Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 27 September 2015
We often say to each other, “Take Care.” But Curtis Murphy, one of our UU student ministers, once challenged us to consider what it would be like if we encouraged each other to not always play it safe, but to send each other off with the blessing “Take Risk” rather than saying “Take Care”.
So today, I invite you to risk letting yourself feel a bit uncomfortable, and to see what surprising insights might unfold for you as a result as we look at risk from three perspectives: personal, spiritual and global. With each perspective, I’ll share some thoughts and then invite you to share with each other.
The First Risk: Personal
One of the riskiest things I’ve ever done is to pull up roots in my homeland and move to Quebec, to an entirely new culture, a new country, an entirely new ministry and to think I could learn a new language overnight. Taking those kinds of risks come easily to me. I like change and challenge — but physical risk that’s a different story.
Riding the Rapids
2 weeks ago I said I’d take the risk of riding the Lachine Rapids here in Montreal and a whole bunch of you said you’d join me. But in the end, Andrea Reichert and my husband David joined me last Saturday.
I admit I was nervous! The first thing the leaders of the trip do is to give you all the info about how you might get hurt - if you fall out close, grab the ropes on the raft. Fall out father, someone will extend a paddle to you. Or hook together two paddles or if that's not long enough, grab the bag with 50 feet of rope, throw it over your shoulder but not around your neck and someone will pull you in. And if you get caught under the raft, just raise your arms walk hand over hand to the back. Simple. Any questions?
“Yes, can I go home now?” But I’d spent 50$, and I told all of you I was going to this, so I couldn't walk away.
“Why didn't I do research about accidents on the river?” I ask myself as clamber onto the raft. You get in and you have to work! Everyone paddles. No one told me that either. They teach you the basic commands to shout at each other: Pal en avant. Stop. Down. Up. Hold your leg bent just so against the side of the raft so you don’t fall out. I.E. hang on for dear life!
Floating down the river is peaceful, like the calm before the storm or flying through the eye of the hurricane. You just know it’s going to get worse. It’s the anticipation that kills you. We hit the first rapid and we're soaked (how did I end up in front?). And I love it. Love it. The waves of the Rapids are beautiful in the sun. The water is actually warm. The whole experience is exhilarating. By the time we finish we are exhausted. But we all feel this great, spiritual calm. Next year, I'm going back and I'm taking as many of you with me as I can. All that stuff about how much you miss in life when you don’t take risks, it’s true.
Here’s something to think about. It comes from a test by David Ropeik (http://www.dropeik.com/questions/001.html), an old neighbour of mine who has become an expert on the psychology of risk.
Imagine that you are taking a walk in the woods. It’s late in the afternoon. The path at your feet is dappled with light and shadow falling across narrow twisting tree roots. There is swampy ground on either side of the path. Now imagine that, out of the corner of your eye, you notice that one of those long, thin curvy lines at your feet just moved. It seemed to slither a little. Like a snake.
Quick! What do you do?
B. Jump Back
D. Bend over to take a closer look, and study the object further.
When you look for information about risk, you find a lot of studies about our relationship to money, finance and gambling. So here’s another question from David Ropeik for you to consider:
Let’s say researchers give you $100, and this option:
1. you can either keep the money and that means you have a sure $100.
2. You can give the money to an anonymous trustee who will either invest it and double it to $200 and then return half of the hundred dollars profit to you ($50) along with the original $100, meaning you get $150.
But, if you give your money to that anonymous investor they might lose your $100. — it’s a chance you take.
Do you keep the $100? Or do you take a risk and maybe walk away with $150 or nothing?
People take risk for lots of reasons - for money, fame, political gain, to save a life. Lots of us take a certain level of risk to fulfill our goals. But then there are the extreme risk takers, a minority of people, who are willing to risk everything — their fortunes, their reputations, their lives. Why is it that some people are willing to risk it all when the consequences may be dire?
Apparently, it’s all about how much dopamine our brains make and use, that controls our appetite for risk.
We’re all wired to react to short-term threats, but you don’t want that system to be running all the time. With time and experience, we get used to risk. We get acclimated.
Some of the statistically riskiest things anyone can do, a lot of us do on a daily basis —like drive cars, or take showers. You are more likely to die slipping in your morning shower than you are flying in a plane, but we get so used to doing certain things, that we don’t perceive as risky — even if they really are risky.
Somethings that look very risky, aren’t really that risky. Tightrope walkers just start learning how to balance on the ground and work their way up to greater heights. By the time their walking ropes high in the sky, they’ve gotten acclimated to the risks the way a lot of us are acclimated to driving cars. Think of Krin Haglund doing her aerial act in our sanctuary. I nearly died of a heart attack watching her scale a ladder to tie her ribbon apparatus to the rafters here. It was nothing to her.
