In praise of risk[i]
…When I became ill with meningitis like symptoms…the virologist told me that I had three options, ‘death, chemotherapy, or a miraculous natural recovery’, – I ‘chose’ the third option. (Vos, 2021: 2)
When Anne Dufourmantelle drowned in a heroic attempt to save two children caught in rough seas, obituaries around the world rarely failed to recall that she was the author of a book called In Praise of Risk, a trenchant critique of the psychic work the modern world devotes to avoiding risk. (Dufourmantelle, 2019: back cover)
It has, by common admission, been a difficult summer marked by the concrete effects of climate change, political and interpersonal violence, continuous divisions and polarisation and global frustration and anxiety with the ever changing rules of the so called ‘covid safety measures’. As a consequence, for most, it has also been a difficult return to work routine, shortening daylight and the fear of further deaths, health systems strains, lockdowns and so on. The social policies of the pandemic do simply not add up, regardless of which camp one finds oneself on. Fully vaccinated people still get covid and pass it on, children are to be vaccinated even though according to scientific assessments ‘the benefits do not outweigh the risks’. In the UK, masks are no longer compulsory despite high rates of covid transmission, while in other countries masks now become the everyday reality of the ‘new normal’.
All the above complex, contradictory and, frankly, nonsensical realities and measures are based on supposed scientific research and risk assessment. And yet, what is less often talked about are the risks to our sense of wellbeing and mental health which the nonsensical logic driven by the terror of the pandemic has already impacted hugely. In Greece, where I spent part of the summer, every week, a new fatal incident of domestic violence was reported. Surely, this can hardly be a coincidence, but more like concrete evidence of the worsening effects of government policies during the pandemic on our mental health. The dark demons of violence and murderousness can no longer be contained. The future does simply not look bright.
Covid is a terrible virus for those affected badly by it. The images of people dying on ventilators shortly after transmission will mark our collective psyche for ever. Yet, there has never been a time in the history of human kind that people did not die of horrible accidents or diseases, it is just that we live our lives persuading ourselves that these people are not us, that the tragedy and disaster is much more likely to happen to someone else. The impact of the pandemic on our mental health has been mostly through the unbearable effect of fear. The awareness that the person out of breath, or on the ventilator suddenly close to death may easily be us is unbearable for most people. And when we are scared, there is quickly a panicky call for someone, a parent/authority figure to take care of us and keep us safe.
The problem with the so called scientific, medical research is that the questions it asks are biased. For example, during a pandemic, research is unlikely to ask the question what would be the best measure for long term wellbeing and social cohesion. It is more likely to ask, what is it we need to do immediately to reduce the burden on the NHS or reduce the impact on the economy. Of course, both of the above are extremely important considerations, but the problem with research guided by fear of risk is that it rarely links up the dots. The thinking is black or white such as ‘risk/death’ or ‘safety/immediate measures’. It does not ask the question of the impact on families or losing loved ones without being able to say goodbye or people dying alone at home out of fear of seeking medical help or out of despair and giving up on life or of pregnant women giving birth without being allowed a supportive companion and the impact this may have on their experience and therefore, future mothering ability or on children coming to believe that they need to prioritise safety at all times, and not the wild adventures and trips of imagination called upon in one’s childhood. The other problem with the so called scientific medical research is that it needs to be funded, and it is usually funded by pharmaceutical companies whose appraisal of risk on human wellbeing is rather skewed to say the least. But, this would require another blog, if not a book length thesis.
Risk of course can be reckless or impulsive and ultimately, even under the best circumstances and with the best intentions, it can lead to damage and death. And of course, we mostly live our lives trying to minimise our awareness of the inevitable reality of destruction and death, though the awareness of one’s mortality can be the most effective boost to creativity and feeling fully alive. But on a somewhat more prosaic level, can there ever be life without risk? Do we envisage of a society where we no longer hug our children or let them roll up with us in bed after a night terror in fear of smothering them or being accused of molestation or a world where eating, loving, moving, breathing are all controlled or regimented by experts? There have in fact been many arguments to that direction, but the question is would the vicissitudes of life even be worth enduring, if we did not all embrace the risk of living it as fully as possible wholeheartedly?
[i] The title is borrowed by Anne Dufourmantelle’s book ‘In Praise of Risk’. Thanks to Manos Manakas for introducing me to this wonderful book in the course of our inspiring conversation on risk.
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