The Magnificent Risk (Rev. Margaret Keip)


by Danaan Perry, on transition (excerpted from his Essene Book of Days)

Sometimes I feel that life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar, swinging along, or I’m hurtling across space toward another.

Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I feel in control of my life. But once in a while as I’m swinging along, I look ahead and see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and somehow I know the bar has my name on it. It is my aliveness coming to get me.

Each time it happens I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void I have always made it. Each time I’m afraid I will miss. But I do it anyway. No net, no guarantees, but you do it anyway, because to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.

And so, for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the void of “the past is gone, the future not yet here.” It is called transition.

Transition zones are where change really happens. Even with the fear, transitions are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives. Hurtling through the void, we may learn how to fly.


To begin, a true story: The Flying Wallendas, the famous family high-wire act, descend from a family circus troupe that toured European villages as far back as 1790. Karl Wallenda was born in Germany in 1905, and began performing with his family when he was six. He came to America when John Ringling saw the four-person human pyramid Karl had created on the high wire, and contracted them to appear in Madison Square Garden in 1928 – where they debuted without a net (it had been misplaced in shipping). Their crowning achievement evolved into a seven-person pyramid during the next two decades, as Karl was building here a circus of his own.

And then, one evening in 1962, the front man on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground-two died that night; another, Karl’s son, was paralyzed for life. Karl and his brother fell to the wire from the second level, and the young woman on top fell on Karl, who held her until a net could be held underneath. The next evening, the uninjured Wallendas were back on the wire. How? Why? … As Karl would later express it: “Being on the wire is life; everything else is just waiting.”

Struggling to comprehend this leads one first to wonder if the Wallendas are not entirely sane…Or perhaps they have little love for each other?…Or possibly may it be true – that life is lived on the wire? – That life is a magnificent risk?

Years back, the New Yorker magazine reprinted this advertisement from the Warrenton, Virginia, daily paper:

IMPORTANT NOTICE: If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our Easy Sky Diving book, please make the following correction: on page 8, line 7, the words “state zip code” should have read “pull rip cord.”

Given a choice between stating my zip code and pulling a rip cord, hey – 97527, thank you very much. But it would be useless up there, where my future would depend on more than something I know by heart and have recited a thousand times.

Life is risky. Much of the risk with which we live each day on the ground, we do not think about very often. We know there are pollutants in water we drink and the air we breathe. We know that the odds of our being killed in an accident are radically increased by the existence of automobiles, airplanes and other forms of high speed living, but we accept the risk, fasten our seat belts, don our motorcycle helmets, and sally forth.

Back in the 1940’s, in the wake of the unleashing of the atomic bomb, theologian Paul Tillich wrote of the power contained in the tumult that gave birth to our planet: Unruly power…was restrained by cohesive structures, and a place was provided in which life could grow and history develop, in which words could be heard and love be felt, and in which truth could be discovered and the Eternal adored. All this was possible because the fiery chaos of the beginning was transformed into the fertile soil of earth. [from “The Shaking of the Foundations”] – And out of the earth was born us.

In cosmic time, humans have had a very short history. We cannot fathom our full potential. We only know that we have come a very long way in a relatively short time. And we need to begin asking more daring questions about ourselves and our capabilities, and about the potential of this planet on which we live. Thus far we have proven to be nomadic-born with an urge to roam, surviving all the risks that frontiers hold, and pushing them before us to discover new frontiers beyond.

Poet Don Marquis describes this nomadic urge in lines set to music in our hymnal:

A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things:
It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings…
From deed to dream, from dream to deed, from daring hope to hope,
The restless wish, the instant need, still lashed (us) up the slope.
Sing we no governed firmament, cold, ordered, regular –
We sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.

He wrote those evocative lines in 1925, when human potential was riding high, literally. Human beings were flying. The fearsome world war was over (with no-one foreseeing that the victory would sow the seeds of a worse one). Telephones were connecting people immediately and live! Over long distances. Automobiles were reinventing our American way of life. And the most brutal century in human history had not yet born its bitterest fruits.

Over the years between then and now, keen minds have pondered the risks that accompany the unleashing of such potential: “Right now, I like to believe that people can be trusted to make the right choices-given enough time and enough facts. One of the difficulties…is that there is seldom enough time, never enough facts.” John F. Kennedy said that, one spring day in the year he was assassinated. Others have emphasized the same truth: Garrison Keillor, up near Lake Wobegon, notes that “You don’t get all the way home on facts; the facts always drop you off about half way there.” And James Thurber said, “There is no safety in numbers, or, for that matter, in anything else.”

