The Return of Risk
Carol and I were in Baltimore last week, and our visits included a middle school in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. The principal told us their students consistently dropped out long before graduation, and the teen pregnancy rate was triple the state average. On the wall of his office, he had a chart with three columns: Coping, Well-Being and Agency. Each column listed the school’s initiatives to improve in each area.
While all three are important, it is the sense of agency – the belief that there is something you can do about your circumstances – that drives so much of everything else. You are not a victim. You can make changes or make the best of what is not ideal. You can take risks. Of course, the majority of these students and families had lost their sense of agency and become fatalistic and passive.
Because I have been teaching in the book of Ruth, I realized her mother-in-law Naomi faced a similar lack of agency. Her life had been one of unusual hardship and disappointment. She had moved from her home to another country and then lost not only her husband, but after 10 years, both of her married sons died leaving her with the responsibility of the family. It was then that she gave up hope and chose to believe that her troubles were the Lord’s hand being raised against her. That became the theme of her life – the Lord had made her days bitter, and there was nothing she could do about it.
People who feel like victims don’t make plans. They wait for the next wave to wash over them. As long as Naomi was oppressed and as long as she could only say, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me,” she had no hope for the future.
She had no agency in her life. It was not just difficult circumstances faced by others. No, she was up against God. It would have been easy to simply drop out or harden herself against her lot. (As Paul Simon wrote “I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”)
But something happens in the middle of the story. Yes, Ruth meets Boaz and we can sense Ruth’s future is about to be altered, but it is easy to overlook the transformation in Naomi. She begins thinking about Ruth’s future more than dwelling on her own bitterness and loss. More important, she is even ready to risk yet another disappointment.
The shift from regret to hope is always pivotal, and the move from resigned self-absorption to risk has long-term consequences. The psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said (when asked what he would recommend if a person were to feel a nervous breakdown coming on): “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, and find someone in need and do something for him.”
His advice was not what we often hear from people who recognize on a mission trip or a service project their situations are far better than others. That is still using other people to comfort ourselves. It is not getting a new perspective on our own situation or comparing our circumstances to others. That is still self-centered and using other people to make ourselves feel better. I think Dr. Menninger was saying the very act of momentarily losing ourselves in doing something for someone else is often the best medicine in the world. Rather, it is simply doing something for someone else with no expectations or benefit. It is an act of altruistic charity – not an investment in ourselves.
One of the common effects of depression is the inability to move purposefully and hopefully into the future. When Naomi awakens to the kindness of God, her dead hope comes alive. The result is her ability to think creatively about Ruth’s future. Naomi is no longer the passive and fatalistic actor in the plot. She can do something for someone else. Her ability and openness to risk has returned.
I am in the period of life when it is easy to settle in and think about reducing risk in a number of areas of life. Shift investments to produce stable income. Fix a circle of friends and relationships. Read the news that agrees with my established beliefs and avoid dissenting opinions as troublemakers. Do a little volunteer work to make me feel better about myself. Be safe. Minimize the possibility of disappointment. But, that’s not what God has in mind. It’s always a good time to risk and change. It’s always the right time to look to the future – especially of others – and keep hope alive.