Today we’ll explore value of risk taking and experimentation. What motivates us to risk what we have for what might be?
Rev. Fiona Heath is our half-time consulting minister.
The complete sermon can be read below:
This reading comes from Karl Durckheim, a German psychotherapist and Zen Buddhist.
The man who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive.
Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it,
thus making of it a ‘raft that leads to the far shore’.
Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.
In this lies the dignity of daring.
Thus, the aim of practice is not to develop an attitude
which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace
wherein nothing can ever trouble him.
On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken and battered--
that is to say it should enable him to dare to let go his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life in order
that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him,
that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites.
Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation can our contact with Divine Being, which is beyond annihilation,
become firm and stable.
The more a man learns wholeheartedly to confront the world that threatens him with isolation,
the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened.
( Durckheim, The Way of Transformation, 1988)
I am a fairly cautious person, not given to taking risks.
When we went to live in Malta for three months, it was with our three year old. Our biggest adventure was getting a library card.
I fit in well with our current social norms, which manages to strongly discourage risk taking on a daily basis while venerating sports figures who take huge physical risks.
It’s a strange time, when action movies and video games are creating ever higher stakes, greater danger scenarios and yet we are more careful and cautious than ever.
We watch experiences on social media rather than having experiences ourselves.
We rarely have that rush which tells us we feel fully alive in the moment, a rush that can come in taking risks that may have physical or emotional consequences.
The rush that comes from growth and development, as we learn to be our best selves.
Risk taking reminds us we are alive, it shows us the boundaries of our lives, helps us feel the edges of our being. Our aversion to risk is, ultimately, rooted in fear. Fear of looking foolish, fear of rejection or disapproval, fear of being inadequate, fear of being unloved. Fear of failure. Fear of danger.
These are real fears and often accurate. We often end up looking foolish or mistaken. We are often rejected. And in times of struggle, we want to return to the arms of those who care for us and offer comfort. Personally, after a rough week, I am not looking for further “annihilation”, I want a friendly face and a cup of tea.
But I am beginning to wonder about the value of pushing into the danger zone.
I choose that reading because I found it provocative. The idea that a person in trouble should not turn to old friends for refuge but should seek those who encourage greater risk taking challenges me. I can hear the truth in accepting that the struggles, the pain, the difficulty, can in fact lead us to a depth of meaning and well being that we will not find if we just stay home and watched television. Durckheim suggests that adversity is a path to spiritual awareness, a “raft to the far shore”.
Now I am not entirely sure that I believe that spiritual awareness is so far away from us, as if across a great sea. As Unitarian Universalists we accept that the Divine is present in the material, within our reach. I think adversity is more of a going out to come back in again kind of voyage. It is the stretching of our spirits beyond what we thought possible that brings us back more fully into being ourselves.
More fully able to connect with the wonder of being alive, being part of life.
While living a life of peace at all levels is one path towards a connected spirituality, our struggles may be another.
Our third principle “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth” allows for many paths. And risk taking, the “dignity of daring”, is one we don’t always consider. With the “dignity of daring” we can challenge ourselves, mess up and move forward and eventually come towards a life of deeper meaning.
This is not easy of course. It is hard to be vulnerable and take risks. We have to figure out how to overcome our very normal and natural fears. One woman calls this “embracing the bear”. When she is moving forward into something she fears, but doesn’t want to be stopped by the fear, she imagines herself “embracing the bear”. (Terri Wilding)
Once we can control our fear, and move into risk taking, as we risk and fail, we learn. And as we learn, we grow, develop and deepen into ourselves. Studies show that people who are risk takers tend to be more successful in life, not by material standards, but in their level of life satisfaction. So how do we become better risk takers – not suddenly reckless and dangerous – but learn how to judge risk and failure?
Studies suggest that being in familiar surroundings help. Contrary to our sense that one way to change is to go someplace new and start again, research suggests that successful risk takers know their environment. When we are in unfamiliar territory we overestimate the probability of something going wrong, and we also overestimate the consequences of mistakes. We are less likely to risk. The more we know where we are – familiar territory – the more we can take personal risks and better handle the failures.
We are safer and stronger on familiar ground, allowing us to push beyond our internal comfort zones.
With each risk taken and surmounted increases confidence levels. It leads to a sense of accomplishment. People learn to take larger risks as their confidence and accomplishment rises. People begin to develop something termed “deep smarts”, the accumulated knowhow and intuition gained through extensive and varied experiences.
You can turn to your “deep smarts” in new situations, it gives you a foundation from which you can try new things. Deep smarts are different from learning just from books or videos, it comes from experiential learning which creates mental, but also body memories, memories that live in you in a way that makes them more accessible and more immediate. The more you drive a car, the more many of the safety checks you do become second nature. The more you do yoga, the more easily your body can hold a position.
