THE RISK OF
“The gloomy and desolate old house,
deserted of life, and with awful Death sitting
sternly in its solitude, was the emblem of
many a human heart, which nevertheless,
is compelled to hear the thrill and echo
of the world’s gaiety around it.”
An important principle of The Good Life is something I call The Risk of Avoiding Risk. The idea is that there is risk in security, and that this risk must be assuaged early in life if we are to avoid some serious consequences later on. For life offers no second chances—and even when it does, there are still no second chances.
Consumes unworthy security
It is possible to be too secure... Especially when security comes at the expense of our worthy dreams. What is a "worthy" dream, you ask? These are the ambitions which will not let you go, for they were worthy of our younger self, worthy of our lofty dreams and ambition, the one true shot at life we know we will never again get. Typically, such dreams are begun and completed in youth, when they are either realized, satisfied, and then allowed to become part our life narrative, or set aside to possibly haunt us the rest of our days. But the haunting is not faint—it is cumulative, and building, and nagging and changing, changing for the worse. By the end of life the ghosts we spawned in youth—through our avoidance or neglect of the life we wished to live, or even the simple adventure we were too afraid to allow ourselves—may become something else altogether; something terrible inside…a fearful thing growing from—and feeding on—our regret and doubt about our earlier decision to say no to the life—or adventure—we wanted. This early regret may then become a more sinister, simmering dissatisfaction with whatever secure status-quo we selected in favor of the life—or adventure—we wished to live and instead gave up for no better reason than our fear. In some cases, such regret transforms in mid-life to a burning, consuming anger and resentment over the life we did not want—yet now live—because of our fear; or dulls into apathy and surrender and a listless giving up and quiet, impatient waiting for life to be done. But yet we're safe... We tell ourselves that. We have got the things we feared we might not have when we started out into early adulthood. We have a home perhaps, and a car, and a family, and a nest-egg; as well as a handy parachute to use when it is time to float down through retirement into our grave. And the people whose opinion's we once feared are satisfied with our selection of the choices they made for us. Satisfied perhaps, from within their own graves. Ghosts who linger in our minds and gaze at us askance with questioning uncertainty regarding our continued resolve. Will we still toe-their-line? Will we keep to their safe path? Avoid the thorny, less-trodden way we once wondered after? Will we be a good boy or girl? Good, then... Be a good boy or girl. Never-mind that haunting voice that asks about what might have been... We all die listening to the words of our regrets.
But maybe it does not need to be this way? Perhaps there is another path?
The alternative is to heed that early voice and calling—if you hear such a thing. And if you don't hear such voices at a young age, then lucky you, as the safe and sane route may be precisely your path, and you might live your whole life without the haunting I've described above. And I sincerely mean it when I say, "lucky you," as the life you live–the sane and sober path–is a good one, and you will likely be a blessing to your family and community. Lucky you... I really mean that, though I can imagine that some might think these words of mine now are typed with a tint of sarcasm. That is not the case. Lucky you...
It is the others I am addressing now. You know who you are... You'd better listen to that voice you hear now, as it will not go away unless you do something about it. And you have to do that something early in life. It's too late to wait until you're retired; as although the voice you heard might still be there when you're old...you won't. The young man or woman who first heard the voice and calling is now long gone. Replaced instead by a middle-aged loaf of stale bread–yes, that is what you will become. For you will, at that time, have lots of feign safety, yet less courage or resolve for true adventure, or even capacity for the most worthy of risks, than at any time before in your now declining life. And you will never get it back. Your chance is done. Whatever adventures you will enjoy now at this late stage will be a poor and sorry compensation for a life of capitulation; giving in to fear, yielding to the pressure of family and peers, and telling ourselves over and again that there will be time later... Later is gone. Enjoy what you can. It will be fun–sort of–but it will not be the thing you gave up. You can never get that back.
So now, I have painted a bleak picture... I have done this deliberately to scare you. You, who are still young. You who have a dream of adventure. You who are restless for some form of living which is not the safe and sane. My answer is simply. Just do it.
