Living a Life of Purpose

Spirituality in real time.

The Risk of Living Deeply

Living deeply is a risk we are all invited to take.

cliff diving

Life is a risk worth taking

There's a bumper sticker that says, Life is a sexually transmitted disease and always fatal. Dark humor, but relevant nonetheless. Life is a risky business and all we have are our own choices, day-to-day, minute-to-minute, juxtaposed with the many mysteries of life. That five-year plan we worked out (or ten or twenty year plan) may help get us to a goal that we value and it may not. The left turn that we make, because our car's GPS told us to, may get us to our destination or it may land us smack in the middle of road construction, detours, or a dead end.

So what makes sense as we negotiate the perilous journey of life? What is the sane balance between risk and safety? Abraham Maslow talked about helping people to see the risk in maintaining the status quo, not changing, staying stuck. Staying "safe" is its own danger. But taking foolish risks is an equal and more obvious danger. We never tell our young children to stay safe by staying down on the floor, crawling safely. We encourage them to take that risk and try walking on two feet... and inevitably they fall, hurt themselves, cry and get up again. A few short years later we caution them about every risk they take. Wear your helmet, brush your teeth, use your seatbelt, wear a condom! All good advice on the safety end of the spectrum.

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The balance between too much risk and too much safety is an altogether different equation for different people. There is no right answer. But, like any person's preference for one ice cream flavor over another, one musician over another, there are ways of knowing that will help guide us. Many adventuring types feel a call to that risky lifestyle. Risks are less important to them, because safety for safety's sake deprives them of the vitality of responding to that inner call. And others move towards a much safer life, feeling, equally, a call to whatever lifestyle that might be. We may well have known at a young age that we would tend to move towards one end of that spectrum or the other. We may have moved, over a lifetime, through one swing of the pendulum (too risky) to the other (too safe).

But we are all risk takers. My "risk" might be choosing outside of family or cultural norms, not cliff diving. Yours might be learning to face the difficulties a life sends your way. My 92 year-old mother takes a risk in facing each day, experimenting with how to do this part of life, wondering how to be 92, rather than 80 or 70 or 60. Every client that I work with is a risk taker, for the very fact of choosing to turn inside and look at what dwells within is truly a risky business. That is a risk that we must take to live deeply. For safety, without hearing our inner call, is just safety for the body, not safety for the soul. And even that is an illusion. The most protected of us are still not safe.

Listening to the call of Self to know what and who we are, is the only risk we can't afford not to take. Every life invites us to hear that still small voice within that pulls us towards some meaning, some value, some purpose in living. When we hear that call we may well risk everything to respond. There are archetypes that exemplify the person who takes risks in service of a higher call: the warrior, the hero, the saint and martyr. But each of us is on that same hero's journey; each of has endless opportunities to stand up and fight for what we believe in; each of us can and often does respond to our deepest moral code and some of us die in service of those deepest beliefs.
So what is the risk of living a life deeply? We risk rocking the boat. We risk breaking the rules. We risk stepping outside of the safety of our own backyard. We are well trained to stay small, to live within certain rules, to be good (whatever that means). We are conditioned to:

Be certain ways;
Do some things and not others;
Think this way and not that;
Feel this... or maybe don't feel anything;
Be the way men should be, women should be, good people should be.

The rule book is written before we are born and we are taught those rules from the day of our birth. The rules are full of shoulds and musts and have to's and do's and don'ts and can'ts and won'ts and awful consequences and great rewards. And your rule book isn't the same as mine. That's why we can be so hostile, so polarized, feel so righteous while facing off against an opponent who feels equally righteous. We're following THE rules. We are GOOD republicans or democrats, GOOD citizens of this country or that country, GOOD whatevers we are trained to be.

Living deeply is looking closely at the rule book and deciding, for ourselves, in the quiet of our own soul, what the Call of our Self is. What is true for you and how can you live that authentically? What is true for me? For each of us? The answers don't come as one-time maps or simple answers. They come as feelings and intuition and as a sense of purpose guiding us one way and not the other. The answers come as a clarity of values, in a sense of meaning, as a deep knowing. Sometimes the answers are crystal clear, sometimes they are barely discernable pulls; a nudge from the universe; a thought or feeling; a sweetness; a resonance; a Call that we do hear.

And whenever we step outside the familiar, the comfortable, the place where we think we are safe, we take a risk. The risk, however, is not to life and limb, it is a risk to the old self as the new one emerges. This is a risk worth taking.

Dorothy Firman, Ed.D., is a psychotherapist and author/editor of many books including Chicken Soup for the Mother & Daughter Soul.

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