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June 1997, Volume 4 Nr.10, Issue 46

Risk

When I was young child, I lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, a large city of 250,000 people. The summers were long, hot, humid with few choices for youngsters to pass the time. Out of necessity, my friends and I became quite creative in finding entertaining ways to occupy our days. In addition to playing hard, stoop and stick ball, touch football, etc., I recall sitting in the hallway, on the top floor of a four-story brownstone tenement railroad apartment building, playing the boardgame, Risk.

Risk is a game of strategy where the decision to take chances, though at times risky, could lead to capturing the opponent's land, thus gaining strategic advantage. I never liked the game of Risk as it appeared to me very early on, that the point in playing was to always come out on top over one's opponents. To win meant to take over and rule.

While not liking the game of Risk, it did give me an initial glimpse into the reasons why people take risks. Subsequently, I learned through life experience, that taking risks – to make a point, take a stand, achieve a greater good, or right a wrong – built character and often had positive outcomes for the individual and society. Little risks taken with the consequences of failure, build stamina. Little risks, taken with the consequences of success, build confidence and prepare us for the next inevitable round of risk taking.

Daily

All of us take risks every day. We risk our safety every time that we drive or travel in a vehicle. Some would say (contrary to statistics) that flying in an airplane is more risky than driving, yet, millions of people fly every year. Our homes are full of risk. The shower, for example, is the place where most accidents happen.

Skiing, bungee jumping, scuba diving, sky diving, car racing, horse and motorcycle riding, hang gliding, etc. are risky activities. Yet, thousands, if not millions, of people routinely participate in these activities. Childbirth, surgery and associated anesthesia and medication have their risks as well. Certainly, people who choose to smoke knowingly take risks. The same may be said for investors entrusting their funds to others in the hopes of making a profit and of not losing their money. It seems that the taking risks is a very common event. It is.

Like everything else in life, there are levels of risk. Just as there are few absolutes, areas of black and white in human existence, being shades of gray instead, risk is neither all or none. If something were all risk and no benefit, then one would be either foolish or completely uninformed about participating in the activity. On the other hand, if a decision had no associated risk at all, then it would not be a risk but rather a forgone conclusion.

Some Risk Takers

I see in my mind images of people who have made lasting impressions on the world through taking risks. A picture that comes to mind is the individual, lone student in Tianamen Square, standing by himself in front of a long line of Army tanks, stopping them in their tracks. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King come to mind. Consider Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who almost thirty years ago went to the moon aboard Apollo XI, and two of whom walked upon it. Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher from New Hampshire, who took the risk and lost her life partaking in her dream to travel in space. Then there is Ghandi, whose risk to embrace nonviolent peaceful confrontation, led to the independence of India and inspiration to tens of millions.

While many of these risk takers seem to have been involved in big, Earth shaking events, that is a view predicated by hindsight. When we look back, it appears the risk takers were monumentally large and courageous people willing to do anything for their cause. I believe, however, that while special, these people were very much like you and me. It is simply the context within which their risk was taken and the impending, previously unanticipated, consequences that elevate the event to a particular stature. I'm not suggesting that there are not risks taken for political purposes as strategy, hoping to achieve a desired outcome. Surely, that happens. I am merely pointing out that progress, innovation, justice and freedom are obtained through risk taking by common people who daily awake, go to work, do or do not raise families, have dinner, argue and sleep...people like you and me.

The Big One

Perhaps, once in a while, once in a lifetime, there may come about an event or situation that is of such grave importance that taking a risk places us in obvious severe danger, where ample time and thought are necessary in order to make the correct decision. The danger which follows may be life threatening and counterbalanced by the good that is the consequence of the risk taking. The event may be spontaneous or premeditated. For example, a person may dive into water in order to save a drowning person without much time to think about taking the risk. At the opposite end of the spectrum may be the decision to become a living related organ donor.

For JeanneE and me, this is something we have done. Ever since our son's birth in October 1985, JeanneE met the challenge of improving Dylan's health by deciding she would be his kidney donor when the need came. She went through many of the tests (which had risks of their own) only to reach the place a few days before the series of surgeries were about to take place, of being ruled out as a donor. There was an anomaly in a blood test which indicated that her kidney would be rejected. Thus, events took place where I was in the position to be the donor.

What followed was a five-week preparatory process of constant decision making. Decisions to proceed, take tests, and finally to donate. In April, 1991, I donated a kidney to our son, Dylan (age 5), who today is as healthy as one could hope for, given his prior condition of chronic renal insufficiency. The greatest risk for a living related kidney donor is death from general anesthesia. This became obviously clear during counseling and through the signing of release statements. Perhaps, the decision to be a living related donor will be the most important and risky decision I will ever make.

