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The Reward of Risk
Something about risk always terrified me. There is a level of uncertainty that comes with taking risks; a level of uncertainty that is beyond comfort, for me anyway. Risk is a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. It’s dark and I’m disoriented with no clear understanding of the direction of the target. Risk is that moment when I know I’m close enough to the target to just reach out. Risk is that moment of helplessness where I know I just have to stick my pin to the wall and hope against all chance that I’ve reached the target. For me, risk is opening my eyes and seeing my pin about two feet above the donkey’s behind. But, the worst part of risk is that I always seem to be losing something much more valuable than a goodie bag.
Risk is not natural for me, so neither was much of what I did the summer I spent in Swaziland, Africa. It was unnatural to do laundry in a river full of crocodiles, to ride up a mountain in a flat-bed truck, and to live with no modern conveniences; but most unnatural was the everyday risks. Risks are not something I found easy to embrace, more often I found myself regretting them.
Sitting in the dirt, my feet cutting deep into the red savannah dust, I watched tiny droplets of blood fall from my arms and sink into the dusty ground. Each droplet fell in a perfect sphere, sitting on the surface of the dust below for an instant, shining in the afternoon sun, before becoming a dark dot on an otherwise lifeless stretch of land. My eyes transfixed below me, I regretted the chain of risks that had brought me to that instant. I brought my face up towards the blinding white sky and looked past my huddled team, past our totaled vehicle, and into the distance, willing help to come from somewhere down the road.
We had been on our way to a rural church when, about a half hour from both our homestead and destination, our car lost traction on the crumbling dirt road, and tumbled sideways, sliding across the ground before coming to a complete stop. My team leader, Teresa immediately took control. Teresa is a risk-taker; she’s willing to do what’s needed to achieve a set goal. So, when she flagged down a passing truck driven by locals and told us to get in, I wasn’t surprised. Teresa exudes confidence. She motioned for us all to climb into the waiting truck, her motions swift and sudden; no doubt seeped through her cool exterior. She has always done what’s needed, risked everything without stepping over the line into carelessness.
I climbed feebly into the tall truck, my foot slipped on the step below. For a second I was suspended in mid-air; my feet hanging free in the dry air, my hands grasping the hot, greasy material of the back seat. Teresa’s hand caught my arm, guiding me into the awaiting vehicle. She grasped the door and slid into the vehicle with ease, a singular motion, her cool eyes looking through the windshield down the expanse of road ahead.
As the car lurched forward I willed myself to keep my eyes ahead, to resist the desire to turn around and capture the image of our wrecked car. The truck staggered down the road, each turn and jolt reminding me of the scene we’d just left. I kept my eyes focused downward, my hands tight on the sides of my seat. My feet were pressed below me against the bottom of my seat, out of the way of the live chicken who seemed to be increasingly interested in my shoelaces.
We arrived at the small church, our original destination. I slid out of the truck, my feet supported by the solid ground below. I eagerly headed through the thin curtain across the door, the cold shade a welcome relief to the dusty heat that seemed to penetrate my very spirit. I quickly leaned against the wall of dim room, the only light cascading through the cracks in the thin walls. Light poured through the cracks, illuminating the particles of dust swirling up from the dirt floor.
Suddenly a face, masked by the darkness, a shadowed silhouette blocked the small stream of light directly in front of me. A dark face leaned into view, wrinkled and dry from the brutal sun, surrounded by the soft fabric of a traditional head wrap. Bright white eyes peeked through her squinted eyes, carefully reading the unfamiliar whiteness of my skin, the strange color of my hair. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, a smile spread across the woman’s face, revealing a lifetime of stories contained in one small soul. She spoke, a raspy foreign tongue, words mixed with deep clicks rising from the back of her throat. Suddenly I was surrounded, a throng of faces, each too close to properly examine, especially with the throbbing pain in my head.
“What is wrong?” A small raspy voice came forward from the back of the group; a voice laced with a thick accent and a careful formation of each word.
“ Uh, well…” I stopped, carefully peering into the darkness, unsure of my answer. “ …Car wreck…” I mumbled, trying to speak despite the multitude of complaints and uncertainties spinning through my mind. I just stared, observing each of the dark faces, each pair of concerned, questioning eyes. The woman closest to me slid her hand into mine and led me towards a rough bench.
I sat, the women quickly followed, congregating around the small bench, each pressing in, trying to sit next to me, grasping my bleeding hands in theirs. I blinked, trying to make complete thoughts emerge from the cloudiness that I couldn’t seem to shake. Before I could speak, a still, beautiful voice began to sing from my left, rising to the tin roof and wrapping itself around the small building. Slowly, voices joined, intertwining, growing in volume until I was immersed in song. The sound filled my ears, clearing from my mind the obligation of speech. The songs of comfort and consolation echoed, bouncing off the hard surfaces, pouring through the cracked walls and out into the vast savannah.
The darkness encompassed me, the song disorienting me with its strange beats. The sensation seemed much like the dark, unsettled pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey risk that I had become familiar with, but the result was much different. I may not have been a risk-taker by nature. I may never be comfortable enough to exude Teresa’s cool confidence in the midst of risk. I may never embrace risk with the excited intensity that some do. However, I did find myself comfortable in the dark, unsettled experience of risk. I did find that, sometimes, risks can gain you much more than a successful pin on a target, much more than a goodie bag.