By Jen Heller
This morning, I woke up and immediately subjected myself to some very risky behaviors. I made toast. I drove to work. And I walked up two steps to unlock the front door of the office.
I recently learned in a Foreign Policy article that the innocentfaced little toasters lurking in our kitchens kill more Americans every year than hometurf Islamic terrorists. Cars are the top cause of accidental death in the US, as everyone who’s ever heard of the CDC’s Wonder database knows. Tens of thousands of people die from falls every year, and according to research by John Templer of MIT, it’s the short sequences of stairs those one or two steps plunked at entryways and exits that really do us in. (I tried presenting this research to my boss yesterday. His response was that I can use the side door if I need to, but a fear of the front steps is no excuse for not showing up on time.)
I’ve been researching the concept of risk a lot recently, particularly real threats versus perceived threats. Partly because, in the myth of my own intelligence, I tend to think other people worry about entirely the wrong sorts of things.
It turns out risk is a volatile subject. We study probabilities and climate change and stock market predictions, all in the quest to calculate risk. Even so, everyone’s got different ideas on which of those risks are important to talk about, because different people see risks differently. As we age, we tend to be wary of dangers that were taught to us, either by the bruises of personal experience, or the words of those people we designate as “wise.” In fact, multiple studies in the 1980s by psychologists such as R. E. Nisbett and Lee Ross demonstrated that we fight incredibly hard to defend our perspectives of what is truly “risky.” Like any matters of strong emotional import, people tend to reject new information about risks if it doesn’t match what they already believed to be true, with the complete certainty that it must have been produced incorrectly or, even worse, deceptively.
So. It seems we keep the threats we choose close to us, like pets, or like our personal faiths. This how a mechanic can wear safety glasses while working under a car every day for 40 years, but not fasten his seat belt on his drive to the shop. A risk only becomes risky once we perceive it to be so.
It begs the question, of course: if we don’t see a threat, is it still there? Well, yes, of course. I don’t honestly see the stairs at my workplace as a risk. Most days I don’t notice them at all. But that doesn’t mean The Danger isn’t there. If I ignore a visible threat, will it not materialize? Maybe. But maybe not. Last year, someone parked their Oldsmobile sedan in front of our office with a fullgrown sheep standing in the backseat. It stood there bleating out the side windows for 45 minutes. Was the driver at risk of having his sedan seat littered with sheep droppings? Um… yes. His inability to calculate that risk didn’t mean any effects wouldn’t apply.
Two weekends ago, I strapped on my classic skis and punchslogged my way along the powdered tackiness of the lake shore to get some exercise. I was risking the dangers of mud, fatigue, and cold to ward off the risks of heart disease, midwinter depression, and a cabinfevered Lab mix who was about to pace a path in the carpet. These were the most obvious threats.
But, that’s just the obvious risks. By staying in my cozy living room on the couch, I would have risked not seeing the planted brush marks of heron wings spread out in the snow from a hasty takeoff, with the funny Morse code drag marks from long legs hoisted up in slow dips. I would have risked not experiencing the chance encounter with a similarly sweaty skier who smiled and stopped for a dose of conversation. For every known risk, there’s a plethora of unknown risks. We like to say that curiosity killed the cat, but I’ll wager that a lack of curiosity has often killed the cats’ owners.
In 2016, my hope is to educate myself a little better on the risks I see, and the risks I don’t see. I’m doing this in a few ways. For example, I’ve decided that when I feel threatened by an idea, I should probably go read a book defending that point-of-view, to see if I can learn anything by challenging myself a little bit. I checked out a book at the library from a political standpoint that would have been illegal in our house when I was a kid. I’m keeping an eye on the book cover over my laptop screen as I type… I think it intends to eat my drapes when I’m not looking.
Sometimes I’d like to get all preachified and tell some of the people around me stretch the outlines of their risks a bit. It’d be pretty exciting to see the Bonner County Republican women invite a current, practicing Muslim woman in a hijab to speak at one of their next gatherings. Or, to see some of the more liberal members of our community take up a habit of hanging out at the Pack River and Elmira stores. However… people are gonna do what people wanna do. I just need to make it my job to befriend the people I have a hard time handling, and trust the rest of the world to do their best (eventually). After all, the key with risk seems to each one of us testing the edges of our own anonymous fears—to see if they materialize into something real, or if they dissipate like Sandpoint winter fog to reveal something stunningly beautiful.