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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Risk-Aversion–Taking The Juice Out Of Life

Peter Beaumont, a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber, recounts (2012) the indescribable thrill of life-threatening risks.
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."
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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.
At the same time a conservative and increasingly litigious society is encouraging risk-avoidance. Playgrounds are now ‘safe’ with the see-saws, high slides, monkey bars, and high-pitch swings gone.  We are hectored by government to stop smoking, wear seatbelts and crash helmets, eat like ascetics, practice safe sex, drink responsibly, and a raft of other proscriptions against risk.  Little children wear helmets on three-wheelers; kids do not go Trick-or-Treating even in secure, safe, neighborhoods where everyone is known.  Children wear flame-retardant clothes ‘just in case’.  

The world is portrayed to children as a fundamentally dangerous place, and in order to survive, they must avoid all risk.  While many of these interdictions have a social reason behind them – your risk inevitably involves others – and therefore are valid; the effect of a society bound and determined to regulate behavior and to eliminate risk is to neuter the risk-taking impulse altogether.

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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.
Risk need not be extreme or life-threatening to give context or meaning.  Drugs, alcohol, sex, and tobacco are all a risky but highly pleasurable business.  Moreover taking risks, no matter how benign, makes a social statement – a signifier and meme deliberately and purposefully expressive of personality and character.  A former colleague, émigré from Eastern Europe and a longtime resident of Paris in the late Fifties, an American but a Left Bank intellectual who found bohemian, literary Paris more reflective of who he felt he was than anything of the Midwest where his family still lived or even New York where he currently lived.  Smoking was as much a part of the Parisian scene of his era as anything.  Café, cognac, and Gauloises were indispensable to afternoons at Flore or Deux Magots.  It wasn’t so much he coffee which was not particularly good, nor the inexpensive brandy, nor certainly the harsh, acrid cigarettes, but the ensemble, the image, the sense of intellectual camaraderie and social indifference.  A marker of membership in France’s most exclusive club.

When he returned to America and still a young man, Lewis’ credentials from the Sorbonne and liberal politics facilitated his entry into the Upper West Side Jewish intelligentsia.  While there was no café society in New York at that time and by Paris standards the city was abstemious and serious, there was a familiar and satisfying intellectual bonhomie - japes, double-entendres, and mental hi jinks far more American than French but still expressive of the intellectual superiority that both sub-cultures admired.

He was never quite at home. He missed Europe – especially the underground subversive intellectual anti-Communism of the East and the equally intellectual socialist Left of the West – but he made do.   The only thing that he refused to give up in his new accommodation to America was smoking.  The images of Sartre, Camus, Levandowski, Birac, and George Nagy – sullen, angry, profound, and smoking were indelible.  It wasn’t only the cigarette itself – a prop that made gestures more nuanced – but the smoke, the inhale, the stubbing out, the snap of the match.   Smoking was not only an element of an important scene and time of Lewis’ life, it was the one thing that most identified his cadre, his group, and his very special sub-culture.

The non-smoking campaign began in earnest in America shortly after his return.  He, like most smokers at first paid little attention; but while most of his friends soon gave up the habit to reduce the now confirmed risks to health and well-being, Lewis was indifferent and uninterested.  Giving up the cigarette, even among a growingly abstemious and critical society was unconscionable.  He would rather take the risk of a thousand deaths than give up what signified him the most.

The same story was true of others who persisted in risky behavior long after it became déclassé.  In an increasingly feminized society where women both demanded their rights to infidelity but insisted on their husbands’ faithfulness, another colleague paid them no mind.  He was happily married to a successful woman who, because of her professional reputation, background, and experience had become economically independent; but although he knew that she would need little pretense to leave the marriage, as mutually satisfactory as it had been, he had one lover after another.  While he avoided the emotionally needy, unmarried women nearing forty, and exciting but unstable women quite likely to cause a fuss, he was not overly careful.  Without some risk, the liaisons would have been as ordinary as his marriage.  As in the case of Lewis, the smoker, sexual libertinage had become George’s calling card – his signifier, meme, and essential means of expression.  He could no longer return to the confines of wife, family, home, and children that Lewis could give up his personal coat of arms.

