Taking Risks

Thoreau observes that “we sit more risks than we run,” meaning that what we don’t do is also a risk. In­deed, playing life safe is the biggest risk of all, because life returns the least to those who play it safe.

For example, most relationships need to break up periodically, if only to clear the waters; if only, as Heraclitus observes, to turn into their opposites, so that the opposite (the break-up) has the possibility of turning back into a positive and refreshed connection. However, most relationships can’t risk breaking up. There is too much fear of the intervening space, so the partners cling (usually one partner clings and the other allows himself or herself to be clung to), taking the greater risk of resisting this Heraclitean rhythm and thus slowly suf­focating in a half-hearted embrace.

The same is so often true for our relationships with our work. For example, the clearest improvement in my writing came several years ago when I gave up writing altogether (permanently, I thought at the tune). There were several of us in my circle then, young aspiring writers, and the others kept on, struggling, clinging to their dedication, but rutted in the sense that “being a writer” had become more important than having anything to say. When I came back to writing a couple of years later (really when writing came back to me), I observed how much farther ahead I was for having done no writing at all. For one thing, I had been freed of the burdensome desire to be “discovered” by a publisher, and was now just writing, putting my work in whatever available local publication wanted it, or publishing it myself. So I started to get response, criticism, encourage­ment, while my colleagues were still, in a sense, too much in the closet, too private, obsessed with finding that magic formula that would catch the eye of Harper and Row, redrafting and re-redrafting themselves daft, attending prestigious writing conferences to meet the right people, buying expensive word processor computers to increase their efficiency—but getting staler with every dying word.

There are two risks, really: (1) letting go when the signs are there and (2) not letting go when the signs are there. In both cases we lose everything, but in the first there is always the chance, the promise really, that we’ll be born again.

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