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  • Reverend James Squire

Risky Business

Why do some people take risks and others don’t? Do genes control everything about our behavior and decision making? I first saw an article in the Duke University Alumni Magazine that said that there is a “risk gene.” Later I read an article by Robert Preidt in Health Day Reporter (January 18, 2019) titled “Are You a Risk Taker?” where he states, “The study – one of the largest ever – included genetic information from more that 1 million people with European ancestry, the researchers said. Our results point to the role of specific brain regions – notably the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and midbrain that have previously been identified in neuroscientific studies on decision making, Beauchamp said.”

As is true of many research studies, this study showed a correlation of this data to risk and not a causal function. It is not the case that if you have genes for risk that it will cause you to have risky behavior. It merely suggests that there is a predisposition to certain behaviors.

Beyond the genetics of risk, what causes me and others to take risks in life that are comfortable for some, but not all people, to take. I think that there are two things: repeated experience of risk of particular actions and understanding that would lead to tolerate certain risky behavior.

For those of you who follow the stock market, you know that the last five weeks have been a nightmare with hundreds of thousands of people losing quite a bit of money. I was talking with a friend yesterday who operates in the world of finance. His clients have been calling him hoping that he can help them to tolerate the risk that is currently in the stock market referred to as volatility. I asked him how he could be so tolerant of so much risk with so many peoples’ hard-earned money. He said that he had been through this challenge several times before in his professional life (experience), and he knows (understanding) exactly why things are so volatile in the stock and bond markets. He described the cause in great detail which, quite frankly, was like listening to someone speak a language that was foreign to me.

Experience and understanding are the keys to taking risks. I am talking about risks that are helpful to people. I am not talking about risky drinking or gambling and those kinds of behaviors that could result in someone being harmed. I am referring to risky behaviors where you are helping others or moving forward in a positive way on your goals in life.

Think of high-risk vocations. If you are a first responder, ER doctor, or a Navy Seal to name a few, you are effective because your training has provided you with lots of experience and understanding of what you should do when you are called into action. Predisposition may be another word for a “calling.” We are all called to help others, but we have to find our niche in the “ministry of all believers.” You are as important in your calling to help others as any priest, Iman, or Rabbi!

I would suggest that purpose driven risk requires us to have a tolerance to risk. Important watchwords are, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and Robert Browning’s immortal words, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

A key is knowing the areas of risk for you. For example, I am not a risk taker when it comes to food. I eat to live. I don’t live to eat. I drive my family crazy. We will be at a restaurant and many choices are before us for dessert, and I will choose vanilla ice cream amidst a wide variety of rich desserts. That choice is a metaphor for my risk-taking behavior regarding what I eat. However, when I answer that important question of how did I get here from there (my background), I notice that it is dominated by risk taking honoring Browning’s words of wisdom. I have spent a lifetime with my reach exceeding my grasp…” living “against all odds” or “don’t bet against me.”

I have been called to a ministry, in part, because risk is a part of me when I am involved with people and situations. I like being in the middle of risky business. Risk taking is in my DNA. I have been involved in multiple risky situations at the same time. I have been asked, “How do you do it?” or I will hear, “This is not Jim’s first rodeo! Do what he wants you to do.” It is about experience and understanding what is needed.

When a championship game in sports is to be played, people will say, “I like…to win!”

That coach will win because she has been here before (experience). She knows what is needed to win. (understanding). It is still a gamble!

I heard an anesthesiologist comment on his chosen profession when he responded to the people saying that he had an easy job. He said to peoples’ inaccurate description of his life’s work as easy. He said, “His work is 99% boredom and 1% scared to death as you are dealing with life and death matters. It’s that 1% that makes the difference and why you pay what you do for his service.” It is his experience and understanding that counts.

My financial services friend indicated that he just got off the phone on a call to his father to tell him of all the panicked people that he has been hearing from. His father told him, “Tell them that you know a good cardiologist if they need one.”

Aristotle said that we become good by repeating good acts. Tolerance for risk is gained by repeating risky behavior that helps you and others. Ultimately, we want that kind of behavior to become second nature if the goal is helping others. If someone asks me to comment on a surgeon that is operating on them, my first question is, “How many has she done?” Predisposition will only take you so far. Practice makes perfect.

St. Paul said in his Letter to the Ephesians: “Be very careful how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17) This is the biblical way of uniting risk, experience, and understanding to make that action sacred.

When was the last time that you and I took a real risk to help someone else?

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