On Taking Risks:
If something is important to us, we are willing to risk many things in order to attain it – loss, rejection, disapproval, the laughter of others, sometimes even life itself, because what we want, what seems essential to our deepest being, is that much worth having.
To risk ourselves we must want something very much. We must also have the courage to commit ourselves to that which we want so that in the face of difficulty, in the face of possible disappointment, we will go forward anyhow. Commitment of the heart is the basis for risk, a commitment to something we believe in – to an ideal, a way of life, a person whom we love. Even though there are other motives that propel people into taking risks, commitment of the heart is the one that partakes of the spiritual because it bases risk-taking on what we value and on what we love.
A life of indifference, cynicism, or withdrawal will not produce risk-taking. In order to risk something, we must believe in something. We must be committed to it, whether it is a person, an idea, or God himself. To risk something large, our level of commitment must be equally large so that what drives us forward is nothing other than love itself.
Those who have difficulty committing themselves to something with the totality of who they are will have difficulty taking risks that affect the totality of who they are. They will feel more comfortable with partial risks – ones that affect only a small portion of their life rather than the whole. If one cannot love with one’s whole self, one cannot risk with one’s whole self. The measurements are proportionate.
This proportionality is why parents can often risk such a great deal for their children’s sakes, even their own lives if need be. This is because parental love can be a flaming fire that nothing can quench, not even the prospect of one’s own death. But parental love is not the only relationship that can produce such a fire. Love for God can also do so, and the flame of such love can empower us to accomplish things and to try things that on our own would not have been possible.
Love for God can propel us into a state of inner necessity, where what we are being called to, or what we feel we must become, has an importance for us that exceeds all other motives. Such love can produce huge trans-formative changes in a person’s life, partly because that person is willing to try anything, to risk everything, in order to become what God is asking us to be and to become.
In the ordinary course of events, however, most are not asked to risk in such a large sense. For most people, risks fall into a more modest category, the category of discomfort, rejection, disappointment, or disapproval, rather than the category of life or death. Within the realm of relationships, for example, we have multiple opportunities to take these more moderate risks on behalf of the values we hold regarding how relationships should be or could be, and how we want to exist within them.
When we aspire to live a sacred life, the risks that we take with others relate to our desire to bring each of our relationships to a deeper, more sacred place. Without this, we have a sacred life in name only.
Because of what we aspire to, the risks that we take often compel us to overcome the fears of the personality in the service of greater truth, greater love, and greater integrity. This responsibility for love, truth, and integrity is, in large measure, what a sacred relationship is about. For this reason, when we see ourselves avoiding these, we must find a way to do something about it. We must find a way of becoming more ourselves.
To bring greater integrity to a relationship means being who we are more fully. Sometimes this means daring to speak more about how we view things or how we feel.
Sometimes it means daring to love more and allowing a relationship to become more important to us than it had been.
Sometimes it means daring to acknowledge sources of conflict that have been swept out of sight so that they can be resolved in the open rather than remaining in the closet.
In each case, what we risk is unique to ourselves and is the legacy of our personal history. There are many who fear the response of anger more than anything else. There are others who fear the response of withdrawal even more than the response of anger. Some project catastrophic expectations upon the prospect of greater honesty with anyone – the expectation that the relationship itself will blow up and suddenly come to an end. Whatever the fear, in order to live a sacred life it must be transformed by our genuine motivation to serve God in and through our relationships. Anything less represents part-time spirituality, not a spiritual life.
Taking a chance with ourselves or stepping into new territory with others requires a commitment to our sense of purpose. It also requires a sense of alignment within ourselves that allows us to know that whatever the outcome, we are going to be alright. This doesn’t mean that we know how the relationship will turn out or what the outcome of our risk-taking will be. It means that no matter what the outcome, we will be alright.
This sense of safety comes from an identity that rests in ourselves and in God as the primary source of self-hood, rather than in validation by others as the primary source. If our identity requires shoring up by others in order to be upheld, taking risks will be difficult because each step we take will threaten a potential collapse. But if our wholeness and identity depend upon what is within us, then we can act honorably and with courage when these are required because we will be upheld from within while doing so.
In the everyday of life, there are many opportunities for taking risks as we strive to create greater intimacy with others and attempt to be with them in a way that goes beyond roles. When we meet someone, for example, we have the choice of relating to them in the role they are playing: customer-at-a-store, check-out clerk, bus-driver, carpenter, janitor, etc., or we can relate to them as fellow human beings, as souls in God. Often, the rush of life puts us on ‘automatic pilot’ during our days and we go through the motions of being awake but are really asleep. We cannot take the risk of stepping beyond roles because we are in ‘functional mode’, just getting done what needs to be done. This way of relating to others causes us to perceive them in terms of what they can do for us, rather than who they are.
When we are hurried and have a lot to do, we often feel we can’t take the time to pay attention to another’s soul. But when we review our days or when we review our life, which is more important in the end: whether we have accomplished the things on our list, or how we have treated the souls we met whom we might have shared love with?
Since most people operate in ‘functional mode’ a good deal of the time, anyone who steps out of this mode is taking the risk of doing something different. Anyone who steps out must be willing to face awkwardness in a situation that has left the familiar and the ordinary. Yet, awkwardness can become a friend, too, signaling to us that something new is happening. When we risk being new, we accept the consequences of our own actions. We accept the consequences of treating another person with more humanity, interest, love, or intimacy than they are expecting of us. What are these consequences?
There are many answers to this question, each determined by the unique situation in which we find ourselves. And yet the key issue here is really not what the consequences of the situation are or will be in leaving the familiar, but what the premise of the situation is, the foundation of consciousness within us that gives rise to the way we choose to act with another. It is the motivation of the heart which allows us to perceive and to wish for something more in being with another person. From the perspective of sacred relationships, this is more important than how the situation turns out. If we have courage and the desire to share more of ourselves with another, we can take the leap that is required to do the unexpected. We can become a person who relates to the humanity of another, not to their functionality.
God asks of us that we recognize life as sacred and that we recognize each moment as an opportunity to learn from life. Seizing this opportunity may mean taking a risk that leads us to an unknown place and an unknown outcome. Not seizing the opportunity, however, keeps us where we are, in the relative safety of what has been rather than in the hope and promise of what could be.