Risky Living: Good Risks and Bad Risks


Living with risk: almost 600,000 Americans have died of COVID as of April 29, 2021


(I started writing this one year and one day ago. I might as well finish what I started.)

As a child growing up, I learned to swim at a local swim club where I also spent many lazy, summer days in the water. The high dive was the ultimate challenge at the club, and the divers who trained there were the people I looked up to. The thrill of somersaulting in the air into water was alluring.

I never took diving lessons. We moved when I was still young, but high dives always called me. As a teenager, the Quarry which became my new summer hangout had a high dive and a tower. The tower was only opened on special occasions, and only the bravest of kids would jump off.

I never had diving lessons, but I learned to somersault through the air, swan dive and a host of other playground tricks. I didn’t pass up an opportunity to dive from the tower either. I was somewhat a reckless youth.

The tower is still there today, but I am told they never “open” it because of the liability. My experiences were 45-50 years ago now.

I recall these things because I woke suddenly from a dream early yesterday morning to a man curled tightly in a rotating somersault spinning in the air. At 60 years old, now, the thrill of somersaulting in the air is more tinged with fear than it used to be, and the sudden vision of it jolted me awake with Adrenalin.

Every once in a while, I show my kids I can still do it, but the body doesn’t move like it once did. I can’t bounce or curl or rotate like a 15-year old anymore.

The moment of fear-tinged thrill I felt as I woke was more like the feeling I had when I was younger when I was tempted to see how close I could jump from the high dive to the edge of the swimming pool without hitting it. The “thought experiment” conjured up the same kind of feeling.

The two things – somersaulting from a high dive and trying to jump close to the edge of the pool without hitting it – are risky things to do. A misstep doing either one might result in injury or even death.

Not being instructed in the matter of high diving, I probably had more confidence than I should have in my own abilities. I pushed myself beyond what I feared I could not do. I might have been a bit brash about it, but I wasn’t foolish. Attempting to jump as close to the edge of the pool without hitting the concrete would have been not only brash, but utterly foolish.

Life is full of risks. Just swimming in water comes with the risk of drowning. (How many times did our mothers scold us about not swimming within an hour of eating?) The mother who doesn’t teach her kids to swim, though, isn’t doing them any favors. A person who never learned to swim, for fear of drowning, is much more likely to drown in a sudden fall into the water than a person who learned to swim.

For me, swimming was as natural as riding a bike. I did it for hours every day all summer long. Swimming in the water was familiar to me, so I didn’t fear it. Perhaps, I was even overconfident in my abilities and didn’t take seriously the warnings from my mother (though I listened to her anyway because she was my mother).

There are good risks and bad risks. Any business person knows that, as going into business is full of risk.

We are currently in the sixth week of sheltering in place from the corona virus threat here in Illinois. People throughout the country are starting to get restless, calling for the governors to declare an end to the stay-at-home orders and open up the states for business as usual. Many people are hunkered down because they are vulnerable or scared, while protesters are taking to the streets in defiance with no masks, daring government intervention.

How does the risk of COVID-19 fit into the spectrum of risk? It depends a lot on you.

Financial advisors always survey their clients’ risk tolerance. People have different levels of risk tolerance. Some of us are bolder, brasher and more confident than others. Some of us are timid and scared. People with vulnerabilities have reason to be concerned. Some people are just plain reckless.

I was reckless at a time in my life. The temptation to jump as close to the edge of a concrete pool as I could was real. I will tell the “rest of the story” in the blog to follow, but first I want to finish the thoughts I have about good (calculated) risks and bad (foolish) ones.

I would have had no good reason to attempt to jump to the edge of a concrete pool from the high dive to see how close I could come to it. That would have been a foolish risk, and I am glad I didn’t succumb to the temptation to do it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have any reason to do it; rather, it wasn’t a good reason, and certainly not a reason good enough to justify the risk.

I was a shy, but athletic, kid. I wanted attention, to prove myself and fit in. I wanted other people to like me and to consider me part of their crowd, but I didn’t have an outgoing, assertive personality. I didn’t find it easy to make friends in a strange environment.