So many of the readings we had this month encouraged us to dare to take risks. But, frankly, having a healthy level of fear or risk aversion is a good thing, as long as we don’t let fear paralyze us.
The First Question
Are you a risk taker or a risk avoider? Why? Aimez-vous prendre des risques ou pas? et pourquoi? Is there a really big risk you’ve taken in your life? Avez-vous pris un super gros risque pendant votre vie?
(Members were invited to consider this question and then discuss with someone sitting close by.)
The Second Risk: Spiritual
“The day comes when remaining the same becomes more painful than the risk to grow. And when that happens there are many goodbyes. We leave old patterns, old friends, old lovers, old ideas, and some cherished beliefs. Loss and growth are so often one and the same.” – Phoebe Eng
By now, many of you have probably heard of Rev.Gretta Vosper who serves the West Hill United Church in Toronto. She is a United Church minister who chose to come out to her congregation as an atheist. She says that a crisis of faith led her to let go of her belief in God. It was a risk she took and her congregation supported her. She is currently under review by the United Church for her “effectiveness as a minister” and has had a lot of press as a result.
I’m sure a lot of us have asked ourselves, why doesn't she just become a UU? And why doesn’t the press come knocking at our door and ask us how we can be in religious community without a test of faith. We’ve been taking that risk for centuries!
We have plenty of atheists and agnostics here. And there are certainly plenty of UUs who are theists or who have a strong connection to the Christian story. So why do we stay here? Why don't we join the United Church?
I think being a Unitarian Universalist means being willing to take a lot of spiritual risks. We take risks by choosing to be here, by being willing to live with the questions and without the security of dogma. Some of us have left behind other traditions, or bring pieces of other traditions with us, and that too has its risks.
The Second Question
What spiritual risk have you taken or do you wish you could take?
The Third Risk: Global
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of [humanity] as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. ” – Helen Keller
They say that we are all descended from risk takers. I don’t know if you’ve heard about journalist Paul Salopek, who writes the blog, “Out of Eden Walk.”
In January 2013, Salopek embarked on a seven-year walk along one of the routes taken by early humans to migrate out of Africa. He writes that the “Humans leaving the Great Rift Valley were the first great explorers.” “With this in mind, he has embarked on a 22,000-mile walking journey to follow in their footsteps as they radiated out of Africa and across the planet. As his sponsor National Geographic writes: Salopek is walking “the trail of some of the first risk takers, who along the way took bites of unknown plants and animal flesh, learned to traverse deep water, and discovered ways to sustain their body temperature in cold.”
That gives me the shivers thinking about those early peoples figuring out how to survive.
Out of the stars we have come
Out of Africa
Out of one source into many
we cross this earth
we take risks
we claim it as our own
And then a whole lot of things go wrong
violence, wars, famine, the destruction of creation
Today, the world seems to be a risky, scary place.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and others write that people imagine that the world is more dangerous today than it has ever been, that we are threatened by war, terrorism and horrendous violence that is worse than ever. Yet Pinker and his colleagues have demonstrated by numbers that in fact, the world is a much safer, more peaceful place than it has ever been before.
John Mueler, political scientist, points out, for example “In most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more North Americans than terrorist attacks…” Yet we are certainly more fearful about the risk of terrorism than we are about the pajamas we wear.
Pinker says that it’s just that we’re exposed to more graphic information through media and “the fact that billions of people with smartphones have turned into amateur crime reporters and war correspondents.” He says that we need to get more rational when looking at the reality of the world and less susceptible to media influence.
Writer David Ropeik asks, so if the numbers show otherwise, “why do so many people who are indeed living longer, healthier, safer lives deny the sunny numbers and still see a sky full of storm clouds?” He says it's all about our perceptions. He says, “blaming the media is simplistic and insufficient. The broader explanation for our excessive fears is the inherently subjective, emotional, instinctive nature of risk perception itself…. As sociologist Jonathan Haidt put it, “the emotional tail wags the rational dog.”
“Our perception of the world is a blend of facts and feelings, the product of the partial information we have, interpreted through the filters of instincts and emotions and personal life experiences and circumstances to produce our final … view of that information.”
And “the less control we feel we have, the more worried we are likely to be.”
Ropeik says that “Research into the ways humans perceive risk has found that, not surprisingly, we worry more about things that could happen to us than about things which threaten others.
So, for example, when it comes to responding to global climate change,
“We live in our homes and our neighbourhoods. We don’t live in the climate of the earth. We live in the weather of our daily lives.”
When people are surveyed, a majority will agree that climate change is a serious issue. They will agree that carbon emissions are at dangerous levels, but when asked if they will make a personal change in their lifestyles, the numbers go way down.
Ropeik says that “The survey evidence makes it pretty clear that the “ME” factor is not much at work in most people’s perceptions of climate change.” He says that until people perceive climate change as a real, local, personal threat, they’re unlikely to take action.
