I understand that it’s an old adage that to live life fully, to carve out a quality-filled life, entails risks. I also know that as human beings, we are risk-avoidant for the most part. And why not? Risks are what they are – risky. We would prefer to know what lies on the other side of the unknown before we step into it. We look for the safest ways to navigate risks, we search out ways that reduce the risks involved in major decisions, and, to our chagrin, we look for guarantees from others we trust that our endeavors will play out the way we hope. No one – our loved ones, our dearest friends, those to whom we are most close, those we consider most wise, or gurus or priests – can promise us that life will turn out the way we want it to turn out. A life lived with the deepest of meaning where each of us can say, I have truly lived, cannot be achieved without risks of stepping into the unknown. The mystery of the unknown makes life interesting and worthwhile. If we want a life well-lived, we must engage the risks involved in the pursuit of such a life. We must face the failures as well as the successes in our lives. We must take responsibility for our own lives. And we must live from the foundation of our values and principles. Not to do so is truly not to live.
Looking to Others: There Are No Guarantees
There is nothing wrong with looking to others for hope, encouragement, and wise feedback. But when we turn seeking wisdom into the search for a guarantee, we will reap at least a couple of things from what we have sown. First, we lay the responsibility for our lives onto other people, which is highly unfair to them, not to mention that it’s cowardice on our part when we do so. Think of it from the opposite perspective. Would you promise someone that their choices will turn out exactly they way they hope? We inherently know that when we make such a promise to people, we may be trying to encourage them, but we’re making a claim that we cannot possibly know to be true. Moreover, if we think clearly about the situation, we do not want the responsibility for other adults’ lives. (I have a difficult enough of a struggle being responsible for my own.) We inherently know as well, on some level, that when we ask for such a guarantee for our lives from others, we’re asking them for something they can’t offer.
Looking to others, however, can prove fruitful if we keep some things in mind. First, reiterating, we should not look to others for a guarantee they can’t possibly offer. We know people in our lives, family members, friends, and other people, whom we consider mature, accomplished, and wise. Seeking input and feedback about decisions we have to make from such people is a wise act itself. Taking a risk should not necessarily mean throwing all caution to the wind, as the saying goes. Obtaining information, feedback, and suggestions from people we understand to be trustworthy can provide ways of clarifying what’s involved in risky endeavors. There are people in our lives who have traveled similar roads we are looking to travel. We do not have to be alone on our journey. Other people can be wonderful sources of information and encouragement. What they cannot be is a guarantee that our risks will pan out as planned. Such a promise they can neither make nor provide for themselves, let alone others. When we relinquish personal responsibility for our own lives, we actually have chosen not to live at all.
Blind Risks versus Informed Risk
Rarely is there any action we can take, any information we can accrue, or any clairvoyant we hope that exists, that take the risks out of risking. But I have known people who approach risks at times without any planning whatsoever. Although they fear the road they are traveling and their anxiety soars beyond the clouds, they do nothing to help settle some of their fears. There is a difference between foolishly and wisely risking. Like dichotomies can be many times, there most definitely are false ones. Risks is not a matter of stepping blindly and foolishly into life. Taking risks does not mean that we not seek what information we can before making a major decision in our lives. Likewise, because we cannot alleviate all the risks involved in making a decision does not mean we should never make a decision. Such thinking leaves people stuck in the quicksand of their own doubts and fear. Hence, they never move. From my perspective, informed risk-taking is true risk-taking. Blind risk-taking is mere foolishness. Trying to stay safe because we don’t have all contingencies in place yields a life not fully lived. What feels safe may, indeed, become a vapid way of existing.
This is not to say that there may be some risks that inherently carry more unknowns than other forms of risks. And some people really get a rush out of such risks. If you have the stomach, fortitude, and nerve endings for such risks, then by all means, knock yourself out. Many people do have such fortitude, and many do not. For those who do not, however, a simple fact to embrace is that nothing worthwhile in life lacks risks. The level of risks for yourself and what you hope to obtain entail a pathway you have to determine for yourself. There is a quote, I believe from Thoreau, – Most people live quiet, desperate lives. People can settle for a comfortable path that is a default from living the way they would otherwise choose to live. Then they dream about what it would have been like to have pursued those things in life they yearned for but never took a step toward them. In later life, such dreams can become nightmares. For most of us, whatever level of risks we’re willing to undergo, if we choose to go after what we truly hope for and want to obtain in life, choosing that road will take us to the limits of our existence. I truly believe that what we desire most will entail our stepping out in ways that leaves us hanging over an abyss that only we can navigate.