Why then is it so difficult for us to make choices which involve taking a stand on issues we believe deep down inside are right? Why do so many of us stay silent and keep quiet when we witness racism, sexism, oppression or injustice? Is it that we are afraid of taking risks? Or something else?

No Action - Still Risky

Let us for a moment not become bogged down in the nature of a particular position. There are many sides to most issues. People on any side of an issue can ask themselves the same questions: When do I take a stand? Do I take a stand? Or, do my sensitivities have to be pressed so far, that my response comes at a time when I am no longer clearly in command of consciously taking a risk, but rather responding out of ego-driven self-preservation behavior?

Perhaps, not taking risks over a course of time, lulls us into complacency. It is after all the path of least resistance, requiring very little effort in getting along with others. It is safe, comfortable, rocks the boat not at all. It is, in itself, however, a behavior not without risk. Taking no action at all, is in effect, making the decision to do nothing - which in itself has some risk.

In 1992, when the events at Tianamen Square, were quickly unfolding, I asked an administrator whether or not the institution should take some action, a teach-in, a special program, assembly or event to draw attention to the denial of freedom and democracy to the students in China. I was told that nothing need be done as President Bush knows what he is doing. It was a safe position to take. Very little took place on our campus, and as far as I could tell, anywhere else. I have often wondered where did the student voices on our college campuses? JeanneE and I did choose to fly flags with the Chinese characters for "freedom" from the antennas of our cars and to talk about the events.

Another example that comes to mind is the Persian Gulf War. What exactly was that about? Did anyone question the military-censored media coverage of the war? Was it a war? Another police action? There was so much patriotic fervor going on at the time that few people dared to take the risk and ask, "What is really going on here?"

JeanneE and I made the decision to question what we were being told. We talked about and asked our friends, acquaintances and coworkers, to give some consideration to the reasons for their so enthusiastically supporting this latest military action. Most people did not even know what or where Kuwait was. Even fewer knew about its history and the events leading up to the conflict.

The mere act of questioning our friends and our community, of not going along with the tide - wearing a yellow ribbon, or suggesting that the war was wrong brought about quite a response.

JeanneE was ostracized at work. Coworkers would not talk to her. I on the other hand, had "one" coworker who with me spent an hour or two with picket signs at a public place protesting war with Iraq. The following Monday, I received a message which in effect said that if I were to do that again, the sender would "shoot me and throw me in the creek." These are quite severe consequences for the taking of such small risk. Could it be that these are the reasons why people no longer take the risks for standing up to what they believe is right? I do not think so.

Risk and Comfort

I believe that there is another, much more ominous, self-imposed philosophy at work. It comes about from our acceptance of feeling good and our routine pleasure of maintaining present risk-free comfort levels. While we claim to be a democratic country, it appears that maintaining the status quo through perceived risk-free inaction has displaced direct participation in democracy.

We would rather not risk alienating our friends and neighbors than to say what we think or believe. We would rather grumble to ourselves, surf the sports channels or watch the soaps, than to become active in trying to make the community or the society a better place. We would rather protect our pension funds and our comfortable life style rather than take a stand on whatever issue might jeopardize the profit margin. We have, in fact, sold out. Not only have we sold out our individuality, beliefs and power, we have sold down the river the democracy that we so presumably cherish.

Democracy thrives on controversy, debate and action. Controversy spurs action. Action can be risky. Risk and debate strengthen democracy. Since when did it become a negative to call, discuss and debate inequity? Why have many of us become so complacent, accepting the status quo, not challenging injustice nor standing up for the civil liberties we profess to cherish so much?

I believe that we have accepted a lifestyle with little will for risk taking. What we might not realize is that by doing so, we abrogate the right to the same freedoms that we claim to cherish and may insist still exist. Many people do not participate in democracy, not because they think it risky, but because they think it makes no difference – risky for democracy.

The Risk of Golfing

I have noticed that people would rather talk about sports, golf, gardening, hunting, bingo, Paula Jones, television or the weather, rather than topics of substance. One can make the argument that discussing these subjects is "substantive". However, when they become the sole dialogue between people, they become an expression of numbness and an indicator of our inability to take risk and have meaningful constructive dialogue. There seems to a fear that a good give-and-take dialogue necessarily leads to taking offense, staking ground and retaliation. Sad.

There is another phenomenon I wish to approach. That is, the retraction by the status quo. Should a sensitive cord be touched by a risk taker, the uncomfortable party often either avoids the situation altogether or responds with out-of-proportion attack. It is almost as if dialogue becomes abandoned, being replaced by either total withdrawal or retaliation with very little in-between. Maintaining the status quo is living within the comfort zone. When we have much to lose, we choose to lose little.

There is little to lose when discussing the PGA golf tournament or Tiger Woods' performance in the Masters over lunch. Bring up the subject however, of Tiger Woods going on the road in order to make $40-million over five years promoting Nike products – the same Nike company that exploits child labor in Vietnam and Indonesia...well, the stakes change. The conversation turns risky. Golf is risky business.