We live under all kinds of risks with each other. We human beings are dangerous creatures. I might be carrying a concealed weapon and a trigger temper. Or an unsuspected microbe and a contagious hug.

And we live at equal risk in this world – from hurricane, earthquake, fire, flood, sheer accident. Risk is interwoven with existence. To live is to be at risk. If this were not a fact, not true, there would be no death. And there would be no evolution, no new ideas, no change. I don’t even know what we would eat, unless other forms of life don’t count as living. It’s a jungle out there!

Yet this seems to be a reality we essentially refuse to accept. Rather, we maintain the stubborn assumption that our lives are supposed to be safe, and society owes us security. That the world owes us our living.

Safety is our norm, our expectation-even, we may feel, our birthright. As a race we have clung to this fond belief since ancient times: life is supposed to be safe. And we have been haunted by wondering why bad things happen.

Life is supposed to be safe – so why do bad things happen? In the very posing of the question, we constructed the concept of “evil”, and then have gone on to devise all sorts of creative explanations for it. – Maybe there is some crucial moral lesson here, we wonder and half-hope. We want there to be a reason. Maybe we suffer in retribution for our sins; or for the errors of past lives; or for some primal rebellion at the dawn of creation. Maybe evil spirits are about; or there’s a demonic force behind it, in cosmic contention with all that is good, with God.

Resolving the problem of evil has been the litmus test of every theology. None of these solutions quite satisfy. Maybe because “why do bad things happen?” is a blind question. We’ve been asking it for millennia, and all the while, the world, and our experience has been telling us our first premise is wrong. – Life is not safe.

Because Creation is creative; and we are free creatures. All of us. Tame things and wild things; even rooted, even caged, there’s a wild freedom in us, down deep, even in our whirling atoms. “With a lot of free beings interacting, things are going to happen that nobody intended, not even God” [so writes Charles Hartshorne, the pioneer of process theology].

As Robert Frost describes elegantly, we all have walked “without an upward look of caution under stars that very well might not have missed [us] when they shot and fell.”

We do treasure ‘lifetime guarantees’. And in many situations we owe them to each other. But this world never made promises to us. Even rose gardens abound with thorns, and pollen for the sneezy.

With our sights on safety, we invest in ‘securities.’ – A curious term. Are stocks and bonds ever truly “securities”? True security, I’d say, is more akin to rootedness, to acceptance, to belonging. To a zipcode that’s ‘home’.

Security is what (if we are fortunate at all), we know – and then come to expect, because it’s happened for us before. Thus we begin wagering tomorrow on yesterday, and walking through our lives looking backwards, with all the risks ahead out of sight on our blind side; and all the rich challenges on our blind side, too. Expecting sameness is kind of comfy in letting us pretend that what has been will be, and we’re safe.

But life is not safe. …And would we treasure it if it were?

“Being on the wire is life. Everything else is waiting.” – Meaning: anything else is just marking time, going nowhere at all, pawns of fate. Everything else is waiting – meaning: every potential human future is poised there ahead of us, waiting.

Is it a betrayal that we can die from falling off the wire? For one who is phobic about heights (like me) this is a big question. – But actually it’s not heights, it’s drop-offs. On a wire, it’s all drop-off! Life is not all drop-off. But risk is inescapable. Is it a betrayal that we can die from it? I think not, for after all, we shall die anyway. The vital question is whether we were living beforehand. – Whether our biographers will have something more to say about us than ‘She died in her sleep, which lasted the better part of her long life.’ [Thanks to Barbara Pescan for phrasing it so well]

Risk is OPPORTUNITY-to realize ‘what has never been, but yet may be’-wherein lies all the zest, the joy, the creativity of living. Safety, in turn-when we savor its grace-rests, renews and strengthens us to dare at all.

Let me not minimize the value of safe havens, sanctuaries, wherein we can reflect on the fray, dive down deep (which is a faith-full kind of daring) – nor fail to herald the leaders who encourage us to become who we may be, achieve what we’d never guessed we could do.

It is such leadership that invited me here this weekend, to reflect with your Board of Trustees on how they may effectively enable UUCA to fulfill its potential to create the future you are dreaming of. No time has such potential as now, or carries so much uncertainty. The window on your future is wide open. Opportunity comes partnered with risk.

Always. Life is risky – and it’s unfairly risky. There isn’t any fairness in where a tornado touches down. Nor any justice in the violence and violation we inflict on each other in abusing this freedom that comes to us with the gift of our lives.

But offered a prison universe, in which all are trapped in repetitive patterns of what is given, all is secure and choice is non-existent – or an open creation, in which people, plants, even molecules, have freedom and opportunity – and love thus has meaning – it becomes so clearly true that this is the way of LIFE.