Clear the agenda for the full decade of your twenties. Enroll in college. Study hard. Get a degree—at least a bachelor’s degree. Find a way to do this on the cheap, so you do not graduate with a mountain of debt. Go to community college first, then an inexpensive public school. Work part-time and take an extra year to finish. But finish free-and-clear if you can. I know it can be done. Never-mind the fancy schools, as the school you went to will only get you your first job, it's who you are—and more importantly, who you will become—that will take you from there and get you every job thereafter. Next, head out into the world to pursue that dream of yours. Tell everyone you will be back by age thirty. And when you get back, you can then settle into the life of the safe and sane. The ghosts then will not be fully gone then–never fully assuaged. You will be haunted still. But the voices are different. Voices of churning, painful, questioning regret are replaced by the simple observation that you may be so much further behind your peers in the "rat race" of life. You may be in an apartment while they own a house. You may be dating while others your age are celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary of wood. Children are still just a gleam in your eye while your friends are exchanging sports cars for SUVs with baby seats. And your career is just getting started while others your age are supervisors and manager. And finally, you will probably need to work five or more years longer than those who did not adventure. But trust me... Those five years, the delayed career and later start of marriage and family...these things are worth the while...when you remember the life you just lived, and the person you have become, and the satisfaction of the voices inside your head which would otherwise have given you little peace throughout life. Now you have peace, of a sort. There are still voices in your head...
...but at least you are not haunted.
No second chance
There's great satisfaction in success. But only if that success resonates deep and echoes back to our ears with the same voice and confidence which we used to utter our claim of victory. That's because the Homunculus–the little man or woman within–isn't want to chorus our vain hopes, and will either remain mute or echo discontent when we tell lies. And sometimes our stories of success are lies. Even we know they are lies.
Hitting all the checkboxes
A quite unsatisfying way to live
So, we speak of our obvious success and are met with quiet from within. No congratulations from the small voice. Or maybe, just a slight "good job" offered like a consolation prize. And that's what it is...small consolation for the hard work of heeding instructions not truly our own, offered to us by the cautious and fearful pack, by the example of sane and sober precedent and the thin, shrill voice of our own fear. "Take the safe way... Be safe. There's no such thing as too safe".
Now, at midlife, the Homunculus has withdrawn. Not gone. Just retired to a more inner bunker. Our little man or woman has followed our lead, has modeled our example, has found safe harbor early and deep as we showed it the way.
"You in there??"
Do you remember when our answering voice was so near before? Just under our skin when we were young; and when the vision behind our eyeballs was so clear, seeing such bright colors! The early Homunculus was then hot with life just below our every surface. We could feel it. We called it then "youth" and proclaimed its voice innocent and dear and vain and fabulous. "It'll pass" they always said. "Just give it time... Wild oats you know. Oats of every sort..." They were right. That energy and life does pass. But mostly because we fail to keep up with its long, purposeful, disconnected strides. We stop along the way, asking after our departing fellow "Where are you headed off to so boldly??" To be told "Out there" as our youth points vaguely to the frontier of a distant dense and wild copse. "That looks dark" we timidly ask "and is it safe?? I was told to be safe." "It's not safe" replies the Homunculus moving further on, gaining some distance from us, its strong voice a little dim now. "Are you coming?" it questions without looking back...adding. "I won't ask again."
Years go by...
"You in there?"
Faintly, from deep within... "What is it..?"
Timidly... So timid now. Our voice quavering with age and fear and tired and worry. "I think...I think I want to go with you now. Did you ever enter the copse?"
Barely audible..."I never went. I could not go without you."
"Perhaps a cruise, then?"
