after-school activities and let them read a library book. Give the car back to the dealer and get one you can actually afford. Save some money. And don’t, whatever you do, wait until “the time is right” before you make the changes your soul is hard longing for. I know, it’s not practical. Practical is safe. Practical is boring. Practical isn’t working for you now, not if all this talk of living life to the fullest resonates with you, and it isn’t going to work for you in the future. I don’t know that Gandhi, Moses, Jesus, Einstein, Ben Franklin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Schweitzer, or any of the thousands of unknown adventurers, inventors, poets, or general misfits, ever saw much use for practicalities. They lived with the same realities we do. It is they about whom we tell stories.
So all this was floating in my mind and I began to think about possible first-steps for the fearful ones that long for something more. I think that first step might be failure; the very thing we seem to fear. In the years leading up to my bankruptcy I was terrified; i’d seen the writing on the wall and it was truly frightening. I thought I’d lose it all. I thought I’d never recover. I had fear after fear. And then I walked into my trustee’s office, signed away my debt under a heaviness of shame and guilt – and failure. And to my shock I survived. Not only did I survive, I thrived. I learned lessons I’d never have learned. And I learned that falling down hurt less than I expected. It hurt, of course it did, but not even remotely did the brief hurt outweigh the good that came of the risk.
There’s deep strength in failure. It’s a gift to fall down and get up. Coddle a child and don’t let him eat a little dirt or lick the occasional frog and that child never develops the kind of immune system that keeps him strong. It’s the same with our character. Failure builds immunity, gives us strength, makes us familiar with the actual possibilities that come from risk and robs our fears of the power that comes from the unknown. The more you fail, and learn from those lessons, the less frightening future failures appear.
As with risk, failure for failure’s sake isn’t the point. It’s a waypoint, a portal through which we pass. To return to the idea of living a good story, think back to your favorite stories: the good ones require the protagonist to risk. The epic ones, the ones that really move us, require the protagonist to risk it all. They don’t do so for the sake of the risk itself: they do so because the price of not doing so is too high. Without risking it the village will certainly be destroyed, or the love of their life will certainly be lost. Risk is not the point. Nor is failure.
The stakes are so high. We won’t get to the end and get a do-over. This is not a trial run. What we do here matters. Being fully ourselves, fully alive, and fully engaged with the world around us requires we wake up and shake the sleep from our eyes. I sat with a cancer survivor recently, someone who’d fought for her life to overcome odds and now lives cancer-free but in a job that by her own admission is killing her soul. it was a thrill to see the light come on in her eyes as she realized it didn’t have to be this way. My God, if you can live through the fight of your life and beat cancer, why would you not fight tooth-and-nail to live the days you’d snatched from the dragon’s jaws with every ounce of energy and passion and make it worth the fight? (Update: That woman is now my wife. We’ve been together since the day we met, in Italy, a week before I fell of the wall.)
These are just the thoughts of a self-confessed idealist. You are welcome to dismiss them and go back to the cubicle from whence you came. You probably have some very good reasons to suggest that I’m full of crap, and probably crap from unicorns and fairies. My only push-back is that I’ve seen people living profoundly impractical lives as missionaries and bush-doctors and artists and adventurers and I think, without exception, they’d agree: the risk of doing nothing and playing it safe and never falling on your face is a risk they could never live with. If failure gets them there faster, then it’s not so much to be avoided as embraced.
The image at the top of this blog article is me dancing in the rain in Cambodia, 5 months after the accident that nearly killed me. It’s one of my favorite photographs. Thanks to Eve Hannah for the memory.
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