In Praise of Those Who Risk

I’ve been thinking a lot about risk lately. And bravery. The bravery it takes to risk. The risk it is to be brave–really brave. To have hope–real hope. To put it all out there and hold back nothing.

As fragile humans with hearts that were made for great things (sometimes greater things than we are currently doing), we thrive off of seeing people realize their dreams. We love stories about underdogs who work their way up, about individuals who put their everything into starting their own businesses, working long hours seven days a week, fighting bad reviews and a tanking economy and making it still, despite all of the odds. We love stories of women who break from cultural norms or stereotypical expectations. Who dress up as soldiers, overcome illnesses, infiltrate male societies, quit their jobs to care for their families.

We cheer for the dark horse, the long shot. We urge our friends to “shoot for the moon” and “follow their hearts.” We encourage and support and promise to join in the celebration when the baby is born, the book is published, the company booms, the soldier returns.

But there are reasons that many of us avoid risk ourselves. Reasons that we choose realism over hope. Because by definition, a risk is an action that might turn out badly and a hope is a desire that may never be realized.  Often, in fact more often than not, risks don’t pay off. Hopes are dashed.  Dreams not only die, but are brutally killed.

I have a friend who has been sick for a long, long time–at least four years, maybe five. They begin to blur together into one continual sleepless nightmare. She is young, my age. Too young to be trapped in a body that won’t function. She has been to multiple medical specialists, tried dozens of cleanses and diets and prescriptions. She has the sharpest sense of humor and one of the warmest hearts I have ever been welcomed into. But she does not have an answer. She started a one-year aggressive treatment of antibiotics, an expensive long-shot that just might wipe out the bacteria that is spiraling through her body. She waited one month. Then three. The medication worsened her condition, but still she kept going. I talked to her recently. It’s been over nine months now and the risk hasn’t paid off. She’s running out of hope.

I have another friend who suffered under the demands of her job. Demands to dictate and direct an adult education program that she didn’t want to manage. She’s more of a follower. A peacemaker. Someone who ought to be guiding little lives and coloring trees, not writing exams and evaluating performance. She learned of an opportunity with a non-profit in her community. She would be working alongside people she knew and loved. She’d be creative and supported, and interacting with children. The interview for the position was a few months away, but she quit her job anyhow. She went through applications and assessments and everyone loved her. She worked piecemeal jobs to pay for her rent, hoping and trusting the job would come through. When she met with the director for her final interview she was told that the position had been given to someone else–an insider who shouldn’t have been eligible in the first place.

I have a third friend whose marriage was torn by closed hearts and silent desires. Both had been hurt and both were to blame, but when the pain grew too great she made the choice to walk out. He was broken. Shattered. The way that you are when you realize you are the reason you’ve lost the thing that means most to you. He fasted and prayed and implored that the God who loves redemption and hates divorce would open the pathway back to his wife. His heart was transformed, bleeding hope mixed with hurt. Would she talk to him? Look at him? Could they try counseling? He wrote her letters every day, which she held onto for years but never did read. He begged for an advocate, for a friend she would believe, for anyone who would plead his case and convince her to come home. He didn’t see her for six months, until the day he gave up fighting and agreed to sign the papers.

What about these people, and the hundreds, thousands, millions like them? What about the people who move across the country or re-mortgage their homes, who leave family and friends and the security of a retirement plan in order to pursue an uncertain dream?

The aftermath of a risk that doesn’t pay off, of hope that is deferred, can be devastating. Emotionally, physically, financially and utterly devastating. “Better to have loved (or hoped or risked or dared) and have lost than never to have loved (or hoped or risked or dared) at all,” may be the tritest platitude I could possibly offer. Sometimes it is better to have risked. It is better to have dared, to have tried, to have broken yourself open. Isn’t it?

We don’t always know how to treat those who have been devastated. What can we say? What words can we offer? “I’m sorry for your loss,” “They’ll be other opportunities,” “You’ll find someone else,” “It’ll all turn out fine” (But really, will it?)

How about something a bit less conventional and a little more necessary? How about, “I’m proud of you,” “I couldn’t have done that,” “You are brave,” “You are strong.”

Because really, aren’t these the people that we ought to be celebrating? Not (just) the ones who succeed, but the ones who risk failure? The ones who know the odds, but who give themselves anyway? The ones who show us what it means to hope?

I think part of our problem is facing the reality of failure, of admitting to ourselves that our hopes might not be realized, our dreams might not come true. How does anyone accept that message, accept the probability of failure, and then dare to risk anyway? Maybe by realizing that the process of risking is itself a reward. And by knowing that if and when we fail, we will be stronger and braver and still worthy of celebration.