Talk flowed freely at a gathering of members of a philosophy club. They came prepared to discuss risks that they had taken or gambles they would like to wage—animation increased with every telling. I jumpstarted the evening with the tale of the remark made by Greek philosopher Socrates as he lay close to death. His followers longed for reassurance that the soul was indeed immortal and that they weren’t losing their mentor forever. Having walked the philosopher’s walk, insisting adamantly that the soul needed attention more than the body, was Socrates really sure that it is the soul that matters in the end? Did he spend his life wisely? Was he right? His answer provokes the dynamic dialogue today so cherished long ago by the ancient Greek sage—“the risk is a noble one” (Phaedo) he concludes. He bet his life on it.
How energizing to make a bold move. What a thrill to take a noble risk regardless of outcome, hopeful yet uncertain of what lies ahead. Eavesdrop on some of the stories shared by those who dared and decided to try:
An aspiring author chucks years of research and resolves to start all over, following her instincts and dropping the road plenty traveled. Several people muster the courage to go back to school, shouldering into classrooms alongside students half their age, envisioning a future that can be bought only with academic success wrought by steely determination. A woman, born with cerebral palsy and now confined to a wheelchair, starts the physical therapy that may put her back on her feet after twenty years of confinement. A few participants match this leap of faith in physical therapy with their ongoing efforts in counseling sessions needed to reset the course of their lives. Several admit the risk that vulnerability poses when they choose to apologize and ask for another chance. Talk of leaving behind a dead-end, high-paying job for an invigorating vocation encourages others to contemplate a career change. Listen to this duo: A whistleblower says he would do it again—speaking out against her tormenter, the abused is a victim no longer.
Two twentieth century French existentialists join Socrates in chorus. Albert Camus summons his courage: “... I need my strength. I do not need life to be easy for me but I want to be able to match myself up to it if it is difficult, being in command of whether I want to go where I am going (Albert Camus Notebooks 1951-1959). Forge ahead, Camus beckons us, just as he urged members of the French Resistance in the Second World War. Go where you want to go. Risk-taking, ennobling our lives and enlarging our humanity, isn’t about daredevilry or foolhardiness. As Simone de Beauvoir states, it’s about people who “cast themselves into the world with a largeness of spirit” (Ethics).
Why not bet on yourself? How about sticking your neck out just far enough to see the possibilities? Up for crossing the bridge to the other side?
Marietta McCarty is the author of Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids and How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most.