We hear a lot about those who violate the rules of the pandemic lockdowns, but the truth is, most people have been remarkably obedient. Overnight it seems, everyone has learned to wear masks and adjust their lifestyles. I see it everywhere I go.
I can’t tell you how many email messages I’ve seen from rabbis and community leaders urging us to take precautions and follow all the rules and mandated guidelines, however stringent.
The great majority of people have learned the art of staying home — and rarely leaving. We’ve cancelled all kinds of trips, from that big one to Europe to those smaller ones to local restaurants. Because we’re all petrified of catching a deadly virus, any decision to go out is preceded by that seminal question of our pandemic era: Is it worth the risk?
I have a theory that modern life has prepared us exceedingly well to answer that question with a big resounding no.
Avoiding risk is a modern-day obsession. “Safety first” is a societal mantra. Companies who fear being sued bombard us with safety warnings. Cars have never been safer; the field of medicine has never been more formidable at keeping us alive; drug commercials are filled with possible side effects.
This extraordinary attempt at making us safer has inflated our expectations and seduced us into seeking “risk-free” lives. So, when the deadly coronavirus showed up earlier this year, we were more than ready to avoid that danger at all costs.
For many of us, a risk-averse quarantine life is simply an exaggerated continuation of our pre-COVID-19 lives. After all, if were extra careful before the pandemic, how much more so now?
For many of us, a risk-averse quarantine life is simply an exaggerated continuation of our pre-COVID-19 lives.
What is fascinating, however, is that there’s an aspect of human nature that directly contradicts our safety obsession —the adrenaline rush of seeking excitement.
According to a report in Psychology Today, “Sensation-seeking, also called thrill-seeking or excitement-seeking, is the tendency to pursue new and different sensations, feelings, and experiences. The trait describes people who chase novel, complex, and intense sensations, who love experience for its own sake, and who may take risks to pursue those experiences.”
This risk-taking gene, according to the report, has been crucial to our evolution: “Risk-taking has value and serves an important evolutionary purpose. Without the courage to advance into unknown, potentially dangerous territory, human beings may not have found new mates, populated the globe, or flourished as a species.”
In other words, it’s wonderful to take precautions and avoid danger, but if we take it too far, we may erode the very gene that triggers new ideas and experiences and helps us grow. Our safety gene plays to our fears; our risk gene plays to our ambitions.
Especially now when a virus is threatening our bodies, we also have a tendency to see risks as mostly physical. But we can also take intellectual and creative risks that are no less important to our progress and well-being.
We can also take intellectual and creative risks that are no less important to our progress and well-being.
Do we risk reading things we disagree with? Do we risk trying something we’ve never done before, or checking out voices in our community we’ve never heard before? Do we risk listening more closely to those we love? Do we risk learning a new skill, or finding creative ways to help those in need?
Those risks may be the best part of being human, and for most of them, you don’t even have to leave home.