Deep smarts includes an increased awareness of personal capabilities and resources – you know yourself well. (William Gurstelle from Absinthe and Flamethrowers)
As you know yourself better, the more you know your limits and your strengths, the more confidence you have to take on new tasks in your areas of strengths. So when we know where we are, we are better able to risk and so know ourselves better. As we risk and succeed, we increase in confidence and capability.
We also begin to know which risks are worth it. You know when you are aching to make a life change, and when you do, it just feels right. Whether that is a return to school or a job change or a new love. And you are better able to adjust to the failures.
You learn how to not take them so personally, but to realistically accept responsibility,
you begin to learn whether there should be a next time or whether you should just move on. To live is to risk. To live well is to learn to risk well.
Floating about on the internet is an ad for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition in 1914. It says: "Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
This ad brought thousands of replies. Men who were willing to risk all and go into the unknown.
It isn’t true. The ad was made up for a book about marketing in the forties. But the ad, and images of the ad, have become part of the folklore around the expedition. The text is evocative, a hazardous journey, full of danger, safety not guaranteed, it is a promise of a great adventure. I wish it was real.
But it doesn’t need to be. The adventure was real enough.
Shackleton got enough publicity in the newspapers that intrepid men did go to him looking to be hired, men who longed to see the distant shores of the unknown continent. These were people who knew that a safe return might not be possible, but were willing to take the risk.
I think the myth of the ad speaks to a human need to push the boundaries, try new things, to care about experience more than safety. That we might be inspired by a few carefully chosen words to find meaning in a new experience.
And the expedition of the Endurance was meaningful in so many ways. The ship became stuck in the ice for months, then they drifted on ice floes, then managed to get to an island, then finally a few men sailed a small craft over stormy seas to South Georgia Island, then three men crossed the mountains to reach a whaling station.
It is indeed a tale of Endurance.
The story is one of daring and leadership and hope and trust. Shackleton took risks, but he took them carefully, and when failure came, he trusted his knowledge and experience and that of his men, would bring them through. And it did. They went to the edge of the world and came back again.
And Shackleton, out there on the edge, at the limits of his strength and hope, on a final trek in search of rescue, experienced a presence on this last journey, a divine companion. Just as Durckheim suggested, adversity did bring him closer to the Divine,
There is all sorts of value in learning to live more into the unknown, where safety isn’t guaranteed. We might all benefit from taking more chances.
Church communities especially can become very “safe” spaces.
Perhaps we need to try a little harder to seek out the edges, the boundaries of our community, in search of meaning and experience. We can trust that together we can handle the failures and learn to go forward. We might even contact the Divine.
Now over half of people prefer a low risk lifestyle, but even us cautious ones can change and grow and learn through taking chances. We might not head for Antarctica, but the changes we make can still have profound effects. As I said earlier, people who risk increase their abilities, self knowledge and confidence.
Risk taking can begin with small steps. It doesn’t need to be a huge deal. In Japanese culture there is a term kaizen which roughly translates to “on-going change for good”.
Kaizen was originally used in Japanese business culture to improve efficiency and productivity, but it can be applied within our own lives as well. People look for small changes that can improve a task or process. Paying attention to how things could be done better is integral to the process of doing things. Change is also made in a respectful atmosphere – no blame is attached when things go wrong. This is important, that it is okay to fail. Risk comes with failure attached.
Using kaizen as a guide, one way to develop our ability to take risks is to take small risks first. Make small changes that push you outside your comfort zone and then evaluate. If you had told ten year old me that my professional life would include standing up in front of crowds of people and talking, two things would have happened.
One I would have ignored you completely because I was extremely shy with strangers.
And two, while ignoring you, I would be quite sure you were crazy. I was happy to answer questions in class from my seat, but to actually get up in front of an audience alone was excruciating for me. When I was in grade six, everyone had to do a two minute speech. I worried about it for weeks. The day of the speech I was in a panic from the moment I woke up. I got through mine by clutching my index cards and staring down and mumbling. I spoke so fast I don’t actually think I made it to two minutes. No one dared to ask me questions, and the teacher pity passed me.
And now I do this every Sunday. There was no big moment of change, just a slow progress of less terrified to scared to nervous to okay as I took on various challenges of public speaking – some by choice, some forced upon me. And I did it because I knew that what I was saying – as a teacher of small kids – as a voluntary simplicity advocate – as a UU minister –mattered. I know that the message is worth sharing. Kaizen – small on-going changes of improvement. It works!
Risk is change, without risk there is no life.
When I perform marriage ceremonies, I often use a reading which says “Marriage is a going forth, a bold step into the future; it is risking what we are for the sake of what we yet can be.” That sounds like a good plan for anyone, a call to going forward, to growth, to living life deeply.
In the days to come I invite you to consider what you might risk, where you might risk in your life. How will you overcome your fears and open yourself to new possibilities?
How will you risk what you are for the sake of what you yet can be?
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