"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Risk, Probability, And Taking Chances–The Essence Of Individual Worth, So Why Play It Safe?

We live in a risk-averse society.  From playgrounds and swimming pools to safe spaces and kitchen counters, Americans seem determined to eliminate risk.

Yet risk is what saves life from being entirely predictable, pedestrian, and boring.  Risk individualizes, gives character, definition, and meaning.  For those who understand this, life is not a series of anything.

One colleague races cars, another does extreme skiing, another is a smoker, a third has unprotected sex, and a fourth has affairs.

None of these friends are careless or ignorant about risk.  They have simply calculated it correctly.  To quit smoking the smoker – European, old-school Paris intellectual who sat at the Café des Deux Magots with his father and Jean-Paul Sartre; poet, atheist, Communist – would not only have to give up tobacco and nicotine, but an image.   Continuing to smoke in a society fixated with health above all, risk aversion, and petty bourgeois concerns is a statement of particular worth.

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The unfaithful husband knows quite well that he risks his marriage every time he has a dalliance; but he is older now, and the opportunity for sex with a younger woman decreases with every year.  Although he was aware that the value of his thirty-year contract with his wife was beyond calculation;  and although she, although understanding in most circumstances, would consider his infidelity a breach of sacred trust, he valued his September-May affair so much that he was willing to take the risk. 

He knew he was skating on very thin ice because he had been found out before; but the sexual epiphany of love with a woman thirty-five years his junior was worth the risk.  “She is not my first love, nor my best love, but certainly my last love”, he said, paraphrasing the Antony Hopkins character in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain; and spent every other Saturday with his lover in her small studio apartment in Soho.

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The sexual adventurer was very aware that the Ukrainian and Macedonian women with whom he slept in the early 90s were at risk from HIV/AIDS; and so were the Filipinas, Burmese, and Malaysians he took as lovers.  He understood quite well that there was a chance – especially with unprotected sex – that he could contract the virus.

Yet sex with barely-known women in the seedier parts of Mandalay, Penang, and Chiang Mai was existential.  How could a lambent, secure, and faithful arrangement in Falls Church possibly satisfy?

The young colleague who did extreme skiing, biking, and climbing was more traditional in his risk-taking.  High-profile adventurers have raced at Lime Rock, climbed Everest, dived over 60 meters without oxygen, sailed solo around the world, and trekked the Antarctic, Sahara, and Tibetan desert.  The accounts of Mungo Park, Slocum, Sir Richard Burton, and Wilfred Theisiger are well-known.

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Peter Beaumont is a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber.  He recounts the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks (Did his name, Beaumont or ‘beautiful mountain’ have anything to do with his avocation?)
So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."
Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:
Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.
Beaumont writes about another more personal and poetic aspect of risk-taking – it can be liberating, and meaningful:
So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.
For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.
The ‘lesser’ risk-takers – those who risk their lives in questionable sexual adventures or disregard for clear public health advisories are never featured in any literature.  Yet they have the same life-affirming ambitions as the mountain climbers.  They are the one percent, the outliers, the Nietzschean willful for whom ‘riding above the herd’ is the defining aspect of their lives.

The ninety-nine percent on the other hand have no clue about nor no interest in such extreme behavior.  Longevity is their principle defining ambition.  They prefer long lives of modest achievement, grandchildren, heritage, and community with some unique bits rather than a short, happy life of unique fulfillment.

No one expressed the existential value of risk-taking, death-confronting adventure than Ernest Hemingway.  The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber is the story of a big game hunter who is killed on safari – an accident perhaps, or a murder; but an end of a life especially well-lived. 
Wilson who was ahead was kneeling shooting, and Macomber, as he fired, unhearing his shot in the roaring of Wilson‟s gun, saw fragments like slate burst from the huge boss of the horns, and the head jerked, he shot again at the wide nostrils and saw the horns jolt again and fragment fly, and he did not see Wilson now and, aiming carefully, shot again with the buffalo‟s huge bulk almost on him and his rifle almost level with the on-coming head, nose out, and he could see the little wicked eyes and the head started to lower and he felt a sudden white-hot, blinding flash explode inside his head and that was all he ever felt.
Hemingway has often been dismissed as an inferior writer, and satired as a man obsessed with déclassé masculinity; but he more than any other author captured the essence of risk as elemental, essential, and uniquely defining.

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So what to make of the millions of those who are afraid of their shadows – afraid to walk in the woods because of deer ticks; compulsive about counter and hand cleanliness; relentless advocates for safe spaces on playgrounds and college campuses; marchers for honesty, moral rectitude, and rightness?

Especially what is to make of those who invest in a better world – one of communitarianism, peaceful collaboration, equal distribution of wealth and resources?  Progressives who devalue individual enterprise in favor of collective action?

They dismiss the value of the individual, individual enterprise, personal spiritual renewal or the satisfaction of individual ambitions.  Individual risk-taking is senseless and irresponsible given the need for concerted, collective action.

The twain shall never meet.  Those who devalue individual expression, enterprise and ambition; and those who consider it the most essential attribute of human nature.

Risk-taking is not a simple, one-off, self-centered action; but the most central, defining characteristic of the individual.  One is human because one takes risks, not because one avoids them. 

Today’s risk-averse, correct, and proper behavior serves no purpose.  History has amply shown that there is no such thing as progress towards a better world.  Human nature – hardwired, territorial, self-protective, and self-interested – is permanent and has influenced human history since its inception.

It is more logical, more sensible, more sane to follow these innate impulses than to be cowed by communitarian idealism; and risk-taking is the highest form of individualism there is.

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