The risk-takers

This little piece, taking its inspiration from the season, wants to be a kind of commencement address. By the hundreds of thousands in this month of June students leave school or college behind them, while thier eleders look on wistfully, and not infrequently impart to them warnings or admonitions which go happily unheeded. Are we not all, in some sense or other, graduates and wayfarers? Changes in our lives may not come as abruptly as for the young; yet we grow and change, and enter upon new journeys or new seasons, and are withal as much at sea (at least much of the time) as any novice facing the world.

My theme is risk-taking. It is an old- fashioned theme, for nowadays we go to great lengths to avoid risks. The prudential disposition is uppermost in our laws, as in our morals. Yet something of an older bias lingers, and we are reminded now and then of times in our own lives, or in the history of our country or of mankind, when it seemed better to put all save honor in jeopardy than too look too long before taking a leap. Somehow those seem to have been the best of times, and we would fain recapture their zest and assurance.

Risks involved in financial matters come most readily to mind. They are the only ones in fashion now, as we extol the older forms of capitalism. To be a capitalist in the classic sense was to put out one's money without being sure of the return. Great profits and devastating losses alike could be experienced, while by some mysterious process the welfare of the whole system was promoted. This happy view of things was undermined as the once-free market became subject to various forms of combination and manipulation. Even the boldest player of the game was ready to admit the need for safe- like setting forth on a journey or changing a career. Many of them may appear quite commonplace. Every time one meets a stranger, or gives one's confidence to an acquaintance, there are untold contingencies waiting to unfold. Every time one makes a commitment to a cause, no matter how fleeting or inconsequential it may appear at the instant, one is embarking upon a path guards and restraints.

Life would be dull indeed if there were no other ways of taking risks than by living at the edge of insolvency. Fortunately, there are choices in many fields to be made almost daily, and each of these contains within it the possibility of success, the danger of disappointment or failure. Nor need all these occasions for risk be dramatic -- with many twists and an unknown destination.

Of course some people are so matter-of- fact that they don't appreciate the risks they are daily taking. They plod a long without vision, being naively surprised when things turn out well, and disillusioned or cynical if they go ill. They might be standing on the edge of a cliff while remarking on how solid the road is; or they arrive at a little Eden and assume it is only one more motel along the highway of life.

To be a risk-taker requires a mature perception of our changing position amid complexities. If an acquaintance is to turn into a friend, and a friendship into a deeper intimacy, one must be aware at each stage of what is happening in one's inner and outer world. Shakespeare described the nobility of life as being able "to look before and after" -- to appreciate, that is precisely the pitfalls one is escaping and the rewards one achieves. Would we not, if we were sufficiently aware, make of each day a walk through a haunted forest, beautiful with possibilities, vital with dangers?

The aim of a liberal education may well be defined as the making of risk-takers. Every graduate from the ideal school or college should be constantly undertaking ventures that test him and put his very being at hazard. What he learns from his books and teachers is not information, certainly not technical knowledge. It is a sense of the values that make him what he is and that may permit him to become somebody different. It is an instructed judgment and a capacity to dare. In this the graduate is like the rest of us. For if there is one thing to be added, it is that the need to take risks does not diminish as the years pass. It increases for all who keep the soul alive.

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