To Risk it All Against the Sea

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” ~ William G.T. Shedd

In a recent conversation with a friend, we talked at length about risks we have taken. That night we mostly focused on relationships, but we touched on travel, new jobs, new projects—all carrying varying degrees of risk, some of it fairly great. As I expressed trepidation about some recent decisions, my friend reassured me with exactly the right words: “If your choices were based on honest self-assessment and come from a place of genuineness, it doesn’t matter if you fail. It was still the right thing to do, and you will just go on from wherever you land.”

Like much wisdom, this was simple and obvious–and utterly inaccessible to me at that particular moment because of a temporary flurry of anxiety.

Much of my work with people who have serious mental illnesses has been inspired by the concept of “the dignity of risk.” This phrase was coined in the 1970’s by Robert Perske, an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, and the idea has since been applied to persons with physical disabilities, psychiatric illnesses, and those of older age. Many such individuals have lived in settings where there is a concerted effort to shield them from all risk of failure, where decisions are made for them in the interest of keeping them “safe.”

However, we all learn skills and discover ourselves through a series of risk-taking experiences. As children we acquire basic sensory and motor abilities by exploring the limits of our little universes, and we gradually expand those limits as we delve into the relationships, opportunities, and adventures that arise. These experiences help us define who we are, and dream of who we may yet become. “Dignity of risk” refers to the basic human dignity inherent in being allowed to make our own choices, take our own risks, and sometimes fail—as well as the meaning and purpose we find along the way.

Having worked with people who have serious mental illnesses at both a micro level (as a clinician) and macro level (as an administrator), I’ve been privileged to help people explore their personal goals, dreams, and limits. I’ve also been reminded daily of how privileged I am to choose my own risks every day. For people receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment, or who have received it in the past, the societal stigma and limits they subsequently encounter can severely curtail their risk opportunities no matter how creatively clinicians, families, and advocates try to empower them.

So I treasure my right to risk, even when it’s scary. From relatively mundane risks, like getting in my little car and commuting 50 miles to work every day, to the big (but fun) risks, like embarking on a really difficult hike or buying a plane ticket to a place I’ve never been just because it happened to be on sale. I also try to embrace and value the toughest, scariest risks of all—the ones that have shaken the foundation of identities I’ve developed, and then moved on from. Most of the time it’s not too hard—embracing risk is a habit one can cultivate. When it is hard, I remember the people I’ve known who craved risks they may never be allowed, and I also remember my friend’s wisdom: if undertaken mindfully, all risks result in “safe” landings, because we end up exactly where we belong.

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