I have a very clear recollection of the day that I passed the test that told me that I was ready to be a father. I was on the bottom floor of my in-laws’ house on a lake in Virginia. A strange sound came from outside that I didn’t recognize. A few seconds later my wife screamed my name. It was the kind of scream that I knew something was wrong. I jumped up and sprinted out the door. When I reached my wife on the deck outside, I quickly found out the source of the sound and why she screamed. Our dog, Kelme, was pinned down by another dog that was attacking him. The two dogs were about ten feet below the deck on the rocks that sloped down toward the lake. Without a moment’s hesitation, I jumped over the deck’s railing and dropped the ten feet landing next to the two dogs. Luckily my sudden appearance and loud shouts were enough to scare the dog off without my having to fight him. I picked up Kelme and raced him to the vet with my wife. His wounds were very minor and he made a full and energetic recovery. It was after that incident that I knew for sure that I could be a father.
Not everyone gets that type of real life test that tells them something important about themselves. Generally people have to take a leap of faith that they can handle the situation. The phrase there is not unimportant, “leap”. I can’t say for certain whether I would have gotten the same type of self-assurance from that situation had I run down the stairs to Kelme’s aid. The jump was important because it separated me completely from safety and put me directly into harm’s way: both from the rocks and the dog. The willingness to take the risk of the leap was key. Lives don’t need to be at stake. Broken limbs and dog attacks don’t need to be risked.
The keys to any endeavor of creation: child, book, movie, relationship, song, poem, etc. are the leap and the foregoing of self. Neither is particularly easy to do. Leaping requires a detachment from the stability of the known world for something much more uncertain. Putting something else before ourselves is also an exercise in chance. With both, fear is a major opposing force. While fear is an emotion that is intended to protect us from pain, it is often the force that keeps us from living fully. A full life is one that requires creation and therefore risk. There are no diplomas, courses or tests that can prepare you to live fully. It is something that needs to be done on the fly everyday with consistent action. The act of leaping may never become completely comfortable but it may just become completely worth it.
It was January 2nd 2003. A clever little trick of mine to always remember the day that I proposed to my wife 1/2/03. As I waited in her apartment with dinner ready and candles lit, I was extremely nervous. That feeling was only compounded when she arrived. Then I started to ask and I could feel my legs shaking. This was gut-wrenching but necessary. The fear and the nerves came from risk. The risk of putting myself out there and the possibility that the answer could be “no”. It ended up going in my favor but I think that risk is an important factor to the things that really matter. You need to care enough to be willing to lose.
Perhaps it is part of being American or the popular culture of my youth but the idea of the underdog or long shot is ingrained within me. The Rocky movies were an unofficial soundtrack to my young life. The story of a nobody fighter who takes on the undefeated champion. He knows that he is going to lose before the fight even happens. That is the risk that the people who truly care must take. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew the risk of the pen strokes but chanced the loss of life for something greater. Elon Musk risked the wealth he had accrued in order to start a solar energy company, an electric car company and a space company. Each venture had very long odds. Those odds are not the ones taken on by a man looking to turn a quick profit. They are the risk of a man who cares about the change he wanted to make in the world. These are just three examples of caring enough to risk losing.
I’ve heard it too many times to count “What grade do I need to get on this quiz to bring my grade up to a __________?” The lack of the math skills from my young students is not the most troubling part. The most disheartening part of this question is the refusal to put forth any effort until a concrete exchange has been mentally negotiated. Effort will only be employed if the target seems reasonably attainable. This is not a statement about educational malaise or the disconnect between schools and our modern society. It is a reflection on a pervasive attitude toward loss. No one should fail. The ref or the coach cost us the game. The aversion to loss seems to be correlated to risk of losing one’s self. If I give my all and fail, then I am not worthy and that is too much to bear.
In a world where we are better insulated from death than ever before in history, it is the death of our image of ourselves that we seem to fear most. Much like the avatars that represent us online, we have created mental pictures of who we are. Most of us will defend that image regardless of its accuracy or usefulness. Playing within the boundaries of that existence may comfortable but is the lack of risk truly safe? More than likely the risks that truly matter are worth taking because they force us to stretch. Reaching out into the void is not a failure if it is done with true intention. Failing to reach out is the bigger loss because the possibility of knowing yourself better and having what you actually wanted is left on the table. Don’t aim to lose but don’t only play if you know you’re going to win. All of the true joy on the back end lies in the fact that you risked yourself on the front end.
Have a great day!