Author Naomi Kleins says that we’re actually addicted to taking risks with the future of our planet, by using up precious resources that is heating up our climate to the point of no return. She asks, “Why do we think we can control the earth's thermostat when it is so complex? Why do we constantly take risks with the precious?”
She says that a lot of our greed and hubris has to do with the stories we tell ourselves. We’ve been telling ourselves for centuries that we were given creation to do with it what we will. This gives me pause. Here we are, descended from humanity’s earliest risk takers, and that’s a powerful story. But does that also mean we can convince ourselves that, therefore, dominating nature is our destiny? As Kleins says, the paradox is that we believe we can dominate nature and that mother nature is limitless. At the end of our narratives, we always get saved. God saves us, or the ingenuity of humanity saves us. Either way, we tell ourselves we have nothing to worry about. We can go on risking the future, because we don’t believe we need to fear the possibility of failure.
So, on one hand we have this fear that the world is more dangerous than ever. We write laws to protect us from the random terrorist because that risk seems very real to us — while we can’t seem to have a powerful enough, personalized, local sense of the effects climate change in our lives. We need a better understanding of the gap between reality and our perception of risk.
The Third Question
Do you need to change your relationship to risk? If you could, what change would you make? Avez-vous besoin de changer votre relation avec le risque?
If you don’t need to make a change, what wisdom can you share about your relationship to risk? Write your answer on your post-it note.
Will you join me in a time of quiet reflection that begins with spoken word and is followed by silence. When the silence is broken, I invite you to come forward to light a candle for any joy or sorrow you may be carrying upon your heart. I also invite you to place your post-it note on the wall behind me for others to read after the service.
Please join me in the spirit of prayer and meditation.
Soyez comme un oiseau
perché sur une branche fragile
qu'il sent plier en-dessous de lui
et qui continue à chanter
en sachant qu'il a des ailes.
Spirit of life,
the branch is fragile.
The bird waits,
knowing that her wings will spread,
and that she will take flight
when the past no longer holds her.
How do we live our lives with risk?
Do we sing,
even though we know
that the branch may break at any moment?
When are we safe?
When does fear help us?
When does it hold us back?
A new story waits to be told
that finds a place between
worry and confidence,
that returns us to the first song
and prepares us for the last song.
This life we live is precious,
may we live it with our wings spread wide,
ready to fly.
The Responses from the Congregation
(written on Post-It notes and placed on the wall of the sanctuary)
Do you need to change your relationship to risk?
Avez-vous besoin de changer votre relation avec le risque?
Becoming aware of how we risk. Not being afraid to say you love when you do… Not saying it… postponing because of fear…
The risk to say I LOVE you becomes easier and more necessary as we grow older.
I take risk to say directly how much you mean to me. Now, not later —
Find balance between risk that stymies growth and excessive risk that is unhealthy and disrespectful of ourselves and others.
On the one hand I love this, but would like to be more “friends” with risk, feel more comfortable. How to do this? Practise! Force myself to do things, reach out.
I’m a risk taker, but deep down I’m not feeling very comfortable — physical risk — I’ve been driving over 20 years — still have fears — social risk — out of comfort zone sometimes.
I would change my fear of risk. Currently, my fear can be paralyzing. I would like to work toward a more respect-like version of fear, not a fear that limits my progress.
Be prepared to face the dangers that others may face and be willing to intervene when necessary.
By definition, taking risk means sometimes failing, sometimes facing disaster. How can disaster be okay — how can we learn to live with failure and thus with risk?
Taking the risk — of trusting that things will be alright or even better when I let go of my supportive facilitating role.
I’m willing to take risks and support others who wish to take risks even if they contradict mine.
My life may not be long enough to change my risk-averse attitude. On the other hand, it may be forced on me as much often is.
That level of self-awareness is too much of a risk for me to answer.
Sometimes it is helpful to ask, “what is the worst thing that could happen…?”
I need to take more risks — emotional, spiritual risks, I need to be less scared. But I also need to take less risks with my health and finances.
I feel the need to take some social risks in retrospect with relationships, especially with those who are close to me.
Yes I do. I would need to risk being more vulnerable in relationships — taking the risk to trust. Taking the risk of expressing anger.
I will learn to speak and climb.
Risk — more carefully.
Chaque pas dans la vie est risqué. Il s’agit de l’assumer et de se résoudre à prendre le pas. Trébuchant, chancellant on arrive à marcher, même à courir, découvrant la force de la vie.
I want to be able to take more risks and get out of my comfort zone.
I wish to honour who I am — an independent thinker and non-conformist, without buckling under to social pressure. I don’t want to censor myself.
I would like to change the risk I take whenever I over eat the wrong food.
