The Rewards of Risk

‘I will take the Ring,’ he said, ‘though I do not know the way.’ 

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, “The Council of Elrond” 

Frodo setting off on a nearly hopeless trip to Mordor or the knight taking up the quest for the Holy Grail are, intentionally or not, setting out to be heroes. Heroes may have a plan, or they may be following their noses. They may have mystical ancestral swords and gallant steeds, or they may be unarmed, crawling on their hands and knees. They may be strong or weak, sages or simpletons. Even their attitude as such is secondary: they may be giddy about their adventures, or nonchalant, or they may be moody and depressed. None of that matters. What uniquely marks the hero is courage. Here I’m picking up on my previous discussion of education as adventure.

Courage is often misunderstood as the absence of fear. The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz believes that if he only has courage, he won’t be afraid of anything. Correctly reasoning from a mistaken premise, he assumes that his fear proves that he lacks courage (which turns out, in the long run, to be false). But courage is not rightly apprehended in the absence of fear. In fact it really can only ever be tested in the presence of fear. It is not courage to undergo a risk you don’t perceive as one: it’s just obliviousness. Courage is deciding that fear is not going to determine your behavior. The coward, by contrast, has decided to accept a guaranteed mediocrity in exchange for the freedom from risk. Most people do that. The pain comes anyway, but without the achievement.

Most situations calling for courage don’t present life-and-death risks; usually one is risking some sort of pain, but not death. And yet life itself is what is on the line. The life lived courageously — whether marked by conspicuous success or not — has value and purpose; the cautious accumulation of safe choices, however, will constitute a life barely lived.

It may seem odd to talk about courage in the educational adventure, but I think it is real, even if the costs are seldom reckoned clearly. It requires courage to tackle a subject one knows nothing about, and to face the possibility of failure. It takes courage to take a tough course that might blemish an otherwise “perfect” transcript. In my time as a teacher I have seen students or their parents (more often the latter) cave in to their fears. Rather than coping with the reality that they might not succeed, or that success might only come after some painful hard work, they choose to demur, and so make their failure certain. “What you say is all right for exceptional students,” some parents have told me, “but my kids are not really exceptional.” Oddly, I usually thought the kids were exceptional, or could be. But never mind — they had decided not to be, and they lived down to those expectations. Nothing sells like defeatism.

If one does not strive to achieve — not so much for the sake of being exceptional as for the intrinsic value of the thing being sought — one will surely collect quite an assortment of forfeitures. Our society cultivates, indulges, and excuses cowardice at every level, and even vilifies people for having the backbone to stand up for what they think is right, in the tacit belief that if we don’t hold others to account for their cowardice, they won’t hold us to account for it either. Even holding out for accountability is considered “elitism”; timorously moving with the  herd claims justification by proximity: “everyone is doing it”. The scriptures say otherwise. In the parable it shows up as burying one’s talents.

Yes, there are reasons other than cowardice to stop studying something, and I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who ever dropped a subject was a loser for doing so. A genuinely tone-deaf person probably won’t benefit from the study of music, and, having found that out, is well advised to move on. But such fundamental physical or mental incapacities are relatively rare. Lack of courage — call it gumption, commitment, or drive, if you will — is far the more common cause of failure, because one can achieve it from any point on the scale of potential. The race to the bottom is fast and easy, and one can feel good about not being in absolute last place.

But it’s not about place: it’s not about comparing oneself with others. In the perspective of the church, saints are heroes of the faith. We must resist the temptation to sequester them as a class different from ourselves. One of the more treacly hymns of the twentieth century in the Anglican tradition is “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” by Lesbia Scott (1929). It has survived despite its rather precious phrasing, I think, because at bottom it conveys a gritty and uncompromising theological truth. The first verse winds up: “they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.”

This is not about exceptionalism or elitism. It’s not about being better than anyone else. It’s about faithfulness, and about boldly turning our talents to good account (talents taken literally or figuratively: what we’ve been lent for use in God’s service, not given as unearned keys to self-satisfaction). They are not our own in the first place. We are charged with using them, investing them, as best we may. We are not even required to be successful — certainly not in the jaundiced eye of the world. We are required to be faithful — and that means using our gifts courageously, not burying them. Whether we strive or not, we will all encounter the sting of failure; we might as well face that fact. As T. E. Lawrence says in Lawrence of Arabia, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Hurt will always come; failure can be intermittent or constant. Only those who do not risk are sure to fail all the time.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.