By Chris White
“If you want to be brave and reach for the top of the sky, and the farthest point on the horizon, and you know who you’ll meet there: Great soldiers and seafarers, artists and dreamers who need to be close to the light. They need to be in danger of burning by fire — and I want to get there.”
– Carly Simon, ”Touched by the Sun”
Late one winter, in my 20s, I landed back in Fairbanks after a 30-day solo adventure in northern Alaska’s Brooks Range. Like all those who face their big fears and take reasonable risks, I felt vibrantly alive. I had taken a risk into the unknown and discovered the importance of risk in honoring the journey of self-discovery and finding our purpose. I was different after my vision quest: more confident, more appreciative of our planet’s fragile beauty and, to the point here, determined to seek more of this feeling and not linger on the safe side of life.
Today, more than ever, we seek out social and political groups to “like us,” give us a sense of safety and, unfortunately, a false identity. We lose our individual uniqueness in this quest; we get personally diluted. Taking risks can help us stay in touch with who we really are.
Facing fears and taking risks is not owned by mountain climbers or ocean sailors. Risk is the teacher for all of us. It demands we dig in and discover unaccessed strengths and weaknesses, undiscovered potential. We can marvel at the physical ability of Alex Honnold soloing El Capitan without a rope, but personal risk is always about an inner journey.
The sources of fear are everywhere. We fear failure, loss, pain, humiliation and judgment. Fear can be found entering or leaving a relationship, starting a new job or, for some, getting out of bed each day presents fear enough to flinch. On a grander scale, we fear planetary environmental failure of our planet. Very sadly, today, in the face of threats to our very democracy, and perhaps not felt to this degree since the Civil War, we fear each other.
Yet, without taking risks, how else can we test ourselves, plumb the depths, leave the safe and secure, shatter the illusions of who we think we are and discover our authentic selves?
As a society we spend huge amounts of time and energy shielding ourselves from failure, pain and death. Our personal fears lay scattered before us, obscuring the trail like downed limbs after a storm. Our fears of the unknown imprison us as we freeze, like a deer in headlights, in inaction. We get stuck. In psycho terms, our small mind ego wins by keeping us in the known zones of control and safety. The truth: Real freedom lies in stalking straight down the throat of fear.
Inventions would not exist had someone not followed a path into the unknown. The dark, overgrown trail is rarely the safest but it is where we discover critical revelations and life changing epitomes. Thus, there are good reasons behind the madness of risk-takers because it leads us to the marrow of life’s mysteries and the real measure of our mental and emotional fiber. At root for everyone who accepts a risk — large or tiny — is the belief that taking the chance beats the fear of failure. Be assured, we’ve all been risk heroes when, as a child, we took our first steps. We showed fearless courage in the face of unstoppable curiosity. We staggered forward in pure desire to explore and know more.
So, what of the inevitable failures? The irony is that breakdowns do lead to breakthroughs. Protective shields shatter when we already have a bloody nose. It is here that delusion dissolves. Knowing our weaknesses through failure helps us pull that anchor and move on with the current toward our purpose.
The gains acquired as a result of risk-taking soften the pain of failure or mistakes. The whole journey is more important than the parts. Further, in failure is born humility, which teaches us critical lessons in understanding and compassion for the shortfalls we all suffer.
How tragic to arrive at the far shore of this life burdened with regrets for not having tried. Overcoming the prison of fears that stifle our evolution and keep us from our highest purpose is not for the faint of heart, but it is the real game. The sweet reward on the other side of facing our fears is strength from accomplishment, which bears confidence. More faith and trust enter our lives; seeming miracles appear, unexpected support arrives and life flows more smoothly.
Moving ahead reveals a wonderful dividend that helps loosen destructive death grips on blind allegiance to groups that espouse an us-vs-them credo. The great irony is that, as we find our personal truth and more independence, there emerges a prioritized awareness of the deep unity we all share on this planet and that we are at our best cooperating and working together as a whole for our common good. Risking brings us home again.
Once we take a risk and leave the safety of our controlled environment, we can never be the same again. You might find that the many miles traveled have really been about gaining the strength and wisdom to travel the twenty inches from your head to your heart — and there you are.
This piece is a modern renovation of an essay (same title) from the author’s book, Wind, Waves and a Suicidal Boat.
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