On Risk

Our culture values risk-taking. It may be because, as a nation of pioneers and immigrants, it is in our genes to walk on unproven ground, or because success stories of risks taken are glorified in our media and national lore. The point is: taking risks is generally viewed as a good thing.

This viewpoint, by the way, is a privilege: a cultural privilege, if you will. There are plenty of people in the world for whom basics: safety, food, clothing, shelter, and perhaps a small emergency fund, even if they have them, are very easily threatened or lost. Doing something to risk losing them is simply reckless: you are thankful for what you have, and you are careful to keep what you have. The idea that you should take risks seems quite irrational and unnecessary from this point of view.

So what does risk have to do with privilege (an assertion I may or may not have made in my last entry)? Again before I answer this question, I have to pause for an explanation. Many of the examples I have given thus far of privileges and risks are of material and other creature comforts: jobs, food and shelter, etc. I list these because they are the easy, and the most visible, privileges to point out. I’ve resorted to them perhaps more than I ought to. I said it in my last entry, and it merits repeating: there are different kinds of privileges, and risks to correlate with them: Material privilege/risk, social privilege/risk, personal privilege/risk, etc. Materially, you may be privileged with a stable or well-paying job, money, etc. Socially, you may be privileged with close and loyal friends, or a large and loving family, or a supportive community. Personally, you may be privileged with confidence, health, intelligence, a firm faith that helps you weather life’s storms. etc. And many of these are invisible: a person who doesn’t have the typical markings of privilege may in fact consider themselves very privileged in one or more of these other ways.

There is no clear answer to this question unless you also look at a third value in this privilege-risk equation. It is, well, values. (Pun intended.) What is most important to you? What are you not, or less, willing to risk or to lose? The defining question, in other words, is: for whom, or for what, are you taking this risk? Does the risk you are taking advance your life in the ways that matter most to you?

Here’s an example: if what you value most, and the way you are most privileged, is the wonderful and strong relationships you have with family and friends, and you take a material risk (by taking a job, for example, which is less secure or potentially pays less than your current job) in order to have more time and closer proximity to friends and family, you are acting in line with your values and taking a risk on a less valued aspect of your life.* Is it really a risk? Do you regret the move if the job doesn’t work out? Probably not, if your relationships are richer as a result. And the third part of the equation, privilege [of relationships], is even greater, or at least the same (ie, you are still privileged with a strong social network). 

But what if your values and your privileges don’t line up? To continue with the same example, what if you still value your friends and family above all else, but those networks are not very strong, or are troubled by some unhealthy dynamics/relationships? Your privilege lies instead in the area of your aptitude, and your resulting career, which is a very stable and lucrative one. What if you still make the same decision, based on your values, to take a lesser job because it will allow you more time and energy for your friends and family, difficult as some of those relationships may be?

Now do you regret it? If you still value those relationships above all else, then the answer is still no. It’s a more complicated no, because our society teaches us to hold onto our privileges– particularly the visible, material ones–unconditionally. 

I know how I answer this question, but let me post it out there, in case anyone has gotten this far into my rambling (and thanks, by the way): do you live according to your values, or to preserve your privileges? 

Sometimes, it is choosing our values over our privileges that is the riskiest choice we can make. And that, ultimately, is the connection I see between privilege and risk.
*Please pardon the cliche example. As I write today, I lack the imagination to come up with a more interesting one.

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