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I recently read a memoir called The Little Locksmith that was written in the 1930s by Katharine Butler Hathaway, a woman who spent most of her childhood strapped to a board in an effort to stem the ravaging effects of spinal tuberculosis. Her writing is very good, if not a bit studied, and her descriptions of her predicament, her longing for love, and her insistence on independence are both emotional and cerebral. But there is one sentence in the book that meant more to me than all the others.

“I did not like it that they (sensible people) placidly took it for granted that physical comfort and health and financial security were the only really important things in the world, and were ignorant of the beliefs and passions of the head which may require a person to abandon security and health and comfort and sacrifice his reputation or even his life if necessary.”

What Hathaway is writing about here is risk taking, the notion – and the follow through – of abandoning everything that makes sense (comfort, security, etc.) in the pursuit of something that may not (a revolutionary thought or experience). We know that only those who take risks can make fantastic discoveries, improve outdated practices, radically change the status quo. But we also know such efforts, no matter how noble, can result in abject failure. And it is this potential for failure, for losing everything we have invested in, that stops us cold.

I’m a risk adverse person, preferring a schedule to spontaneity, continuous productivity to bouts of creativity, healthy foods to Cheese Doodles. When I was in high school and college I practiced some risky behavior – but it was fairly typical shenanigans rather than life endangering activities. I’ve played it safe. And now, at 57, I’m starting to question this.

Don’t worry about me now; I’m not the kind of person who dives into the water without knowing its depth. But I am interested in exploring what it means to say yes instead of no – and to say no instead of yes. It is, I am lately thinking, the risks we take that define who we are.

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