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The rates for infidelity keep rising.  It is exhilarating to have sexual adventures, particularly where there is risk involved.  It is one thing to have girlfriends when you are single; but to risk your marriage or your long-term relationship is something else altogether.  The thrill of new sex, different laughter, different eyes, different spirit are all the more heightened if the liaison is dangereuse.
Maybe in the final analysis it is all as simple as the notion expressed by the late Joe Tasker in the postscript to his book ‘Savage Arena’ – that the business of climbing exerts a constant and magnetic curiosity. “I had never planned to go to the mountains so often or keep on going”, he wrote, “but I had come to see that there was something new and different there each time I went…Rather than being a matter of ticking off achievements or notching up a list of summits reached, visiting the mountains had come to be a way of life.
George Sanders, film star who played the role of Jack Favell in the 1940 movie Rebecca, committed suicide at the age of 65.  His suicide note read:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.  I feel I have lived long enough...
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When Graham Greene was a young man, he found boredom intolerable.  So much so that he turned to Russian Roulette, the ultimate adrenaline rush and the final, absolute, and necessary act to challenge a life which had become meaningless because of its same dull, and meaningless routines.  He writes about the experience in the first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life.
One forgets emotions easily. If I were dealing with an imaginary character, i might feel it necessary for verisimilitude  to make him hesitate, put the revolver back into the cupboard, return to it again after an interval reluctantly and fearfully, when the burden of boredom and despair became too great.  but in fact there was no hesitation at all. I slipped the revolver into my pocket and the next thing I can remember is crossing Berkhamsted Common towards the Ashridge beeches. Perhaps before I had opened the cupboard, boredom had reached an intolerable depth. The boredom was as deep as the love and more enduring – indeed in descends on me too often today…
Now with the revolver in my pocket I had stumbled on the perfect cure.  I was going to escape in one way or another…Deliberately I chose my ground, I believe without real fear…I slipped a bullet into a chamber, and holding the revolver behind my back, spun the chambers round…The discovery that it was possible to enjoy again the visible world by risking its total loss was one I was bound to make sooner or later.
I put the muzzle of the revolver into my right ear and pulled the trigger. there was a minute click, and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into the firing position, I was out by one. I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation as if carnival lights had been switched on in a dark drab street…
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He insisted that he was not attempting suicide, although if that were to happen, it would not be because of the mental illness usually ascribed to it.  He played Russian Roulette without any real fear “perhaps because so many semi-suicidal acts which my elders would have regarded as neurotic, but which I still consider to have been done under the circumstances highly reasonable, lay in the background of this more dangerous venture”.

Greene took risk to the extreme; but he went on to say that when Russian Roulette had ceased to hold any interest, he could not lose the sense that only risk validated life.  He admits that he went on a trek through West Africa with little preparation, less knowledge, and no experience.  Trekking in the colonial manner – a retinue, arms, stores, and equipment – would have been pointless.  Travel had no purpose unless it threatened.

Yet Greene never said that his risks were foolish.  He knew precisely what he was doing and willing to take the one-in-six chances of a bullet to the brain, or dying of tropical fever, or captured by African slavers.  A foolish risk is one taken with no obvious benefits and serious consequences. 
Driving in a blizzard, climbing a roof on a rickety ladder, diving headfirst into an unknown river are foolish and foolhardy.  In order for risk to become a positive, affirming action, it must be understood.

An older friend said, “Fuck the gym” and after years of exercise, right behavior, and proper nutrition – all designed to prolong his life, avoid debilitating illness, and maintain mobility – he returned to three-martini lunches, marbled beef, and expensive Mayflower Hotel hookers.  He knew precisely what he was doing.  Life had turned out to be far less meaningful and productive as he had hoped it would be as a younger man.  There was no sense in prolonging such a life if it meant emotional parsimony and limitation.  He knew that his new, or rather old behavior was risky and threatening to his health, marriage, and whatever legacy he might pass on; but he understood precisely what he was doing.  He was never foolish.

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Most men settle into predictable, highly socialized later years; but as they near the end of their lives they do no reminisce about their marriage, their profession, or even their children, but of their adventures.  Few as they might have been, their romances are what they remember before they die. Romances that came with cost; romances that ended badly; romances that were pursued but never completed – all are more indelibly imprinted than anything more enduring. 

Whether risk-taking is hardwired in our brains and linked to pleasure centers; or is a higher-order cognitive process which factors meaning, purpose, and being, the tendency today is to avoid it – or at least to confine it within Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Avoidable personal risk is considered anti-social, pre-evolutionary, and dismissive of human progressive potential.  A long, productive, unblemished, purposeful life is honored.  Yet in the final accounting has not the mountain climber had the more fulfilled life? Or the libertine? Risk is no simple matter, and the most evolved understand, embrace it, and take it.

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