Last night, I made a list of a few things that I’ve done, not knowing how they would turn out. In roughly chronological order:
● Fell in love
● Married at 23 after a whirlwind nine months of dating
● Got pregnant four times, including intentionally three months after giving birth to a child with Downs Syndrome
● Moved to NYC with a three-month-old and three kids all attending different schools
● Got a dog (his name is Miles, and he is a furry bundle of adorable, oft-misbehaved, unconditional love)
● Wrote a couple of books without planning to be a writer
The marriage has been my rock for 24 years. The children are my joy. Despite losing my mentor Rav Berg and my dearest friend Annie and my father’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s while packing and unpacking our houses, NYC now feels like home.
The point is all the most important decisions we make are a gamble. There are no guarantees that marriages will be peaceful, children will be healthy and happy, books will be well received, or friendships will be reciprocated. But the alternative is unimaginable.
Yet, risk breeds worry. “What if things don’t work out,” our brain asks, usually at 4 AM.
But what if they do?
“Life forms illogical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return?” – Margot Fonteyn
Dame Margaret Evelyn de Arias, better known by her stage name of Margot Fonteyn, was a prima ballerina for the Royal Ballet. She began studying ballet at age four, and I like to think she knew of what she spoke in the above quote.
I love to dance, though I’ve certainly not mastered ballet. What many consider the most delicate, feminine, graceful of dance forms requires a singular focus and willingness to subject the human body to something approaching torture. Stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction are just a few of the ugly pains that many young women (and men) heap upon themselves to achieve something beautifully ethereal.
Taking calculated and incalculable risks is part of what allows all of us to participate in something unique and wondrous. When taken simply as numbers and equations, life events like marriage and bearing children are wholly illogical. The chances of divorce, complications in labor, or accidentally raising the next Ted Bundy exist, and without the very human tendency to embrace the illogical, we might not have many of the great love stories in history.
I was at my son’s high school graduation this week and watched as Josh and his cohort of special needs classmates proudly received their diplomas. I was awash in the sense of unplanned perfection of that moment and enjoying the pomp and circumstance, but my attention kept veering to the parents around me, equally swept up. I knew that I wasn’t the only parent in that gathering who thought to themself that this wasn’t what they imagined would be their experience of parenting. We all expect that where we place our effort and desire will be the spot we imagined it to be. This is, in fact, never the case.
In 2015, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University published a paper titled: “Information Gaps for Risk and Ambiguity” that used thirty pages to describe, among other things, our hard-wiring to differentiate between risk aversion and risk-seeking. They posited that it comes down to something called an “information gap,” defined as “a question that one is aware of but for which one is uncertain between possible answers.” They wrote that gamblers are more prone to seeking out risk when the gamble itself is pleasurable to think about, which is why many people who purchase lottery tickets do so over time; it is a way to continue savoring thoughts of eventually winning.
If that doesn’t sum up dedicating your life to ballet, dating, choosing a mate, or debating how many children to have, I don’t know what does. The risk in all of those is worth the reward to so many of us. Okay, maybe not the ballet example. There aren’t many Arabesques thrown about by random people.
I would be remiss not to point out for my female readers and fathers of daughters that women, in general, get the short end of this risk-seeking stick. Many studies have shown that women are, over time, pushed to be more risk averse than men by social environments and our cultures. As Kipling said: “Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?” I believe that men and women could all benefit from taking a few extra chances every day.
Risk can be frightening, but I don’t believe in living life in fear. I am well aware that anything can happen in ways that seem arbitrary and random. That is part of the thrill, dread, and confusion of our lives on this plane. But I think it’s a wasted life to fear the unknowable, to not participate in things you enjoy because something we conceive of as bad might happen. If we live a risk-averse existence because of fear, we are also living a joy-averse existence.
We can’t control what happens to us, and worrying about our lack of control is a useless endeavor. This is why it is so important to live every day to the fullest extent of our capability — to remove the fears that separate us and to make appreciation the order of every day. As I looked around at the faces of other parents at Josh’s graduation, I recognized and related to exactly this sentiment. When our unique children came into the world, the challenges were clear and, in my case, emphasized by doctors and others around me. What fundamentally changed and shaped me was seeing the way Josh navigated his world and the way he sees the beauty, openness, and possibilities in all things.
No matter the risk.