Find the right balance when it comes to risks

Life is a risky business. Whatever we do, whichever way we turn, we take risks. For the most part they are fairly minor risks, with relatively minor consequences if things go wrong. But, it is not at all uncommon for us to take life or death risks (using electricity, driving a car, being a passenger or even a pedestrian, for example). Risk is very much a part of everyday life. This has a number of implications, two main ones in particular.

First, it shows how skilful we tend to be at managing risks. Over the years I have run many training courses on risk assessment and management and made this point about how skilled people generally are. The usual response to this comment has been one of surprise, reflecting a degree of anxiety and a relative lack of confidence around risk issues. Such anxiety can (and often does) lead to a tendency to be overcautious about risk (being ‘risk averse’, to use the technical term), to underestimate our ability to cope with risk and thereby overestimate the chances of things going awry. For example, some parents can be overprotective towards their children, genuinely attempting to keep them safe, but causing other problems in the process, not least in relation to the children’s development and their need to learn how to keep themselves safe by managing risks. A similar problem can apply to older or disabled people.

Second, because we are so skilful at handling risk for the most part, we can sometimes be complacent about the dangers involved. Driving is a good example of this. Far too many accidents are caused by drivers forgetting that they are in charge of a machine that can kill if it is not handled carefully, being navigated among a number of other moving machines that can kill if they too are not handled carefully. A more cautious approach to motoring would no doubt save many of the lives that are lost each year in road traffic accidents.

And this is where the idea that we need a balanced approach to risk comes in. Forgetting how skilful people are at managing the risks involved in their life can make many of us overcautious and therefore unduly restrictive at times. But, by the same token, the fact that we are so skilled can also make us complacent about risk and lead to a lack of caution in situations that require a more careful approach if we are to stay safe (and keep others safe). There are, then, two problematic extremes to avoid, one where we are overestimating the risks involved and another where we are underestimating them. The aim, clearly, must be to develop a balanced approach to risk, one in which we are not allowing anxiety to push us into an overreaction, but nor are we allowing complacency to bind us to significant dangers.

For many people it may take quite some time to develop such a balanced approach, but the efforts involved should be well repaid. There are many dangers around us that we need to be aware of (and responsive to) if we are to avoid the harm that such dangers can bring about. But there are also significant problems we can encounter if we go beyond awareness and responsiveness and enter the territory of being ‘risk averse’ – that is, of losing sight of that much-needed balance by allowing ourselves to be overcautious. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to the other people in our lives (personal and professional) to make sure that we achieve the right balance when it comes to risk.

Don’t criticise what you don’t understand

Many years ago I came across the idea that, the further away from something you are, the simpler it appears, and that idea has stuck with me. What it was referring to was the tendency for complex matters to seem quite simple and straightforward from a distance. If you don’t have a full grasp of a situation, it is very easy indeed to oversimplify and thereby rely on a distorted picture that can be very unhelpful in a number of ways (not least in creating unnecessary tension and ill-feeling).

Consider, for example, the case of domestic violence. So often I have heard people say words to the effect of: ‘If he is hitting her, why does she stay there? Why doesn’t she leave him?’. Ah, if only life were that simple! Such situations are usually hugely complex, with all sorts of dilemmas and difficult decisions to make. Simplistic attitudes and a judgemental approach to something they don’t understand will often mean that people are being unsupportive of others precisely at a time when most support is needed.

This can lead to a vicious circle in which people who feel bitter, disappointed, angry and/or hurt by a lack of support and what they, quite understandably, see as a negative and unsympathetic attitude, they may then struggle to be supportive of others (note that I say ‘may’ – it is by no means certain that they will not be supportive, but it can and does happen). They are certainly likely to find it more difficult to be positive and supportive of others in such circumstances.

Another example would be a social media discussion I saw recently about efforts to help a homeless man. ‘Why doesn’t he just get a job?’, said one less than compassionate contributor, clearly unaware of (or choosing to ignore) the fact that getting a job without an address is nigh on impossible and that it is highly likely that the reason he became homeless in the first place (being abused, for example) may well be quite an obstacle to getting, and holding down, a job. And, of course, it ignores the fact that there are far more people looking for jobs than there are vacancies. Criticising what you don’t understand is therefore not only unjustified, unwise and unhelpful, it can also be quite harmful – part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

A further example would be when someone lets you down in some way and you start to condemn them for doing so without first finding out their side of the story. Indeed, it a common source of embarrassment is for Person A to criticise Person B, only to find out later that Person B had very good reason for letting Person A down (they were victims of a crime, for example, or were taken seriously ill, or other such fully understandable reason for not being able to fulfil a commitment they made).

It is therefore very important that we resist the temptation to criticise what we do not understand, to make judgements about people and/or their actions without understanding their story, without having the full picture. So, if we don’t understand someone’s actions, we should be ‘walking a mile in their moccasins’, rather than jumping to conclusions that can so easily be not only unfair, but also positively harmful (and, as we have seen, also potentially embarrassing and a possible blot on our own character or reputation).

Sadly, this tendency for people to criticise what they do not understand is a very common phenomenon and one that is constantly reinforced by some sectors of the mass media. Not rushing to judgement is a skill and value statement that we would do well to nurture and support, if not actually insist on.

Consider what your legacy will be

We can look back over our past and savour the beautiful and important moments as well as learn from the not so beautiful and the not so positive experiences. Equally, we can look back and dwell on the negatives, the mistakes, the regrets. We can also look forward and consider our future, plan ahead, anticipate and look forward positively. Or, we can look to the future with dread and anxiety, fearing the worst and thereby make our current situation quite an unpleasant one. So, whether we look forward or look back, we can focus on the positives, the negatives or a mixture of the two.

But, what we have to recognise is that all this is likely to have an impact on the present, on our current circumstances. Memories form a key part of who we are and how we make sense of the world. Similarly, our future – our hopes, aspirations, fears and plans – shape (and, in turn, are shaped by) where we are up to in the present. In technical philosophical language, we are ‘temporal beings’ – that is, our present, past and future interweave in complex ways. People who tell you to ‘just live in the present moment’ are not taking account of the fact that the present moment is rooted in both the past and the future. The better we understand our past and future (as well as our present), the better we understand ourselves – and the better equipped we will be to make the most of our lives.

Another aspect of this is that we can also imagine ourselves in the future looking back over (what will then be) our past. This can be a useful exercise to do to give us a sense of perspective. It can help us to appreciate what we have got going for us and give us a clearer picture of what we want out of life. It involves thinking about our legacy, the ‘you-shaped hole’ that each of us will eventually leave at the end of our days.

This isn’t about being ‘morbid’, it’s about getting a better overview of our lives. Imagining ourselves at some point in the future looking back over our lives can give us a sense of legacy, a sense of what will be left behind when we go. This isn’t about anything grand or ambitious, medals won or honours achieved – it is about what positive difference we have made.

Can we anticipate looking back proudly on our legacy and feel satisfied with what we have contributed through our life? Or do we fear being disappointed by what we see when we look back? Either way, what can we do between now and then to make sure that we feel good about what we expect our legacy to be. It might well be helpful in shaping our sense of purpose and direction, an important part of our spirituality and therefore of our well-being.

There is no right answer to any of this; it is all about having a sense of ownership of our lives – an awareness that the future is not written in stone and that by thinking in terms of our potential legacy, we can play an important role in shaping that future and making it as positive as possible – for ourselves and for the people we care about.

Many people that I have suggested this activity to have come back to me to say they found it very helpful – not necessarily easy, especially to begin with, but useful in providing a way of envisaging how we want our lives to go and what we need to do to increase the chances of it working out that way.