01 May 2011

Courage and Risk

This piece is the result of a rather mundane inspiration. I was updating my Facebook profile recently and I re-read some of my “favorite quotations” I had listed there. I found a couple that particularly struck me, and I realized that I had written a column about a year ago featuring those two quotes. They say it’s good to revisit previous teachings to see how you’re measuring up, so here goes.

The first quote was from J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series: "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default." The second was from Richard Blais, recent winner of the TV reality show Top Chef All-Stars: "Risk failure for greatness at all cost."

What both of these people were saying, and what they’ve demonstrated in their own lives, is that you shortchange yourself when you go through life too cautiously, never taking risks, never daring to succeed because you’re too afraid of failure.

But that’s not what really set me off in re-reading these. No, not with the “you” pronoun, that wasn’t it. What set me off was reflecting on my own life, what I’ve accomplished and how I’ve lived and what I’ve risked to date. Too often I have shortchanged myself because I’ve gone through life too cautiously, not taking enough risks, and not daring to succeed because I’m constantly on guard against failure. Basically put, I suck at being a courageous person.

Turning to a more traditional source of spiritual quotes, Jesus put it this way: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his own life will save it.” It’s one of those wonderful koan-like sayings of Jesus that get folks all tied up in knots. How can someone find his life by losing it? And shouldn’t we want to save our own lives? That’s just basic self-preservation, isn’t it?

I like the idea of saving my life. I don’t want to voluntarily lose it. I’d much rather stick around here another 50 or 60 or 70 years or something approaching an eternity (see previous post for thoughts on that). But that’s not what any of these people are talking about. None of these risk-embracing quotes, not even the one about losing one’s life, is saying that I need to actually, physically die in order to be alive.

In fact, most of us never actually face a life-or-death choice. (Well, unless we consume a standard American dosage of high fructose corn syrup, but that’s another matter.) Almost none of the risks we encounter and consciously make a choice about are the kind that could kill us. And maybe that’s one way to look at risk to make it less formidable.

What if I asked myself, when confronting some decision that worries me and keeps me up at night, “What’s really the worst that could happen if I took a risk here and it didn’t work out?” In almost every situation I face, the answer is something short of, “I’ll die.” It’s also usually short of, “I’ll lose my house, and my spouse and my cat and I will have to live on the streets.” Most of the time, the worst thing that could happen tends to be along the lines of “I’ll have expended a few hours of my time with no fruitful outcome to show for it,” although sometimes it’s more than a few hours and sometimes it would involve actual monetary loss (though not necessarily a devastating one).

So if I’m not facing tangible physical or material threats, what does keep me from taking risks, from acting courageously in the face of life’s challenges? I think that goes back to Rowling and Blais. I fear failure, and the imagined emotional and psychic humiliation that would accompany it. What if I tried some big bold undertaking and I fell completely flat on my face? What would my friends think of me then? What would I think? Wouldn’t I be such a fool for having tried something so outlandish?

But you know what? If my friends would really scorn me for trying something bold and failing, then I need new friends. I need friends who will encourage me – and yes, the etymology of encourage (from Middle English and Anglo-French) is en + courage. Thus, the one who encourages is the one who helps you cultivate and practice your own courage. And if I need friends who encourage me, I need at least twice as much a me who encourages me.

Here’s a suggestion for an existential/spiritual exercise for the coming week, and I’ll keep it in the first person – but feel free to try this at home. Over the next week, anytime I face a choice or decision, if there’s a choice that has more risk or chance of failure to it, but it also has a greater chance for reward or success (assuming that risk isn’t truly life-threatening), I will choose the riskier, the more courageous path.

No one’s born courageous. Courage is something I must cultivate and grow within me, and the way to grow courage is to act courageously.

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