Successes and Failures
One the biggest mistakes that people make in pursuing a meaningful life is that when they make mistakes and encounter failures, they immediately think they were wrong and shouldn’t have taken the path they chose. I know it’s a cliche and can be thrown around as a simple platitude; however, mistakes and failures can be some of the best lessons in life. They’re not fun, they’re not experiences we should hope for (that’s masochism), and they are not results we should necessarily relish and wear like a crown. More importantly, they are not signs that we should give up on what we want in life. I’ve heard it told that the great oil explorer, H. L. Hunt, drilled several oil wells and was heavily in debt before he ever struck oil. His history that followed speaks for itself. Many narratives abound about successful businessmen, artists, and scientists who encountered multiple failures before they ever succeeded. Their narratives are good lessons, yet engaging a failure is not easy for anyone; nonetheless it provides a crossroad. One major decision leads to others. Do I go on, or do I give up? Seeking to move beyond any failure, especially major ones, is one of the most difficult tasks one can undertake.
Values and Principles versus Expediency
I find myself wondering if we’re living in a time where expediency trumps principle. I would go so far as to say that expediency appears to be a way of approaching all life’s endeavors these days. Facing a failure on the basis of expediency can lead rather quickly to giving up on one’s hopes and dreams. I don’t believe that a quality-filled life can be achieved without a foundation comprising one’s personal values and principles. Failures and hard times lead us back to our foundation, the values and principles we hold. Only on the basis of those values and principles can we pick ourselves off the ground when we do fail and proceed on. There may be a time to fold, but on the basis of expediency alone, it would seem that a time to fold is whenever we encounter any difficulties on the road to life. Courage entails facing failures, learning from them, gleaning from them, and then deciding what’s next. Mistakes and failures can point to different avenues to achieve what we want for our lives. But to do so, we must experience them, look them in the eye, and listen to and learn from what they have to tell us. Although the responsibility for traveling our path is ours alone, we are not alone on our path. There are those who can help us when we’re down, can encourage us when encouragement is needed, and can provide insight and wisdom that can help us move forward. I firmly believe, however, that we have to be surrounded by people who live by their values and principles rather than expediency. The risks of life are placed on our road as obstacles to overcome. It is up to us as individuals as to whether or not we take on the charge to make something meaningful of our lives. Or we can choose otherwise to live quiet, desperate lives. That crossroad exists for each one of us. The nagging question that haunts us is whether or not a quiet, desperate life is truly a life at all.
Obtain what you can from others in terms of information, feedback, suggestions, and wise input. Accrue all the information you can in seeking to make a major decision for your life. Not to do so is unwise. But there comes a point of diminishing returns for garnering information. We can fall into the trap of wanting more and more information, believing we can take the risk out of risking. If we’re going to face life and live it fully, we must come to that point where it’s time to step out over an abyss, no matter what its size. If we avoid that moment, then we are avoiding living our lives fully.
It seems to me these days, and I may be wrong, that more than any other time of which I’m aware, we have a society and culture of entitlement. People are willing to disown their lives, placing their lives into the hands of others with the false promise that those in whom people place their trust can somehow provide them with a full life. But such a life is one that individuals must seize and take for themselves. The guarantee that someone can provide you with a life is a false promise. And to buy into it is a waste of a life. The abandonment of personal responsibility is the abandonment of the freedom to live one’s life. I’ve talked to too many people who have looked back on their lives in their sixties and seventies, and feel nothing but regret for not having carved out the kind of life they wanted for themselves. It appears that there can be ways of living that are not truly living at all. Nonetheless, the years roll by and we’re left with the consequences of our choices. The desire to turn back time and do things differently is an empty daydream, if not a pipe dream. Living risky does not have to mean blind risk-taking. But it does mean, one way or the other, that risks are involved in the pursuit of a meaningful life. And if one desires such a meaningful life, then one has to truly live. One of my favorite quotes is from the libertarian anarchist, Frank Chodorov:
For when the theorizing is done, the books are all written, the debates have been resolved into a formula for action, there remains always this immovable obstacle: One must live.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/October 14th, 2016