There's investment in adventure which yields return throughout our remaining days. For me, this is wilderness adventure and life adventure and the adventure of the mind. Each sort of exploration takes something from me in the process of living—directed living, living directed towards the outer edges of the territory I know, and the places I trust, and the life which is safe and sane and contented—and then returns something back, usually some time distant in the future, something more valuable than what I gave up, even if that value is less tangible or seemingly real. This is why I always go back to the wild. This is the reason I always return to the mountains or the desert and to adventure. And this is also one of the reasons I married you.
You and I are alike in this way, as we both are adventurers. I knew this of you the first day we met and after you told me the story of your coming to America. I knew then that we were kin. I understood that you were someone with whom I could make life itself an adventure. And so, we ventured out together then, thirty-years back, and what a journey it has been... So many places together. So many lives together.
You and I agree that when we push past our limits into new life we always lose something along the way, some part of us is expended and consumed by virtue of the decision and effort to step outside the garden gate, to climb over the sheltering wall, to let go of our community and friends and the warm hands which comfort and hold our own—not always forever, not even for very long sometimes, but just long enough to once again get dirty, bruised and bloody and to remember what it means to explore while there's still light in the sky. There is...still light in the sky.
We have now before us yet another opportunity of life adventure, me, and you. Yet another life adventure. Not my adventure of the mountains and the desert. But our adventure of life itself. The opportunity before us today is a good one - though risky. But we like risky, don't we? Though what a change this would be! A new job—a better job—in a new city a few hours away. The transition would be big. The challenges many. But mostly, it is the challenge of the unknown. That unknown which always warns us to stay back and to close and lock the current safe doors. That ridiculous fear which cautions of risks which are indeed real, and which have already cost us so much—everything perhaps—but which are also the very risks we agree this life is all about. For the return on such investment is also real. And it is this intangible return which we really want from life. We have always desired the splendid return on the engagement of risk - though if we're honest, we've also always appreciated the loss that's always incurred along the way—no matter what the cost. The loss has always somehow been the best, even though it never feels that way at the time.
So, do we go again now into life adventure? Is it worth the challenge and the risk? What are we really after at this late stage of our lives?
We are not so young anymore—we are nearly empty-nesters—and our most important work is mostly almost done. What is our aim now after parenting besides being good people and living lives which are more gain and less drain for others for the fact of our having been alive? What is next in the time remaining? What is a good use of our remaining time?
Besides doing the good things we've already talked about and planned, I think It is still the adventure that we both really want... It is still the return that we are still after—and that cost along the way. The return which always comes later, and which is the fruit and blessing of our welcoming and venturing together into the unknown. It is the thing which comes of going where the road ahead is not clear; again, into the thorns and across the rocks and through the cold waters into a darkening wood. The cost along the way is what it is and is something we no longer attempt to tally or even recall. Let it go... Goodbye to all of that. We know better than to accept the risk of avoiding risk.
Nighttime is near. That is a concern. The last time we checked it appeared the sun was only a few hands above the horizon. We can't see the light clearly now for the dark forest before us—the trees are so high!—though we feel the chill of late afternoon and sense only coldness a decade or more out from now. That is something new...the coldness. Coldness is coming. The coldness which we cannot escape. The chill of night before night is even here. We can gather more blankets if we like, though these will only help a little... There is no use kindling a fire which is simply vain resistance to the dark. Eventually, the cold gets in, or maybe the cold comes from within? No matter...there will be no more genuine adventure soon. Soon we will have to make a final stand. Will it be here in this clearing we have found and made in Orange County? We have done nice work here to be sure... The trees are cut, and the wilder woods are pushed back. We did good work, and it feels nice to enjoy the sunshine direct on the face. But we're not such people, you and I. We always go back into the woods. We stay for a time in the light and then we always go back into the woods. The chill is coming to be sure...but maybe if we keep moving, we can stay genuinely warm just a little bit longer. Genuinely warm, that is the thing. Adventuring together is always a good way to stay warm. Shall we stay warm together one more time?
Shall we adventure a little more?
