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In Praise of Risk

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 117 - November 2005

You may have noticed over the past year or so that 'risk' has become a major evil, to be avoided at all costs. Risk of injury from conkers – conkers! – almost persuaded some local councils to chop down mature horse chestnut trees. In an English primary school children are no longer allowed to bring to class egg cartons (risk of salmonella is the official reason, although eggs in boxes normally keep their shells on), or the cardboard innards of toilet paper rolls (risk of infection), yet both objects have long been favourite building materials of creative kids. Can't be too careful these days, you might think, but the trouble is that the real reason behind these exaggerated anxieties is the fear that if anything goes wrong, somebody is bound to sue for compensation, and that is a major risk in itself. (The most bizarre court case for my money was the one in which some obese American teenagers tried to sue Macdonald's for making them fat.)

Of course I am not against sensible caution; only against over-protection, practised for the wrong reasons. Beyond a sensible point, risk avoidance becomes counterproductive. It suggests that the world is a dangerous, untrustworthy place, where we must be eternally alert – and worried. Banning more and more 'risky' things and activities narrows down our field of possible experiences, besides being totally futile: in John Lennon's memorable phrase, life is what happens while we are planning something else, and what normally happens is much less foreseeable than the assumed dangers of conkers or egg boxes.

But the exaggerated fear of risk doesn't operate on the physical level only. Surreptitiously and subtly it can affect our inner life, the way we think and feel and make big and small decisions. 'Anything for a quiet life', we say only half-jokingly, and yes, a quiet, risk-free life with clear boundaries and a sense of security may sound a great idea, but it comes, if at all, with a high price tag. The price is nothing less than a loss of zest, colour and adventure, and an eventual overdose of boredom. Risk-taking is part of the inner journey. Without it there is no growth, no development, none of those 'Aha!' moments that suddenly open a window to some entirely new possibility.

Trying to avoid all risks eventually makes us scared of change. A situation may be pretty awful, but it's been like that for quite a while without becoming unbearable – dare we risk doing anything about it, or should we just sit still, miserable but secure? Except that if we try to avoid a long overdue necessary change because it seems risky, life will force it upon us. And that can be quite drastic.

In my work I often find that a client's apparently unsolvable problem simply boils down to a refusal to change – he or she prefers the familiar devil to risk meeting the as yet unknown angel. The risk can be to confront a painful reality without drowning it in whisky. What is it like face to face, not glimpsed through the bottom of a glass? The risk can be to rock the boat in an already rocky situation. Will the relationship sink – or swim to clearer waters? And so on, without end.

Just think of it: why do we love stories, starting with the fairytales of childhood, right through to the great epics of world literature or the latest thriller? Because in each one the hero or heroine takes a risk and starts on a path without knowing the outcome, facing trials and tribulations as they crop up. And we travel with them, vicariously sharing the thrills and feeling all the better for it. Of course the stories are our substitute adventures. We can't all be 'proper' heroes and heroines, there was only one Odysseus and one Helen of Troy; the confines of our everyday lives are not of epic proportions, but we can learn the lesson that – at least in our inner life – we can and should take the occasional risk that is likely to enrich our existence.

Just how we do that is wholly individual. An elderly client of mine, who was rock solid in her refusal to risk any change in her sad life, after a year in therapy took a huge risk: she enrolled for an art class at her local adult education centre, risking the failure and ridicule which she fully expected. What happened was the opposite. She turned out to be a talented natural artist, holding her own among more experienced students half her age, and at a local exhibition some time later she even won a prize. But the real prize was that now she no longer fears taking a calculated risk. At present, well into her 60s, she is planning her first long-haul holiday. And, for the first time ever, she is happy.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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