From time-to-time, I have used the Kris Kristofferson line, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose". For the sake of this discussion, I might rephrase the line to read, "Loss of freedom is just another phrase for nothing left to risk."

4th Grade Risk

In Ridgewood, N.J., fourth grade students thought that they could make a difference. Along with their teacher, they decided to put together a play about Nike, Walt Disney, and McDonald products with their free giveaway toys. The play included material about the sweatshops that produce many of the items. After months of study, reading and discussion, the class determined that the emphasis of the play would be on the conditions in the factories. One skit was set in the McDonald's Happyland Toy Factory in Vietnam.

The principal canceled the performance just before the final dress rehearsal stating that the play was not "age appropriate" and that the students could not understand nor grasp the issues. Evelyn Knives, reporting the story for a local newspaper wrote,

Even in Ridgewood, consistently described as having one of the best school districts in the United States, it could be argued that 10-year-olds still learning long division can't understand the complexities of corporate exploitation of labor.

Would one dare risk to ask whether these same children are taught the complex issues revolving around slavery and civil war? Would they not also be too young to understand the issues? While it might not be risky to produce a play about slavery, it might be quite another thing to produce a play depicting the founding fathers as rich land owners who themselves owned and exploited slaves. Students acting as slaves might be permissible though portraying Thomas Jefferson as a slave master might not (though he was).

For all their inability to understand the Nike sweatshop issue, one student - Han Park - said,

I know what's going on out there. These workers are not being treated as humans. They're like dolls being bitten by dogs who are the bosses.

On July 1, 1997, the Campaign for Labor Rights reported,

L.V. Myles (one of the Disney Company's main sourcing agents in Haiti) operates an apparel assembly plant in the so-called 'Industrial Park' in Port-au-Prince, a defacto free trade zone. This factory employs over one thousand workers. Along with 13 other factories in Haiti producing garments under various Disney labels, L.V. Myles pays its workers about half the minimum living wage in Haiti. With salaries ranging from 28c to 39c an hour (from $11.20 to $15.60 per week!) workers are forced to produce at an inhuman rate, under constant verbal abuse and threats of being laid-off or fired. The majority of workers are women and they are also victims of constant sexual harassment and abuse from their supervisors.

Perhaps, if we offered a larger audience, on the order of Madison Square Garden or the Albert Hall, for these children to perform their play, more people would become prone to risk-taking action. We might even decide to boycott Nike, McDonald's and Disney. But, I am getting carried away, that is asking for far too much.

Courage

In the Native American story told by Hyemeyohsts Storm in the book Seven Arrows, a mouse is distracted from his regular daily busy work by a sound of the unknown. It takes courage for the mouse to investigate the sound. It takes – taking a risk. Jumping Mouse takes risks and finds creative ways to alter his life. He takes the journey and becomes anything he wants to be. He becomes the best that he can be.

The sounds that we hear from time-to-time just might be the noise someone is making while taking a risk. Maybe, we might listen for a while. If what we hear places us on guard, making us uncomfortable, then possibly, this might be a signal for us to be courageous and pay attention a little longer. This might be an opportunity to set aside comfort, take a journey and become a little bit better than we are.

14th Festival of Youth

Over the past five or six months, I have been talking about, writing, discussing, debating with our family, friends and within my own mind attending, with our daughter, the 14th Festival of Youth and Students to be held in Havana, Cuba from July 27 - August 6. I must admit to being part of the larger United States society who has been fed and indoctrinated with negative images of Cuba and its leader for so long that we no longer are able to separate fact from rhetoric. There is after all, a 34 year trade embargo against the island. Yet, there is that noise in the background that keeps calling. It seems to say, "Find out for myself. Take the journey and see."

I have the opportunity of attending the conference, studying science and technology issues and partaking in a special course as part of a doctoral program in Communications Technology and Distance Education. Most importantly, I have the possibility of listening, like the mouse, listening to the distracting sound of the unknown. Perhaps, it is time to take the risk.

Quotes

Art is unthinkable without risk and spiritual self-sacrifice.

Boris Pasternak

And I honor the man who is willing to sink
Half his present repute for the freedom to think,
And, when he has thought, be his cause strong or weak,
Will risk t' other half for the freedom to speak.

James Russell Lowell

If the creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant for us to stick it out.

Arthur Koestler

All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions.

Carl Sagan

Reform implies risk, but risks are better than not doing anything. I prefer the risk of reform to the risk of inactivity.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari

Historically, risk-takers are people who shatter the illusion of knowledge. They are willing to try something that everyone thinks is outrageous or stupid.

Daniel J. Boorstin

1997 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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