Depth is a relative thing
I previously imagined that the risk of avoiding risk was shallow on the domestic side, and deep on the personal side; that those who sought their inner course were addressing something somehow more difficult or important (though I know neither is, in any absolute sense). But now I see that the depth is relative to where we choose to swim: shallow where we are and deep where we are not. I see that the depth and danger are a consequence of what we do not address or attend. We may drown where we fail to go. We are lost in what we neglect.
Irrelevance begins early
A great threat to our well-being is the fact that we begin to fade long before we can sense ourselves diminishing. The process begins very young, about age twenty or so, when we begin to settle and–more dangerously–begin to put things aside. When we tell ourselves we'll take up later what we sense we should really begin today. For many of us this is the beginning of an end we may live to regret, and the guarantee of a much later irrelevance we may have the misfortune to outlive.
The end begins when we settle for a life which is familiar, safe, easy, or convenient when we really desired something more. And when we put aside what is desired, dreamed of, calling or wished for because it is difficult, or not the right time just now, or because we know a better chance is certainly just around the corner... And instead of becoming that person we dream to be, we settle instead for the dream of the common man or woman. Now, if your dreams are common dreams then perhaps this blog post is not intended for you. Your course is a separate one. And your satisfactions perhaps realized in a very different way. My little blog post here may even offend you a bit...all this talk of the common man...what is that about? That is not my intent. I wish you no ill will. My purpose and my audience now are those other young men and women who imagines something more that the common dream. Hmmmm... Maybe that is you after all? What do you think?
Between age twenty and twenty-five you might hear a calling of sorts. Not a real calling of course, there is nobody to call you. What you sense is your own ambition welling up inside. It is your youth speaking. Your lust and your passion and your energy and your very life itself. Something inside knows now is the time. What will you do?
I am not saying you will not get another chance. But you will not. Not this same chance anyway. There is the rub. That is the risk. What you trade now for the comfort of not upsetting anyone or going against the common way is the thing you will have to carry for the rest of your life. It is the person you will become. The person you cannot undo. And it is not that this person is bad–though he or she may be rather dull by comparison with what you might have otherwise become. You will never know. Maybe you are better off this way. Tell yourself that. You will never know. That again, is the rub...you will never know.
So, what has this got to do with irrelevance? Well, what is both novel and true is relevant to every age and time and perspective. Novelty and truth stand out. Especially novelty and truth which are borne of a sincere effort of living. It is the novel perspective you gain of that life you might yet live. That benefit will be yours for the rest of your life–no matter how old you grow, or how feeble you become–you will always be that you which you pursued. Pursue it not and you will be left again with becoming the common man or woman. Not a bad thing. But what is common is easy to miss. Easy to ignore. Easy to disregard. Irrelevant, perhaps. Very easy to be one day utterly forgotten.
Later, maybe in our fifties, the reality will start to catch up. But it catches up only in hindsight, and way too late to do much of anything about. We are maybe too old then. We are too frail and scared, too set in our old ways. And worst of all, our time and opportunities are past. We have spent our youthful capital on waiting. There is little left to barter with now. Our story is almost over–even if we have decades left to live.
This is the price and the risk of avoiding risk. And also, the price and risk of waiting too long. This all begins around age twenty and the chance is largely passed by age thirty-five. Be VERY careful what you choose from this point forward. Especially if you are young and have little to lose and everything to gain. Irrelevance begins early. Earlier than you might like to think.
I'd stay where I am, like those before me, and those who are now with me. It is the smart thing to do. To settle down with work, and buy a home, and find a special someone to help fill the home with memories, and children perhaps to help pass the time. I will work, and I will rest, and we will laugh and smile and sometimes cry. And we will grow old and help parents to pass while sensing our own passage to come. And we will call this life: a good life, a well-lived life, an enjoyed life—our life.
The risk of going
And the risk of staying
In both directions
The scale must tip
I'd go where I will, like others before me, and possibly alone—at least for now. It's the smart thing to do. To move on and find work where I can, and live where I will, and make memories with those along the way, with children perhaps to help to pass the time. I will work, and I will rest and we will laugh and smile and sometimes cry. And we will grow old and help others to pass while sensing our own passage to come. And we will call this life: a good life, a well-lived life, an enjoyed life—our life.
