A healthy fear of the risk-free life

DanCarpenterGeorgeBy Dan Carpenter

Let’s talk about taking chances—not the drunk-driving and Ponzi scheme kind, but the scary plunges we all must take to earn our keep as members of the human family.

I was having coffee along Massachusetts Avenue with a foreign journalist friend a while back, serenely trading cosmopolitan shop talk, when she casually mentioned the men with pointed guns who greeted her one day as she left her house in Karachi, Pakistan.

Just a brief acknowledgement of Rafia Zakaria’s criticism of government, it was; and in her mind, just the cost of doing business on behalf of the anonymous thousands whose lives are indeed disposable.

“The physical risk that so ennobles crusading writers in some parts of the world disqualifies me from calling myself their peer.”

In my mind, touché. Clearly, the physical risk that so ennobles crusading writers in some parts of the world disqualifies me from calling myself their peer. As a liberal keyboard-tapper in a Middle American city where liberal is radical, I may have been fighting the same good fight; but not to the death. With any serious risk comparison, I identify with the gentleman husband in James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” haunted as he is by the passion of his wife’s former suitor, who perished from pining for her in the winter rain.

Now, let’s dial back a bit.

It’s not as though risk has to be mortal or even crippling to be real, compelling, paralyzing, transformative. Another friend, back when he was a parish priest, lost his Honda to the IRS after he withheld taxes as a war protest. He chuckles about it today, but it shook his blue-collar eastside congregation and his superiors. Most important, it paid his dues of conscience in cash. He had something to lose. He had a prize worth winning. There’s the standard.

“I have cost my household a small fortune by not trading advocacy for public relations.”

I, too, have ventured comfort and safety for moral gain – sometimes by inaction. Unlike him, I’ve stayed in the church, at the risk of blowback over my dissidence. I have cost my household a small fortune by not trading advocacy for public relations. I’ve picketed my employer, not so much over the lost cause of money as over a lost sense of mission.

I have a list, for all my timidity, and surely so do you. I’ve learned the trick of holding my head high as I bow to the warriors of my tribe. And if the autumn of my life finds me envying those who cried out coatless against the winter, well, that’s the chance I took.

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native and resident, a freelance writer, and a former columnist with The Indianapolis Star. He has authored three books, the latest being “Indiana Out Loud: Dan Carpenter on the Heartland Beat” (2013, Indiana Historical Society Press).

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