On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.

 

I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.

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