A Risk Worth Taking?

code orange, fountain, heat, silver spring

From the Washington Post’s Hot Summer Days in Washington

Delighted children jumped up and down on the swirled tile, waiting for the spray to burst forth.  When the fountain erupted, the children squealed and ran directly into the waterfall, lifting their faces in unabashed joy.

I stepped back, avoiding the spray, and watched, smiling at one little girl who started forward but then turned to put her face into her mother’s chest, clinging to safety just outside the circle of water.

She reminded me of myself.  All my life my first instinct has been to stand back timidly.  I didn’t learn to swim until the summer after eighth grade, and though I love the water, I only venture into the most docile waves.  Each time my family vacations on the Outer Banks, I sit in a chair at the edge of the water with a book while our adult children run headlong into the surf, waving their boogie boards in a greeting to the coming waves.

In high school, while all my friends enrolled in Drivers’ Ed, I avoided the class, terrified that I’d die in a crash as one of my cousins had.  I didn’t get my license until I was 22 and needed to drive to my first job.  In college, I took a class in golf, and after the class, I never golfed again after getting my only B.

As a young adult I briefly overcame my fear of danger and failure.  My boyfriend and his sister coaxed me to waterski, and though I failed over and over again, I’ll never forget the exhilaration of knowing, in that split-second before the rope pulled taut, that I was going to be gliding across the water because I had finally given in to the boat and allowed it to pull me to a standing position.

My friends also convinced me I should go white-water rafting, and we made an annual trip down the New River for a few years.  And even then, when we stopped at a cliff of rock and everyone took turns jumping twenty feet into the water below, I sat on a grassy knoll and watched, never taking that plunge.

After leaving West Virginia when I was 30, I didn’t raft again for another twenty years, when part of the festivities for my stepson’s wedding in Lake Tahoe included a lazy trip down the Truckee River.  The water was so placid that, for once, it didn’t even occur to me to be fearful or hesitant.  But near the end of the excursion I was thrown from the raft into the only rapids on a two-hour trip.  Instead of tucking my body and riding out the waves as I’d been taught to do twenty years before, I panicked and clung to the hands of my friends and family until they pulled me back into the raft.  For a week my body was a panorama of black, purple, and green.  And though there’s humor now in the memory, I can’t quite rid myself of the fear that I could have drowned in rushing water that didn’t come higher than my waistline.

I’ve long since accepted that being a risk-taker is not an inherent part of my character.  This characteristic isn’t limited to physical challenges—it extends into every area of my life.  But I’ve learned that being aware of this trait is the first step to overcoming it when the risk is worth taking.  My church once asked me to serve as an Elder, to help make decisions about the mission of the church.  But the nominating committee asked at a time when the denomination was in turmoil over the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians.  One congregation in the area had split over the issue, and a number of congregations in the country threatened to leave the denomination.  I feared I had neither the wisdom nor the virtue to serve.  But I did it because I knew it was important to be a voice for a gay pastor who had once taken very good care of my family.

I know I’m not the only one who hesitates to take risks.  But the people we hear most loudly—the people who get the most media play—tend to be those at the other extreme.  I’ve been reflecting about this a lot after hearing Sarah Palin’s comments at the Faith and Freedom Conference last week and reading Kathryn Parker’s column in the Washington Post.  While I’m sure Palin must have moments of personal insecurity, she exudes confidence to the point of recklessness.  And while Parker, also a conservative, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, she told a story of self-doubt in her next column after winning—a story in which she credited a teacher for giving her the confidence to become a writer.

Parker’s most recent column had over 3000 comments within one day of being critical of Sarah Palin, many of them asking her who she was to bash someone who had actually done something.  When I responded that shehad done something, in fact, had won a Pulitzer, her fans attacked the Pulitzer and me.  Soon the comments bore no relation to the content of Parker’s column.  The posts quickly spiraled into the muck, and most rational readers bowed out.

I logged off, disgusted with how the loudest commenters spew venom that they would never voice if they couldn’t hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.  And in that next moment I realized that we hesitant people—we who stand back because of insecurity and danger—can’t allow the loudest and least rational to control the story of the people in this nation.

And I thought of those children at the fountain again.  What happens when little bullies push others out of the way to get the best spot under the falling water in the heat of the day?  Adults—either the bullies’ own parents or others—wade into the water, heedless of getting soaked, and pull those children out until they agree to behave with civility.

So tell me a story.  When have you waded into a geyser that made it worth getting drenched?

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