NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Risk” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
When they first arrive at my office, most of the people I see are in a state of comfortable uncomfortableness. Although people come to psychotherapy wanting change, most of us do so only when the risks of changing as lower than the risks of staying the same. This is not difficult to understand. Our patterns, defenses, and coping mechanisms are well-practiced and our anxieties so familiar that we often confuse them with who we really are. It is as if we are saying that without our neuroses, we would not be ourselves. Our actualized selves can seem, at times, like a dream. And yet we are more than our neuroses, much more, and something compels us to risk becoming that dream.
In the best cases, therapy is a container that functions like the ancient alchemist’s alembic, in which the base metals of a troubled self, a difficult life, are transformed into gold. In therapy, risks almost always generate rewards. More often than most of us are willing to acknowledge, the same is also true outside the therapist’s office – and sometimes crucially so.
About a year after my near-death experience, I moved from my apartment 20 miles outside Albany into the city itself. By chance, I had answered a newspaper ad from an older couple I’d met several months before. As part of my physical recovery, I participated in “hydroslimnastic” exercises offered at the Jewish Center pool. At 41, I was decades younger than the next youngest person in the class, and initially also one of its weakest members. My future landlord and landlady immediately recognized me as “that young man with the big red scar” and they also, immediately, welcomed me into their home.
Jacob and Isabel were Holocaust survivors and so, as I gradually learned, were most of their friends. Over time we became close, and Jacob shared many of the stories of his years in the concentration camps. He told me things he had never told his own children.
Most of his stories were about how he had survived when so many had died. Jacob was not a bold or physically imposing man, but his very existence attested to his willingness to take risks others had not. He’d jumped off a moving train headed for the gas chambers. Though he was eventually recaptured, he was redirected to a work camp. He stood up to an S.S. sergeant in a way that might have gotten him killed but instead gained him a grudging respect. He volunteered to build the new camp commandant a rabbit hutch, though he knew nothing about rabbits and little about building; afterward, he became the handyman for the commandant, and as a result ate what the officers ate while others starved. He stole bread from the commandant’s larder and tossed it over the fence to the female prisoners who worked as maids and servants in the house. After the Russian army liberated the camp, one of these women become his wife and, much later, my landlady.
As a therapist, I promote risk taking in sessions and also in my clients’ lives. The method I most often use to encourage risk is “the experiment.” Together, my clients and I identify actions they can take between our current session and the next time they see me that have the potential to move them a step closer to where they want their lives to go. Experiments are typically actions they feel some anxiety about taking, but when they do, regardless of the outcome, they feel they are making progress. Such experiments are always a risk, but we work to ensure the risk is manageable – not so small that doing the experiment will make no real difference, but not so large that it is too intimidating to undertake.
I first tried “the experiment” with a young artist at Massachusetts College of Art during my a counseling internship there. His life was fraught with addiction, depression, dysfunctional relationships, and hostility from his family. He had come to MassArt with high hopes, but the strain of the life he was living was putting him on a direct path to flunking out. It soon became clear that he needed more help than counseling alone could provide, and that asking for help was something he was usually unwilling to do. So we devised an experiment. He agreed, on a particular day of the week, to ask for help in a situation where normally he would not.
A couple of days later, he stopped in a McDonalds for a hamburger and coffee. Looking around, he saw that all the tables were occupied. It was a windy, bitter cold day. He shrugged, buttoned up, and was about to eat his burger while he walked to work, but then he remembered the experiment. Instead of leaving, he asked another young man, who was sitting alone at a table for four, if he could join him. The young man said “yes,” and my client and he ended up having a lively, animated conversation for half an hour.
This small experiment was a turning point. My client realized not only that he could ask for help, but also that he was entitled to do so, and more importantly, that when he asked, he was likely to get it. Over the course of the school year, with help from several sources, he was able to quit using drugs, leave a job where his coworkers expected him to be the “party boy,” go back to working as an artist, and resolve major issues with his family. Even his lover quit drinking and drugging.
In the years since then, I have witnessed many clients take small, experimental risks as well as the much larger risks we often face in our lives. They have taken the risk of leaving relationships, of getting married, of quitting a job, of going back to school, of moving out of their parents’ houses, of stopping the drinking and drugging on which they have for years been dependent, and of facing fears and trauma that they have spent a lifetime erecting and maintaining barriers against.
My own life has been a series of long shots, many of which have not “paid off.” But they did permanently shift me in ways I needed to shift. Leaving the safety of Cornell’s Engineering School was a risk that led to years adrift, but ultimately I landed on the shores of Manhattan Island, where I embarked on a career in writing and photography. Decades later, that risk never having fully “paid off,” I took another one and left the safety of technical writing to return to grad school in English. That decision indirectly led to a near-fatal episode in an Albany hospital, but it also shifted me toward becoming a psychotherapist, which has “paid off” in ways I am still discovering. There have been many other risks. In each case, the risk of staying the same eventually exceeded that of embarking on the unknown.
Risks put us in motion. When we jump into the water and start to swim, we will eventually wind up somewhere. Not all risks are intuitive or wise, but even the foolish ones are often a step beyond stagnation.
I have come to trust risk.