...but at least you are not haunted.
Sand or coal
The opportunity to stay or to go. I say always go. Especially when we are young—always go. For the wonder of what we have left behind is like a dull lump of coal possessed against a moment's need of warmth should life turn cold and dark and possibly alone. We remain behind to not give up the little we already have, in turn for the guarantee of nothing should we leave; a bargain hardly equitable to a reasonable mind. So, I'll stay. And I will settle in. And I will remain with what I know—my lump of coal growing denser through acquisition, gaining substance by way of the gross accumulation of things: a house of our own, a safe marriage, 1.9 kids, the start of a career and the necessity to only once ever memorize our phone number.
I might go out
To see what there is
And return in peace
Or I might stay
What there is
Or I might depart. I say depart. Especially when we are young—always depart. For the wonder of what we find is like sand on a foreign beach. Worthless. Yet warm to our bare feet, and soft to the touch. Inviting of a long walk along a curious, foreign shore. And the finding of a soft place to sit and behold a strange sunrise, or sunset—or why not both in one day, or for a year, or longer still? Pick up a handful of the strange sand and look close. Such wonders of tiny stones. Worthless. Yet containing everything at once. Put the sand back down. And live for a while in this other place. Accumulate some other things: new ways, and fresh words, and strange and interesting times, some risk perhaps and maybe a scar.
And when your days are done, and your children come to clean out your things, will they wonder more at the lump of dense coal they find upon the mantle by the TV, or by the strange sand which spills from the old pair of sneakers you long ago left by the door before they were born?
Notes from my muse
Fear lays claim where it can, sometimes with good reason, often only until reason wins out.
I wouldn't expect reasonable risk to offer any more reward that reason will allow. Sometimes it's good to venture outside these bounds, to press against the frontier we both fear and are drawn to. Only don't expect to come away without paying some price for our folly, and only go if you understand the price is the same either way; as security is never free, and sometimes demands a steeper payment than danger could ever demand.
I don't expect the desert to welcome me in the best of circumstances, as frankly, I'm aware that there is no love or caring out there to give a damn about either life or death. Humans seem drawn to this frightful frontier, and we go there looking for something we can't quite put a finger on. Some call it a love of adventure, while others claim they are addicted to risk; as in the mountaineer who ascends cliffs without ropes, or the diver who swims freely with sharks. Even those of us who take more sedate gambles, such as failing to mind our weight, or smoking, or drinking to excess, are moving upon the same frontier; subtly tempting the universe with our frail mortality, playing a game of chicken against a hurtling driverless car. In the end, the game always winds up the same, as the universe barrels on without us, heedless of our doubt, unflinching at our final resolve and folly, leaving us dazed and possibly dying by the side of the road.
Going over my plans for this week's desert adventure; the anxiety which always haunts me before, the settled resolve that meets me once I'm there, and the blessing of empty which I always take back with me.
By this time tomorrow I'll be back in Siberia. The desert killer should be nowhere around then, the atmosphere being just right for life; heavy sweater weather really, at least until it’s very night. Though my anxiety is already high now, for the awareness of how far and removed that distant somewhere is from the safe and secure of home and family.
This will be my first time back in the desert in nearly two months. By now the Orion constellation will dominate the night sky, and the moon will be more than half grown towards January maturity. There’ll be no lightning in the mountains tomorrow, no rain, no clouds, no wind is in the forecast; just a long night of diminishing warmth, increased alone, and a return to the emptiness I both fear and love. I'm less afraid now in my fifties than any decade before, though the deep emptiness out there touches me more than in my youth. It's because there's less time left now, less life in me than before; yet more urgency to live better in the brief time that remains.
