WHY RISK?

Horseback riding. Ski jumping. Motorcycles. These are the avocations of my immediate family members.

My mom began riding horses as soon as she could walk, and at sixty-five, she still loves to gallop through pastures and over rough logging roads. She has separated her sternum from her ribs, dislocated a shoulder, been kicked, nearly drown, and crushed by horses. She’s competed and won in dressage and jumping. She’s ridden in the desert, on the coast, and in the bogs of New Hampshire. I trotted to preschool and kindergarten on the back of my mother’s horse.

Launching himself off a ski jump has been my brother’s passion since he was six years old. He competed internationally, crashed, trained tirelessly, and triumphed in competitions. I bet he still dreams of ski jumping when sleeping, although he’s taken a little hiatus from flying through the air at sixty miles per hour over hundreds of feet… to be a Marine.

At twenty-five, my father had a chance to ride a motorcycle across the United States. He didn’t take that opportunity, and he always regretted it. Now he’s sixty-five and making up for those lost miles, plus interest. He’s ridden along the Mississippi River for days, cruised the Blue Ridge Parkway, joined a cross-country biker group bound for the D.C. Veterans Memorial, and buzzed more corn fields “in God’s country” than I would ever care to count.

Bottom line: the people who have chromosomes most like mine enjoy taking risks. So it’s no surprise that I relish exciting activities too.

Biologists have identified a dimension of personality that sheds light on my family’s penchant for danger: a genetic propensity for boldness versus cautiousness. Scientific studies have found a specific range of cautiousness within vertebrate species, which helps each species survive. As explained by Peter Gray in Psychology, “One can well imagine the advantages and disadvantages of being either cautious or bold… Caution reduces the risk of sudden death through predation or accident, but it also confines one’s life to a relatively narrow portion of the available environment. Boldness allows one to explore new areas and locate foods that cautious individuals would not find, though at increased risk.” This setup helps the human species, as a whole, take risks when necessary but guards against danger when prudent. It’s nature’s way of putting eggs in separate baskets.

The knowledge that I am simply expressing a phenotype when I go rock climbing hasn’t changed my habits. Every chance I get, I use my inclination for something as utterly meaningless as climbing up a rock face, at the risk of death, only to be lowered back to the ground. Again and again. Sure, I know the ultimate cause of this behavior is a sequence of deoxyribonucleic acid. But the point is this: I don’t care. The meaninglessness isn’t lost on me, it just doesn’t matter.

What are we but machines working on the factory settings found in our DNA? So what if my brain tells me excitement is good? And who’s to say that striving and failure and success on a piece of rock is any better or worse than the myriad expressions of human enjoyment, whether they be safe or scary?

Who could fault my mother the love of horses that makes her world come to life in the speed of summer air and squeak of saddle leather? I know my brother would never trade the experiences of ski jumping for a safer pastime, even if tempering his pursuits had spared him a concussion or two. He thrives in the high-pressure environment of the Marines, where excitement means life and death and duty to a nation. Why should my father ever go back to dodging his dreams when after so many years he’s doing what he does best: exploring the roads of America with adventure in his heart and a throttle under his fist?

Regardless of whether we carry the cautious gene or not, we each light up for something – a book, a rock climb, a party, the sound of a Harley Davidson, watching a football game, the whinny of a horse. Incidentally, I think it’s worth noting that in safety and danger both, we place supreme value on experience, not money. Psychological research into happiness has born this out. Beyond a relatively modest threshold, money doesn’t buy happiness. As Martin Seligman writes in Authentic Happiness, “money has little or no effect once you are comfortable enough to buy this book, and more materialistic people are less happy.” (See his TED talk on positive psychology here.)

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi (cheek-sent-me-high), a leading researcher in the field of happiness psychology, equates moments of flow with happiness. Flow is the state of complete absorption in an activity and its situation. This is when a human being loses a sense of self and is instead immersed in what he or she is doing. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”(Wikipedia) (See his TED talk on flow here.)

When I read Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I realized that this is what I seek when rock climbing or cliff jumping – flow, that moment of ecstasy when the self falls away. I can’t explain why, but those moments are imbued naturally with fulfillment and they draw me back again and again. I guess flow is the thing driving my family to take risks, taking fans to ball games, losing people in movies, and killing off a certain percentage of individuals who don’t carry a predilection for caution.

Perhaps flow is what these athletes are talking about in this excellent short film, Why Athletes.

I know why my mother gallops on her horse. I understand my brother’s need to fly. It’s obvious why my father accepts the risks of the road to ride his motorcycles. We are looking for happiness and finding it in adventure. Our genes tell us to jump, and we ask, “How high?” Whether cautious or bold, I guess you’re getting air to your own rhythm.

Steve jumping in Calgary.

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8 thoughts on “WHY RISK?

  1. Like the way you bring together the genetic background and phenotype expressions of your family to make sense of your own situation in regard to danger. Fan of the books, too. Is being a dad a new flow experience for me? Perhaps.

  2. I wonder where Megan got the risk taking from because it doesn’t seem to fit either of us? I did like how you wove the whole family into the story. I need to check out those books.

  3. I take a risk every time I get on my bike for a ride sharing (?) the road with those four wheeled beasts. The need to be active leads me to take a risk.

    • Wow, Larry, I can totally relate! Even after my big bike vs. car accident, even after I was careful in the extreme, I still nearly got hit by a few cars while road biking. Though the terrain is more dangerous, mountain biking gets me away from those “four wheeled beasts.”

  4. I am so far on the opposite end of the spectrum that writing this comment brings moderate anxiety. I find it funny that I perceived the tone of this post as almost defensive (“Who could fault…” “Regardless of whether we carry the cautious gene or not” ” So it’s no surprise” were some of the phrases that stuck in my mind that made me think the tone is defensive). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. It seems to me like the current american culture is actually criticizing/penalizing the cautious phenotype. If you aren’t willing/able to put yourself out there, to take risks, be entrepreneurial, walk your own beaten path, then you are considered a worthless, ambition-less, dead-weight, un-creative, laze-about who deserves minimum wage at some fast food joint because you aren’t self driven enough to be invested in. I could be wrong, perhaps I’ve just been listening to too many self help podcasts.

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