Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On balancing a fear of risk with a risk of fear

Shortly after I made my post about sleeping alone in the storm, Jeannie made this comment, which I pondered for a very long time, wanting to get some perspective on my experience:
Jen...not trying to rain on your parade...but I have had a problem with this hiking alone. You are LIVING everyday and making a wonderful life for yourself and your son...I guess what I'm trying to figure out is why you think you need to do this to be living a full life? Facing your fears? Haven't you already proved to yourself that you can do that, and more, when necessary? And the risk you took...what would it have meant for Sean IF something had happened to you? I don't understand the need to do it. The mama in me worries about you...
I agree that something has gone awry when risk and danger is the entire end, instead of something incidental to the end. That means you're nothing but an adrenaline junkie, a category of people for whom I've historically not had much patience or interest. However, I do maintain that measured risk can be beneficial if it's attached to another worthwhile endeavor.

The risk I took hiking and camping alone, in the location and season that I did, was really quite minimal. But even the most reasonable risks are still risks, and I did end up in a bit of a pickle. But it's important to remember that, just because the situation ripened into some danger, doesn't mean it was an unreasonable risk at the start. I could walk to lunch this afternoon and get run over by a car whose driver loses control and ends up on the sidewalk. That doesn't mean the risk in walking to lunch was unreasonable. The same obtains here. In any event, being with someone would not have eliminated the danger that morning. In fact, T, my most common backpacking partner, would likely have been even less inclined to discard the hiking plans because of the forecast than I was. (Which forecast, remember, was for scattered thunderstorms the following night!)

But what I got from that experience, reflecting on it weeks later, was deeply valuable to me and remains potent even now: I got both a validation of my fears and the knowledge that I could handle them. I learned anew a lesson that, for me at least, bears repeating throughout a lifetime -- that bad things can happen and I can live through them. If I had insisted on learning this lesson in a much more risky circumstance, I would tend to agree that I had lost the thread, that my path was off kilter. But the risk, going in, was reasonable -- I was probably in more danger on the highway driving to the trail. But life, for me, involves a constant quest for meaning and lessons. These have a sort of domino effect in that some of these lessons prepare me for subsequent ones. My mind sees symbolism and meaning in everything. I'm an ENFP; it's how I'm wired.

I give my child a great deal of my life, as I should. But I won't, can't, and shouldn't give either of us a risk-free existence. These are lessons I want him to learn and absorb. To me, facing my fears in pursuit of something larger -- like a night alone on a lake with a full moon in the sky -- and coming out on the other side is part and parcel of truly living.

On the other hand, I also genuinely understand how this might seem either completely insane or self-indulgent to someone living with large risks in their lives that were externally imposed, and not necessarily of their choosing. Make no mistake, I understand the luxury involved in my ability to do this, and to choose it for myself. And if I had been reckless or careless, I would count that in the irresponsible category, and hope I would examine the source of that and adjust accordingly.

I don't know if this answers Jeannie's thoughts -- sometimes there is just a gap of understanding and viewpoint that cannot be bridged. But I'm always grateful for her thoughtful comments.


  1. Mmmm...generational gap seems likely. Let me say though, I'm not afraid of risk. As you say, we face it everyday. I'm not as keen on unneccessary risk ie. a woman alone in the woods, but that is me. Actually, hiking and camping manuals promote a buddy system and not venturing out alone; this is not 'skeerdy cat' thinking. I have a SIL who has a similar mindset to yours though. I also don't feel the need to challenge myself on multiple levels as young people do today, unless being an accomplished high altitude baker counts as a challenge. :)

  2. Dangit, Jeannie, I had a reply worked out ages ago when you first posted this, but I think blogger ate it. I hope it was tasty, like your high altitude baked goods. :) Anyway, I know you're not engaging in skeerdy-cat thinking. But I can pinpoint the exact place where we disagree -- I don't think being alone in the woods is an unnecessary risk. :)

    But like I said, we often disagree, but you always make me think. I'm very grateful for you.

  3. It's OK to disagree. I love your independent nature and the way you think. I can hardly keep up with you--but you keep me young and thinking as well--and that's a good thing. All of this talking and thinking and discussing is enriching to me and I'm glad that through it all we remain good friends, as always. :)