The constant companion of solitary adventure is the lack of anyone to reassure or comfort our doubts and fears. The experience is like floating alone and without a life preserver far out in the middle of a still and quiet lake. There's distance below, and on either side, which we must cross alone to regain safe footing. The sober mind begins at once gently swimming towards shore, while the more curious mind lingers adrift like a leaf, staring up at the sky, wondering how much further distance their constitution can bear.
The majority of people who contact me are young men and women in their teens and twenties, asking how they can overcome their fears regarding adventure, as well as their desire to live the life they dream might be true. They always ask the same question..."are you ever afraid?" The answer is always yes. I'm always afraid. And my fears are usually real, and grounded; with true and significant consequences. And I tell them their fears are probably true as well, and good, and that they should listen to that little voice inside that says no, don't go. I then remind them there's a price to be paid for ignoring their dream, and that this price must be paid throughout life, getting stepper and more dear with every passing year and decade. I also remind them that we can't go back…and we can't postpone...not without changing both the quality and character of the adventure, and the man or woman we might become as a consequence of living that life we dream. The decision is then in their hands, as it's been in mine, and yours, all this time.
It's possible to shiver, shake and freeze, seemingly to death, amidst the warm comfort of the secure and familiar. Only certain people seem vulnerable to this threat, who must seem alien and strange to those who find no sanctuary in the unknown and unfamiliar. Our tribe would prefer to die alone and cold with our realized ignorance, than in the warm company of the many who would reassure us with the unsubstantiated promise of dogma, authority or tradition.
Keats said it well with the following lines:
"BE you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days:
Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the proud, majestical multitude."
I received an email today from a young man Down Under who is hiding from himself. His life is a little like me when I hid from the cold winter winds of Siberia ghost town by huddling behind a ruined wall, shivering in fear of an invisible torment which—though real—is entirely manageable. This young man's torment isn't the wind, but the loving advice and judgment of family and friends who are afraid of the man he wants to be. Maybe he'll remain huddled behind his wall, comforting those who love him by placating their fear and anxiety over the very real fears and threats which the young man seems willing to face of his own accord. Maybe he'll step away from the wall of his ruins while those who love him gasp, and clutch their hands, and shout to him to beware... Either path is dangerous. The end ultimately the same. Always the same. I wonder which journey he'll take? There’s very little time to decide. That fork in his road is passing.
Life's surface-level risks distract us with their nearness, and the apparent certain consequence of their neglect. All the while the deep risk of refusing our better nature wait to ambush us and those we love long after we've forgotten who we ever really were.
I just spent the last hour on the phone with a stranger who lives deep in the darkness of a cave. He's got his family down there with him, along with $300,000.00 cash. His mom's there too. He says they're all miserable, except the daughter who has only ever known the dark, and the mom, who likes the dark as long as her son is near. He told me he thinks he’s found a way out of the darkness. He said he found a near hole where he can see light. He thinks he can enlarge the hole enough to fit his family through; though mom will refuse to leave, she likes the dark; and he's afraid the money isn’t enough. This stranger told me he's made up his mind, will remain in the cave despite his wife's desire for light, and his daughter's need of light, and the very clear fact that this choice may destroy him. It's his money, and his mom's fear, and his own trepidation, which hold him back. I threw down a copy of Going Alone before he plugged up the hole. Maybe they can burn the pages so their daughter can make shadow figures down there in the dark.
There’s a breaking of sorts that takes place when we adventure. A loss which forces us to fix or recover using whatever’s available in the strange new circumstance.
What we seem to fear retreats quickly if never real, yet holds its ground if really there. But even imagined fears may become real if never tested.
The things we discover in the places and circumstances we fear, are what may at last dissuade that fear; or maybe simply become the realization of what we fear.
Adventure pulls something out which can only be replaced by ceasing the adventure.
It was wrong to not return to Siberia this past summer. So much only chances lost due to my fear and insecurity of this place I otherwise love. Like a child afraid to go outside. I chose instead to gaze out the window from behind the curtains of my safe and sound. That is the risk of avoiding risk.