Managing Risk in Adolescence: Learning from Men

Mine was a world of Great Men.  As a child I believed in American business, a game of adventure and risk.   In school we watched films that showed how paper was made, how America had won the war through the production of tanks and bombs.  They depicted business owners as heroes.  They were the ones who took the risks, who put up their own money as capital to finance their ventures.

They wrested raw materials from the ground and used them to manufacture goods that improved the lives of American consumers.   They saw opportunity where others saw none.   They had visions which translated into enterprise and wealth.   They donated the fruits of their labors to build museums and libraries and institutions of higher learning.

My heroes were my father, young David who slew the giant with his slingshot, and Winston Churchill whose book of speeches occupied pride of place on my father’s bookshelves in the den.  It didn’t strike me as odd that all my heroes were men.  Nor did I think of myself as ineligible to follow in their footsteps.  In fact, I didn’t think about gender much at all.  I took seriously Longfellow’s’ words:

“Lives of great men all remind us.  We can make our lives sublime, and, in parting, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

Propensity for Risk

But where does the propensity for risk lead an unmoored adolescent female in the provincial Upper Midwest, where there is no World War II, no Fascism, no Resistance in which to fight?

Because of my desperate need to think of myself as agent rather than object– as actor rather than acted upon— and, with help from the Existential writings of Sartre and Camus, I embrace the notion of risk as the key to existence.  Which helps to resolve my problems for now but amplifies them later on.

Flight from Light

Camus starts from the point of view that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” ( The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955, 3.)   He is concerned with how the individual comes to think, and then act upon, thoughts of suicide.  “One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.”

Light is an appropriate metaphor.  For what is suicide but the shrinking of self to the point of non-existence,  the progressive darkening from a beacon of consciousness which lights the way into the future to that tiny pinpoint of  “I-ness” which flickers like a candle and then dies?

… in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. . . (Camus, 1955, 6).

But if life is absurd, lacking in meaning, then one has a choice—to embrace the risk of acting in a meaningless universe, or to be defeated by it.

“I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion,” says Camus (1955, 64).

Learning from Experience

And so, for me as well.  I draw from the absurd that risk is proof of my existence, my self-knowledge and my control.  That by making that intimate connection with a stranger–by putting my body at risk–I am exercising my revolt, my freedom and my passion.

How different is this really from the idea of risk expressed in adventure sports?  For example, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom  argues that

“Learning outside the classroom helps young people to develop the ability to cope with and experience a wide variety of challenges. It requires them to make informed choices and to understand and take responsibility for the consequences. It leads to a positive ‘can-do’ attitude….The challenges which young people face in many learning activities outside the classroom require the management of risk.”

So, in my nocturnal forays I was engaging in learning outside the classroom, developing my ability to cope with and experience a variety of challenges,  learning to manage risk.

An Unexpected Betrayal

And then, when I least expect it and can ill afford it, my body betrays me.  I am sitting in advanced algebra, unable to concentrate, stewing about the fact that my period—usually as regular as clockwork—is three days late.  I am in a panic.  I have already been accepted to Reed College, they have offered me a financial aid package including a scholarship, and my father, despite his better judgment, has agreed to let me go.

Suddenly I see my dreams of escape and freedom about to go up in smoke.  I envision being trapped in Upper Michigan forever, leading a life of unmarried shame and disgrace.   No money, no job, no future, dependent on my parents, a social pariah in my home town.

I think of my friend,  a cheerleader, who  had gotten pregnant and had to leave school.  Even though her boyfriend married her and they had the baby, people whispered about her.  I wanted no part of marriage or motherhood.  I keep my head down and try to concentrate.

Then later that afternoon my worries dissolve in a puddle of blood and pain, and the moment passes.  I never spoke to anyone about it again.  I thanked the God in which I no longer believed and swore to be more careful in the future.   And at the end of a reckless but slightly more cautious summer I was out and away, afloat on my fragile craft of self, down the river of no return; leaving my past—or so I thought—behind.

Writing Prompt:

Describe your sources of risk and adventure as an adolescent.   What were their consequences?  What did you learn from them?  How do you feel about them now?