I need to change my relation with risk, taking more initiative and following these in detail and not just the first moments.
I need to risk more emotionally and risk imperfection on a small and great level.
I would believe everything will be OK even when things are going badly. Taking risks involves change and belief.
Let go of the ego through confidence and gain freedom to express yourself.
Yes! By taking the risk to stick to routine and discipline: doing exercise, manage my time better, +++ time with my daughter…
Don’t NOT DO because it is easier and requires less effort.
BE more thoughtful when taking a risk rather than impulsive.
Don’t risk more than you can afford to lose (except in exceptional circumstances e.g. to save a life).
Risk: support for frank and sometimes outrageous information. I will renew my subscription to Charlie Hebdo.
I would like to be more adventurous in discussing my views on religion and politics with those who have different views.
I would follow my heart; my head is full of thoughts — follow, follow
Do you need to change your relationship to risk? Maybe, maybe not. Recognize my contribution to risking the environment and do something about it.
I think I handled risk pretty well in my life, but I was also very lucky. As my father used to say, “No one gets out of here alive!”
“It’s your fault!” …but I still have to take the risk/decision, whatever it may be.
I would like to take more spiritual risks — but of course, that’s scary.
I would go back to being more of a risk taker — as I had been in an earlier time in my life.
Clarify action(s) and foreseen and possible unforeseen consequences. Awareness of our/my intention consistent with my values, or inconsistent. Impact on others and myself.
Could I risk to find and form a new intimate relationship?
Be more outgoing = meeting one on one.
To learn fully to be myself without fear or apology.
I should take more risks in learning new things when I lack confidence, e.g. learning piano pieces and computer technology.
Risk can lead to positive changes and negative changes.
Être vrai au prix de ne pas être gentil.
I need to travel more, get out of my comfort zone. I accept the status quo in the 9th decade of my life. That is wrong.
Look before you leap, but leap anyway… but base the size of your leap on what you’ve seen.
I need to be more brave. I need to jump in and commit. On occasion when I have taken on what seemed risky at the onset I have been rewarded with a feeling of expansion and knowing myself on a deeper level.
Be bolder in particular circumstances.
Yes. Risk being vulnerable to others, i.e. to let go of hurts. Obvious but so hard to do…
Say yes to new experiences. Do creative work and it out there in the world. Hold potlucks.
Take the risk to keep on loving and living.
Be (more) brave and live strong(er).
Yes! I need to honest with myself about how much is at stake. I need to remember what really matters and what is fleeting and transient.
Always expand your comfort zone. This the way to grow.
I would like to learn to risk trusting other people.
Yes — I would do without pausing to rationalize — it could be dangerous but whatever the outcome, I did it! Or tried it.
Risk the possibility of living alone.
Calculating risk seems worthwhile to me. Foolish risk seems unnecessary. Of course these determinations are very personal decisions — as is risk taking.
Dare to speak to someone sitting or standing next to you in a line, in a bus, a metro or a plane. A study has demonstrated that almost always that person will be very happy to talk with you.
To see risk as “opportunity” or “adventure” and not “fear” and “loss”.
I need to be more willing to risk saying “no” or leaving when something isn’t working for me. I am cultivating the ability to open my hands and have faith that there will be new blessings as yet unknown.
Can I remember what is at risk from not doing?
I would benefit from being able to fully let go and stop struggling with in the unknown.
My daily risky invitation to self”: (Chase happiness). “How good can you stand it????”
All the risk I take should come from the heart and not the ego.
Get closer to my children. Forgive the past. Be more open and share.
Take the risk of working less — take the risk of showing more affection to my kids — even if they don’t seem to like it.
I need to start taking more small risks.
No. Failures teach as much as successes. You cannot win them all.
I don’t need to change my attitude to risk taking: the risks present themselves on a regular basis and I have to respond with courage.
I want to risk reaching out to my friends and building deeper, more meaningful relationships with them. I also want to risk giving up the habits that help me deal with discomfort and fear. Instead, I want to let myself experience the feeling instead of always running from it.
Yes, I need to take more risk. Professionally, financially, take the risk of doing new things that are different for me. Also to teach and allow my children to take more risk.
I need to risk more involvement with people and responsibility for others. This is very risky as it could lead to hurt, disappointment and rejection, I need to risk disturbing my stagnation.
I would like to take more risks in caring about others.
It seems to me, and I can’t imagine that it will change, my fear of risk has served me well so far.
Sometimes you need to go beyond your limits to know what they are.
I wish to honour who I am — an independent thinker — without buckling under social pressure to conform.
I need to be more courageous physically and spiritually and speak out, act out on behalf of this planet.
Move slightly forward from “comfort” to “more risk” in relationships, trusting in all that ensues.
Don’t be afraid of the feelings that will come.
Faire confiance davantage, laisser aller le besoin de controller.
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