When my son was six years old and my daughter six months old my then husband and I moved to Oxford, England for his sabbatical year. I mentioned our trip to an acquaintance who appeared shocked. “I wouldn’t take my six month old to the supermarket, let alone a foreign country.” I had supportive friends and family, yes, but there were more nay-sayers than not. Even as recently as eighteen years ago, well meaning people asked me if it was okay to eat the water and drink the food in England. Others shook their head and told me it rained all the time.
It was a risk to move a young family overseas for a year, to enroll my son in first grade in a foreign country, to learn how to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, to navigate the laws and mores of an unfamiliar place. But despite the fact that the four of us lived in a tiny, two bedroom flat with minimal furniture, despite the difficulties of making friends and wheeling a stroller while shopping for dinner, and yes, despite the rain, it was a glorious year. So glorious, that when my family was given the chance, several years later, to move to Paris for two years, we all jumped at it. This time we lived in a country where, save for my children’s father, none of us spoke much of the language. Again, we lived in a flat much smaller than our house, and again the children, both of them this time, had to attend a new school. But we thrived. All of us. The rewards of the adventure far outweighed the risks, even in times of stress.
I value risk. I think stepping outside one’s comfort zone is one of the healthiest and most interesting things a person can do. While I realize that some people are inherently risk averse, I suspect that most all of us, given the chance at taking a risk, even a small one, would find that it opened up our lives in new and unexpected ways. I suspect that even the risk adverse might find that taking one is a good thing.
Last week, while listening to Radio Times on National Public radio, I heard a group of explorers, adventurers, being interviewed by the host. They were discussing huge risk taking: climbing Mt Everest, walking over glaciers, the kind of risks that even the most adventurous of us shy away from. But one of the explorers made a very good point, when asked if people could get a feeling for such an adventure by following along with it on You tube, where some of the men interviewed had filmed their climbs live. He said he supposed that it was one way to experience a risk, but he advised against doing only that. He admonished parents to allow their children to experience risk in childhood, in order to better prepare them for the realities the world will later present. He took exception to the way children today are coddled, protected, kept safe from anything that might present a risk. And he stated that it was the duty of parents not to raise their children without any exposure to risk.
By living and traveling in foreign countries my children, now nearly grown, were exposed to lifestyles and cultures that both surprised and reassured them. They learned to maneuver terrain as unfamiliar to them as a mountaintop would be to me. They gobbled up experiences like the new foods to which they were introduced. And I know that those travels, those exposures, are the reason that both of them felt comfortable leaving home for college, that both of them are avid and interested travelers, and that both of them are not afraid to try something new. I am glad that I was on board with packing us all up and trading our lives for another.
It is neither easy nor simple to leave the peace (or even the boredom) of the unfamiliar. I realize that fear plays a part in all of our lives, often preventing us from doing something that may well profoundly change us. But without risk, what is a life?
I don’t mean, of course, that everyone should go live in a foreign country, or even travel to one (although were it financially possible, it might do a lot to tamp down America’s rampant xenophobia). But there are small risks that anyone can take: read a book by an unfamiliar author or break out of your genre rut, listen carefully to someone else’s political position without prejudice; venture to an unfamiliar part of town, taste a food that frightens you, befriend a stranger, consider a different job or career (one that, perhaps, tests skills you wish you had), fall in love, move house, pay close attention to something in which you think you have no interest. Anything you do to break out of what is your safe and easy place can only open your eyes to a wider experience in general.
More magazine devotes a section in every issue to women who take risks late in life. There is a certain bourgeois mentality about many of the women’s attempts at change: they often have resources that are beyond the ken of many ordinary people. But still, there is a certain element of excitement that lifts their stories: the women are trying something scary, something new, something heretofore untried. And they aren’t afraid to fail. That, essentially, is what makes risk so frightening and so rewarding: the possibility that it will not work out. But, again, there is always the possibility that it will.
I sit now, in a new place, in a new town, in an essentially new life, all because I was and will continue to be comfortable leaving my comfort zone. I know that my years overseas enriched both my life and my art and I count myself extremely fortunate to have been given that chance. But I also know that there are many risks I have been offered, and many I have taken, all because I can’t imagine playing it safe. I may not climb Everest, but I will not, as long as I am physically and mentally able, allow myself to get too comfortable.