I didn’t know anyone at the club we spent several summers in my youth. It was in a neighborhood and town outside where I lived. The temptation to jump from the high dive to see how close I could come to the edge of the pool was inspired by a desire for people to notice me, to like me and to accept me into their crowd.

Not every risk is worth taking. That would have been a bad risk if I had actually attempted it. I could have ended up seriously injured, maybe even crippled for life (or worse).

If I had actually “pulled it off”, what would it have gotten me? Probably not what I was looking for. If it did gain me the attention and sense of place I was looking for, it wouldn’t have been a good kind of attention or a healthy “place” to be in. That kind of “fitting in” doesn’t have any substance to it.

We are now in week six of sheltering in place from the corona virus. People are getting restless, even to the point of protesting, filing lawsuits and demanding that stay-at-home orders be lifted. They have reasons: the economy is devastated; unemployment is at Depression Era levels; people are concerned about government overreach and setting bad precedent. These are much better reasons for taking the risk of opening up the country than I had for wanting to jump close to the edge of a pool.

The risk, though, isn’t just for the ones who want freedom. The risk is to the vulnerable and the susceptible people among us – people who depend on their healthy neighbors to keep them safe.

The virus also is not like the flu. We are familiar with the flu, and we know exactly what the flu does. Yes, the flu kills people, but we know how to treat it, and we even have a vaccine for it (if people would take it).

We are still trying to figure out COVID-19. (Even a year later!) It’s been unpredictable. The pneumonia it causes is not like the pneumonia doctors usually treat. The standard protocols are not working. People placed on ventilators have an 80% to 90% chance of dying. The virus causes blood clots in some people. It affects organs other than the lungs, including the bowels, liver, kidneys and brain.

The stories of people who have fought COVID-19 are harrowing. (See Recovering from coronavirus: Three harrowing stories of surviving Covid-19; First Denial, Then Fear: Covid-19 Patients in Their Own Words; Pain, solitude, fear: Survivors tell their stories of COVID-19.) You don’t have to read too many of these stories to know this isn’t the flu, and the unpredictability and changing nature has challenged the knowledge of the best minds.

We are beginning to learn that, perhaps, as many as fifty percent of the population may have had the corona virus, and they didn’t know it. It doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people are completely asymptomatic. They have no symptoms they could identify at all.

That’s good news and bad news. It’s good that many more people than we might realize are able to “handle” COVID-19 and survive. It’s bad news, though, that it’s apparently more contagious than we currently know, and if more more asymptomatic people than we know means that vulnerable people are at greater risk than we realized.

So, we remained on “lockdown” at the time I begin writing this. Not lockdown, really. Let’s be honest. In most places, people were still out and about. Stores with “essentials” are open, and “essential services” were still being provided. Even a year ago, people were still out and about, serving at drive-thru windows and congregating without masks, and many people were doing it intentionally in opposition to the stay-at-home orders. 

I will only say this before moving on to the next blog that takes this risky living business in a different direction. Some people may be adept enough or lucky enough to avoid hitting the edge of the concrete pool in an attempt to jump as close to it as they can. We might call them foolish for trying, or even stupidly courageous, but it would be a different matter if our recklessness forced other people to the proverbial concrete edge of the pool.

Think of the vulnerable people who live in your community. The people with high blood pressure (which seemed to be the single most prevalent factor present in the people who got hit hard by COVID-19), the people with diabetes and other conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. You may get it and be asymptomatic, but you may pass it on to an exponential number of people, some of whom won’t survive it.

Thus, the right thing, the good thing, to do is to wear a mask in public (which is not meant to protect you, but to protect others from you); wash your hands often, be careful about what you touch; don’t touch your face; keep your distance from others. Love your neighbor. Do it for the people around you.

I think this is still good guidance today, a year later. Though it seems that things are getting better, people are getting vaccinated, and the world is opening up, we are still experiencing twice the number of new cases today than we were one year ago, and almost 600,000 Americans have died of COVID:

The United States: Coronavirus Pandemic Country Profile from Our World In Data, a project of the Global Change Data Lab, a registered charity in England and Wales

I will pick up where I am leaving off in the follow up to this blog – Risky Living Part II. I will get a little bit more into my own reckless youth and dive a little deeper into the business of risky living.

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