I recently sat with four friends, 20-somethings lately returned from a six-month backpacking trip to India.
One of the highlights of their "amazing time," they told me, came in Northern India, near the border with Tibet (to the east) and Kashmir (to the west), where they bicycled down the "highest motorable road in the world": the 18,380 feet (5,359 meters) of the Khardung La pass in Ladakh province.
For one of them, at least, it was a scary prospect. She knew how to ride a bike, but didn't often do so. It felt risky.
"We started at 8 a.m. from the town of Leh. The booking agency took us and our bicycles and helmets up to the top in a jeep - slowly, because of all the dangerous bends. It took more than an hour.
"The weather at the top was freezing even though it was August. We had layers of clothes on. Our guide said we had to get going because the air was very thin, and there was a danger of altitude sickness if we hung around.
"I didn't want to do the bike ride at first," she said, "but then I decided that I would take it slowly and see how it went.
"Riding down took about three hours; the jeep followed us. At the beginning, the road was stony and really bad; if you went too quickly, you could fall off. Then it got better, so you went quicker - but then, of course, you could go too fast.
"Traffic passed us, and Indians are reckless drivers; but worse was seeing car wrecks at the side of the road, like a warning.
"Slowly it got warmer, and the scenery was fantastic: desert and snow in the same place. It was unique, majestic and beautiful. Incredible.
"At the end, my whole body was aching: but I had a feeling of achievement. I had done it in spite of being scared. It gave me a good feeling about myself - that I was stronger than I had thought. I felt more confident about what I could do."
She had taken a risk, and it had helped her grow.
WHILE most of us will not be pedaling down Khardung La anytime soon, we face a level of risk (read: danger) every day. Whether we embrace risk or not, it's an unavoidable part of the human condition, present in almost everything we do. It was there when primitive man left his cave to go and hunt down his dinner; it's inescapable today when we get in our cars to hunt down our dinners in the supermarket.
It was there for me last week in Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem, when I drove to the outskirts of the village to attend a wedding.
Parking in the street parallel to a private home, I reversed a few feet to avoid blocking the entrance - then found, when I walked around the back of the car, that the roadside (such as it was) had simply ended about three inches beyond my back wheel and fallen away to become a flight of stone stairs leading down to another house. Had I backed up just a little more... well, better not to think about that.
I wasn't totally unnerved, but I did take time out to reflect on the "very narrow bridge" of life we find ourselves traversing; and I offered up a short prayer of thanks.
THE leader of a self-awareness seminar I took some time ago concretized risk in a way that was quite helpful. After asking group members what kind of eventualities they feared and collecting an impressive range of possible calamities, he drew a "life-risk continuum" on the blackboard - basically a straight line. He labeled one end "Total Risk," and the other end "Zero Risk."
"Think about it," he told us. "Both of these extremes are irrational. Life is never totally risky; nor is it totally risk-free."
Marking an X somewhere mid-line, he pointed out that this was a truer reflection of reality, and advised: "Some risk - with possible bad outcome - is inevitable, but it shouldn't be exaggerated. When you start thinking about all the terrible things that could happen when you step outside your front door, imagine this continuum with its 'risk meter' hovering in the middle, and get on with the business of living.
WRITING in the Irish Times last month, in an article titled "Irrational fear of risk lessens our enjoyment of life," William Reville, associate professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, noted that "we tend to react in an exaggerated and sometimes irrational manner to rare and unfamiliar risks and to be blasÃ© about familiar risks and about natural risks.
"What might you feel concerned about when driving to the airport to travel by aircraft? You might worry that the aircraft will crash or be blown up by terrorists, but you probably don't even think about crashing the car, which is a far more likely eventuality than an air crash or a terrorist incident."
Other examples of "familiar risks" that tend not to bother people too much, Reville says, are sunbathing, climbing ladders, riding bicycles without helmets - and smoking cigarettes.
Despite the message of danger from cigarettes "pounded into our heads incessantly for the past 20 years," a high percentage of people carries on smoking nevertheless, while worrying about things "from which, under normal circumstances, there is little or no danger: radiation from mobile phone masts, radioactive emissions... immunization [vaccination] of infants, air-travel, 'germ-laden' domestic surfaces... and so on."
IS RISK better avoided? I'm convinced there are areas where it needs to be actively embraced.
It seems clear that our lives would be very unrewarding if, for example, we never opened ourselves up to others or reached out to strangers from fear that they might reject us; if we never took up a challenge out of worry that we might fail.
I think we need to accept that both rejection and failure are real possibilities but, at the same time, tell ourselves that we'd get over them. And anyway, why be pessimistic when success is no less of a possibility?
Like that young traveler in India, we may find out that once we dare to take a risk, we become aware of strengths we didn't know we had. We grow.
A friend put it like this: "If you sit on the sidelines while the game is going on, you'll be quite safe; you can't lose. But if you don't get out onto the playing field, you'll never win, either."
In the game of life, the players take risks; the spectators follow the action.
Many olim, had they listened to people who exclaimed, "You're moving to Israel? Isn't that dangerous?!" would have stayed where they were and missed out on the great Jewish adventure of our time.
I BELIEVE that taking measured risks - meeting challenges - is one of the best ways of staying young, never mind what the numbers say.
I've always pictured the mind as one of those old-fashioned filing cabinets, into which we put a fresh file every time we get up the courage to try something new. When we stop adding files is when we start getting old.
Look around you next time you're in any group, and search for a person whose face is alive, whose eyes sparkle with interest, whose manner is like an open door inviting new things in.
You'll be looking at someone who's aware that risk is part of life, who is meeting it head-on - and who knows that there's really no other satisfactory way.