Risk taking, like athleticism, is apparently not part of my genetic makeup. For as long as I can remember, I have looked askance at my daredevil peers and assessed their feats with the observation, “Well, that’s stupid.” Perhaps my criticism is rooted in the jealousy I feel when I see people accomplish things that I cannot do myself. But I prefer to think that my risk aversion is due to a practical appreciation of consequences. That stage you’ve heard of when teenagers supposedly think they are immortal? I never experienced it. Rather, I was keenly aware that serious injury and death lurk on the other side of “Hey, watch this!”
I remember the day I saw my friend’s older sister with a cast on her arm. Sue was a few years older than us at an age when such a difference seemed like a deep and unknowable chasm of time. She was proudly offering her white, plaster cast for signatures. “How did it happen?” I wanted to know. Apparently she had been at the playground just a block over and had made a failed attempt to jump from her perch atop the jungle gym to the distant monkey bars. I looked up to the sky and envisioned the scene, recalling the layout of the playground and noting the wide span that made such an act highly inadvisable, and all I could think was, “Well, that’s stupid.”
Is this the reason why I made it through childhood without breaking a bone? Maybe it was a contributing factor, along with circumstantial luck and a calcium-rich chocolate milk habit. Not that I didn’t do my share of stupid things. The very same playground where Sue broke her arm included the trio of parallel bars from which I learned a painful lesson. One day, alone at the park, I straddled the middle bar and walked along the outer bars. Until I slipped. The difference was that I did not perceive the foolishness of my action, did not even foresee any probability of injury until that dreadful moment when the center bar stopped me from landing on the ground. How that incident did not prevent me from eventually fathering two daughters is beyond me, but such speculation is beside my point. Usually I saw the inherent danger in risky behavior, and I decided that the potential reward was rarely worth the risk.
That mindset was sufficient to keep me away from any and all of the illegal experimentation to which some of my high school peers succumbed. In fact, I was downright naive about it. There was a guy in our class who carried a postal scale and was rumored to be a source for various intoxicants. I thought it was pure affectation, a ruse to raise his cool factor. He even approached me once, and as I was certain he was joking, I glibly played along as though I patronized people like him all the time. He must have thought I was an idiot. And so I was, as my classmate was eventually expelled for drug dealing.
I just had a hard time understanding why anyone would choose to do something like that and think it was worth risking a devastating outcome, especially in a situation in which the potential consequences are obvious. It wasn’t all that different from Sue and her broken arm. Any compassion I felt was tempered by the thought, “Well, that’s stupid.”
However, my milquetoast approach to life comes with a cost. Obeying my aversion to unnecessary risk has kept me from participating in experiences that bring a lot of joy to others. For example, I have never ridden a motorcycle, nor have I wanted to. One summer when I was home from college, a friend offered to take me out on another friend’s bike. I was, to say the least, reticent. “C’mon,” my friend pleaded, “I’ll let you wear the helmet.” Probably we would have had a good time, maybe even an exhilarating thrill. But all I could think about was the possibility of being thrown from the motorcycle and condemned to lifelong paralysis. In my autumn years, having endured decades of humiliating dependency, I would still bitterly regret the foolishness of my youth. “Why didn’t I say ‘no?'” would be my tortured refrain. And so that is precisely what I did.
Sometimes my conservative behavior precludes my participation in activities I would actually like to do, like skydiving. Those who know me would probably laugh at the thought of me willingly jumping from an airplane, but I think it would be a blast. To be able to experience a significant free fall before the parachute is deployed is an incredibly exciting opportunity. And then, floating lazily along the horizon with an aerial perspective of the landscape would be heavenly. I would do it in a heartbeat, and I’m certain I would love it. Except I can’t.
I know the risk of parachute failure is small, but it is always a possibility. People do win the lottery, and people do plummet to their deaths. Though the likelihood of malfunction is small, the potential cost is as high as it gets. And what is more, I do not need to jump from an airplane, which makes it a totally unnecessary risk.
I still haven’t completely abandoned the idea, but for now, skydiving will have to wait. I mean, first my parents would have to die, because they would be destroyed if their youngest child perished in such a purposeless and avoidable fashion. I think it would be irresponsible of me to try it while I’m still married, so I have to wait until my wife dies as well. And our children, it wouldn’t be quite fair to them for me to take such a risk while I’m still their father, so I’ll just have to outlive them, too. Not to mention siblings and close friends. Really, I can only do this if everyone I know happens to die. But by God, if that horrendous improbability should ever come to pass, I’m jumping out of an airplane. Even if it is stupid.