The rewards of risk

Wikimedia Commons/C.T. Snow

In 2008 in his Los Angeles home, a man named Dave Freeman fell, hit his head and died. This wouldn’t have been big news, except that the 47-year-old Freeman had launched what became an entire genre of books when, in 1999, he and a friend published 100 Things to Do Before You Die. In it, they exhorted people to get out and experience things like the Namaqualand wildflower bloom in South Africa, or a voodoo pilgrimage in Haiti, or the Fringe Festival Nude Night Surfing competition in Australia.

Before his death, if I thought about Freeman at all, it was to dismiss his book as a gimmicky Christmas present you might get from an aunt who doesn’t know you very well. But since his demise, I have found my thoughts returning to him and his project.

“This life is a short journey,” Freeman wrote in the introduction, then told the reader to “get off your butt and create a fabulous memory or two” before it was over. It was a call to arms against complacency, a prod to approach life as a beast to be wrestled to the ground rather than one to be led placidly to the stockade.

This way of living didn’t, however, come without risk. “Be warned,” Freeman noted, “that aside from having fun, you could be crushed, gored, burned, frozen, drowned, run over, electrocuted, infected, punctured, or dehydrated. You could get hit with a mallet, arrow, or pumpkin. So be careful. And don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

The tongue-in-cheek disclaimer was probably enough to send many armchair travelers back to their La-Z-Boys. Yet it also made a serious point: Travel can be risky. The world can be dangerous, and you never know what you will encounter. What Freeman didn’t say, though, and perhaps didn’t even realize, was that many of the things he was writing about are exhilarating not in spite of the risk, but because of it.

Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University, is an expert on the psychology of risk and says that the more he researches it, the more he sees it as the essential ingredient of life. “Helen Keller would say over and over, ‘Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing,’” Farley told me. “How many people don’t view life that way? They view life as a series of dangers to be avoided. Nuclear war. Toxic environment. Bad food. Danger in the streets. They focus more on the things to be avoided than on the things for which we should live.”

This, he thinks, is a recipe for disappointment. “So many people in their last days realize, ‘My God, it’s over and I never really lived.’ And that’s got to be an awful mental state to be in.”

Farley has divided personalities into two types. There are what he calls “big-T” people, who seek challenges and who “let go of life’s handrails,” as he puts it. They enjoy the thrill (“T”) of seeing what they can do. Some are “T-Mental” (Albert Einstein) and others are “T-Physical” (Evel Knievel). Some people veer into more destructive risks, such as gambling and crime; he refers to them as “T-Negative.”

Then there are what Farley calls “small-t” types people who are risk-averse, who let their lives be circumscribed by what they fear: failure, loss, humiliation, pain. They avoid these things at all costs. “We can get tied up with fears; a little fear here, a little fear here, and a little fear over there and it adds up,” he says. “It begins constricting your life. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘Always confront the things you are afraid of.’ Risk taking is the essence of overcoming fear.”

Over the last few decades in the United States, as our fears have become disconnected from the reality of our lives, the balance has shifted toward risk aversion. Taylor Clark points out in his 2011 book, Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, that Americans are five times more likely to suffer from anxiety (the fear of possible future misfortune) than are Nigerians. In fact, it is now our No. 1 mental health issue, affecting 18 percent of the population.

In his book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, sociologist Barry Glassner examines why we are afraid of factors such as crime and plane crashes when the risks they pose to us are statistically small. In the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans thought crime was soaring, when in fact the murder rate dropped 20 percent between 1990 and 1998. (The percentage of TV news stories about those murders, however, grew 600 percent at the same time.)

In another book, also called Culture of Fear, British sociologist Frank Füredi says that our fears about society have little to do with actual, empirical risks. “Rather,” he writes, “they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.” One problem, Füredi notes, is that safety has become an end in itself rather than a means to get on with other things. Another is that our emotional response to danger is seen as legitimate even when the danger isn’t real.

news-2-art-2-bull_run_clemsonWikimedia Commons/Btodag

What has changed is our view of the universe, and of our place in it. “We find it very hard to deal with uncertainty,” Füredi writes, “partly due to the great progress made by medicine and science. Because we have so much knowledge, a chance occurrence is hard to accept especially if it causes injury.”

That makes sense, but it still doesn’t explain why, at a time when we are safer and healthier than we’ve ever been, we feel less so. We live in the world that our great-grandparents dreamed of, yet we seem incapable of enjoying it, unable to let go of those handrails, ever more afraid of the unknown.

When Dave Freeman died, much of the coverage focused on how he had done only about half the things on his list. And while I don’t want to turn him into some kind of Jean-Paul Sartre with a plane ticket, I think those people missed the point. What his death should have brought home was the danger not of completing a list halfway, but of not having such a list at all. It should have reminded us that life is a short journey, and you never know when it will end. Not taking risks along the way is the biggest risk of all.

This article first appeared in The Rotarian. Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes. His work has been included in The Best American Travel Writing and has appeared in Harper’s, Aeon, Lapham’s Quarterly, Outside, The Washington Post Magazine and other places.