When I was 17 I let a cute boy teach me to ride a motorcycle on the back roads of small town Montana. Less than twenty minutes after I mastered the throttle and clutch and other motorcycle words, and after he thought it wise to leave me to my own devices, I ended up in a barbed wire fence, stuck underneath the bike that betrayed me when I hit the gas too hard. The thorny fence ripped through a sweatshirt and a t-shirt that did not recover and I still have scars on my stomach and ankles from where it ripped through me. When I was 19 I almost drowned in Golden, Colorado after a couple friends and I set sail on a pool raft and lost a battle to whitewater rafting waves. I had to be pulled out of the grips of a violent current by a man I’m still amazed was there. I’ve driven a Vespa down the busy streets of Amsterdam and backpacked across Ireland and just this past weekend drove from Tennessee to California on something that resembled more of a dare than a well thought out plan.
There’s something that deeply excites me about risk. I think it’s partially because I’m a sucker for a good story and like to keep my back pocket full of them, but mostly because there is something that has proved historically noteworthy about doing things that scare me. I am significantly more interested in a life filled with risky exploration and ledges jumped off of than my sense of adventure being drowned in fear. I am also historically accident-prone so I have racked up scars and healed broken bones to remind me that I am an imperfect risk taker. My risk taking is messy and often results in a few more gray hairs on my mother’s head.
But more and more it is being made clear to me that while I advocate for risk and protest against safety getting too much airtime, there is a territory in the land of Risk that I am not willing to enter into—at least not without a good temper tantrum whilst being dragged into the shadowy dark area. This place is where the city limits of physical risk end and we cross over into something undoubtedly scarier and deeper into the center of Risk—this is the place of heart risk. I want no part of the heart equivalent of jumping out of an airplane or skiing down a black diamond. In the game of relationships I am the safest player on the field. I’m the guy who jumps in front of the baseball so he can safely walk to first base without having to worry about getting tagged out.
When it comes to the way I relate to other people, or the way I’m perceived by other people, I want things to fit into a nice, pretty box. I want things to be uncomplicated and—forgive me for using this word—perfect. I want control and I do not want my heart left exposed and vulnerable.
I have invited this mentality of perfection and feigned safety into my home and offered it warm meals and a place to stay and have grown quite fond of it over time. I have shared stories of pain and distrust and it has offered me toxic solutions of wall building and self-protection. It has hardened my heart into stone and held my hand in support as I made promises about always staying comfortably outside the city limits of heart risk.
But as I have stood with my arms crossed and back turned away from heart risk something has started to happen. I have started to hear the laughter and joy and honesty coming from the territory I swore I would never enter into. I have turned to see the community and trust built within the city limits of a land that is risky and hard, a land that has always seemed like way more work than its worth. From a distance I have watched the confrontation and emotions I once perceived as monsters lurking in the shadows become the very tools being used to build a foundation of communication. I have watched and watched and watched and something deep in my soul whispers I want that.
There is a reason that I continue to risk physically even as I rack up scars and misadventures. There is a reason I get back on the raft or bike or stand too close to the edge again—there is a payoff, a reward, an aliveness worth having. I am willing to be imperfect in the land of physical risk because I know that there’s a deep loss of spirit that occurs when I play it safe. When we choose safety we are always paying the price of a soul fully alive. Always.
Heart risk is a messy place that scares me more than any amount of potential physical pain ever has. It is a place where you risk hurting and the vulnerability of a heart left exposed but it is also the only place where you can ever gain the reward of healing and intimacy. Heart risk checks your bag at the door and confiscates your walls and self-protection; it leaves you unguarded--the only way you can enter true relationship. Because people were not made to climb your walls. There are some noble, or foolish, enough to try, but their muscles will give out half way up and they’ll fall and shatter before they ever reach the other side. You and me and our wall climbers are worth more than that.
So I continue to tip toe away from the unattainable idea of perfection and closer to the boundaries of heart risk. I am beginning to believe that it might actually be worth it--that the need I feel to protect myself is just paper-thin control that needs to be crumpled up and thrown away. When I think about the imperfect risk taker in the territory of heart risk I imagine someone who is bold and brave enough to get hurt. Someone who doesn’t avoid the hard and uncomfortable because she knows those things are the gates that open up into the joy of real vulnerability and being known. She walks with her head up knowing that there will be failure and pain but there will also be community and a soul fully alive. And my soul whispers I want that.
So here’s to the imperfect risk taker, may we be brave enough to look more like her.