In the 1995 Academy Award winning movie “Braveheart,” the main character, William Wallace, delivers a powerful speech to a group of men who are considering running away from battle:
“Run and you'll live—at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!”
After such rousing rhetoric, the men stayed and fought. But why? What convinced them? What was Wallace’s central point?
Very simply: some risks are worth taking.
And even more importantly, the risks that we decide to take—as well as those we decide not to take—serve to define who we are. Are we the sort of people who embrace the risk of standing up for the lives of others, or are we the other kind who deem risk as something to avoid altogether?
The rewards of risk
For many people, risk conjures emotions of fear, sadness, and images of lost fortunes; therefore, risk is something they shun. People often complain that something is “too risky”; but few ever complain that something is “not risky enough.” And yet, it was those riskier risks that have accomplished so much for humanity.
In fact, in a fascinating book called “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk,” author Peter L. Bernstein makes a rather shocking claim about what it is that constituted the major breakthrough of modern times. Bernstein observes that it was not a particular breakthrough of architecture or astronomy or political theory. Rather, it was the discovery of risk management accompanied with an increased willingness to take rational risk:
“The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature. Until human beings discovered a way across that boundary, the future was a mirror of the past or the murky domain of oracles and soothsayers who held a monopoly over knowledge of anticipated events.”
Far from a detrimental pursuit that can only end badly, it was risk-taking that advanced progress. Bernstein continues, “The capacity to manage risk, and with it the appetite to take risk and make forward-looking choices, are key elements of the energy that drives the economic system forward.”
Is risk a virtue?
But if risk-taking has advanced economics, think of how much it has advanced other elements of society—and think about what life would be like if risk were never taken. For that matter, think about what your own life would have been like devoid of risk. It would affect big things like getting married to little things like driving in a car to a neighborhood coffee shop to see a friend.
And the more you think about it, the more you realize how much virtue itself involves risk. If we are to practice the theological virtues of faith and hope and charity, we will eventually realize that each of these involves risk. That’s not to say that we should embrace risk for the sake of risk. In his “Summa Theologica,” Saint Thomas Aquinas cautions against daring as being opposed to virtue.
So how do we know when the risk is a virtuous one worth taking? There is no perfect way, but we might observe that risk must be linked to the cardinal virtue of fortitude. Saint Augustine writes that:
“Fortitude is love bearing all things readily for the sake of the object beloved.” -St. Augustine
As this is where we get to the crux of the matter. A risk linked to fortitude is a beautiful and powerful thing, because that type of risk is about love.
Love is the greatest risk
We take the risk of matrimony, because it seeks to bear all things readily for the sake of our beloved. We take the risk of driving to a coffee shop to share joy and happiness with a friend, because true friendship is a tangible expression of love.
Many good men and women have witnessed the fact that taking risks not only helps us define who we are—but also who we want to be.
It was a risk when St. John the Apostle showed up at the foot of Jesus’ cross—in full purview of hostile authorities. It was a risk when St. Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward in place of another man condemned to death at Auschwitz. But by taking that risk, St. John beheld the very face of Christ. And in a powerful way, so did Kolbe—who was holy enough to see that same face in the countenance of a stranger.
They readily bore the threat of death for the sake of love.
As we look back on the heroic lives of those like Saint John and Saint Maximilian Kolbe and so many others who sacrificed their lives, we need to recognize that some risks are worth taking. It is not that those who sacrificed their lives failed to understand risk; quite the contrary. Those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for others understand risk in the most proper way.
To be sure, risk may involve fighting enemies, but with apologies to William Wallace, risk is less about fighting our enemies than it is about embracing our friends. As so many heroes and martyrs down through the ages attest, love is the greatest risk of them all.
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