The Dignity Of Risk
The world is split in two halves. On the one risk is managed, calibrated, and minimized. On the other, people take their chances and just live.
Having worked for so many years in the occupational health and safety realm it’s second nature to consider risks and factor in hazards as a matter of course. But there is an insidious risk within this approach, and its effects are smothering.
Meanwhile, in lands where people work for low wages and safety is considered a peripheral issue, life seems positively dangerous. Cars, motorbikes, and trucks jostle for position on roads without rules and everybody simply takes their chances.
You can expect to see three, four, or five people on one motorbike whizzing along the road, all without helmets. Children meanwhile play happily beside busy streets. With nobody watching their every move it sounds disastrous. Yet somehow, it generally works.
Somewhere amongst these two approaches there is reason. A mindset that accepts we simply cannot mitigate against every hazard and that life itself is inherently risky. While, at the same time, we do well to lessen the threat of injury whenever we can to make life safer.
Enter the dignity of risk. Back not too long ago, people with profound disabilities were treated like they were sick. So they were cossetted and made to live passively as perpetual patients (as if that would make them get “better”).
It fitted in with the culture of the time. Yet, despite all the best of intentions, something sinister was happening as a byproduct.
When you take away a person’s exposure to risk, you also excise a slice of their independence and also, their dignity. So a person unable to go out and brave public transport (because it is too dangerous) is personally limited. If they are denied the opportunity to cook or help prepare a meal (again, because they could get hurt with a knife or scalding hot cooktop), they miss out on the pleasure and independence that comes with this activity.
In the same way, a certain level of risk in everyone’s life is actually a good thing, for life is inherently risky. Everybody could stay at home and avoid the perils that lie outside our door. But doing so would diminish us dramatically and make us all the weaker for it.
Obsessing about dangers denies us of our abilities and our dignity to stand above events and direct our own life. Whereas, having the right amount of risk is enabling, exciting, and gives your life zest.
For some folk that level of jeopardy needs to be higher average (consider base jumpers, mountaineers, and midnight hang gliders to name a few). For them, it’s not recklessness but a genuine need, essential to feel alive.
Whilst, at the other extreme, some avoid unnecessary trips, reduce excess contact with others (for fear of infection), and try to minimize their exposure to risk by making safety their top priority.
Are they wrong to do that? Or, is safety less of an absolute rule and more a matter of expectation?
Coming out of a cinema late one night on our recent trip, we were confronted by the Bangkok protest crowds blocking the streets. The train were shut down and nobody was going anywhere.
So, walking the back roads at midnight, we tried to work out how to get back home to our apartment. After an hour we encountered three guys on motorbikes who were local “taxi” drivers. Casting caution to the wind, I decided that the risk of the ride outweighed the danger of wandering the streets and in a minute we were each riding pillion clutching our rider as they weaved around town finding a way out from road blocked streets. No helmets, no common language, no way of knowing where we were going, and breaking every rule in our regular road rule book, we arrived 20 minutes later, safe, sound and back home.
Some people would think, “So what? That’s hardly daring”. But it was for me, especially being conscious that my wife and son were vulnerable too. But, you see, though we all have varying levels of tolerance for risk, we all need some to be at our best.
To avoid all forms of risk takes something away from us that is hard to replace. It generates tedium and leaves us feeling much less than our best. Risk therefore is not something to be avoided at all costs. That, ironically, is dangerous in itself.
We need at least some danger to feel ourselves, even if we don’t fully realize it. That’s why I say, if you haven’t already, it’s time to test the extent of your own levels of risk.
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