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How to Live a Life of Risk and Meaning

November 8, 2019


A little while back, I heard about a zombie run that a friend was interested in participating in for fun. As it turns out, by signing up for such a race, you are tasked with running safely to a destination without being caught by a legion of zombies: actors fully decked in gruesome, Hollywood-esque makeup. It’s incredible, as these actors literally resemble the undead, complete with decomposed flesh, gore, and blood. I can’t say the rush of adrenaline wouldn’t be fun, and definitely not a bad way to ensure the next coming Saturday is anything but mundane.

It’s one of the many modern attractions these days, from various themed runs like The Tough Mudder and The Color Run to a host of cleverly devised escape rooms where you and a team of friends must solve puzzles and riddles in order to escape within an hour. I personally think these are great, and I totally get the appeal. There is something enjoyable about illusory risk and adventure, about being able to collaborate with your friends on a clear goal while temporarily suspending all of the real dangers and challenges in our lives. But I began wondering why attractions that create hypothetical danger have become so popular. It seems, in a way, we now have the luxury in our restless comfort to subject ourselves to what would be a deranged nightmare, all for the sake of entertainment and fun. And this may perhaps be indicative of a culture that craves an opportunity for a worthy challenge—for meaningful risk.

The unquenchable curiosity and thirst to overcome new challenges is ingredient to being human. We are willing to risk our own safety for something greater—a loved one, a noble idea, a better world. As a race, we ascend to the moon while burrowing into the depths of the ocean, we construct urban kingdoms while designing digital terrains of communication and commerce. These are great things we’ve accomplished from that human desire—that stamp from God—to reach toward a new and better creation. And our culture still very much reveals this reality, as we continuously strive toward the frontiers of medicine, technology, communication, and so on.

Or, to put it in the words of the brilliant priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu: “The will to succeed, a certain passionate delight in the work to be done, form an integral part of our creaturely identity.”

However, this aspect of our “creaturely identity” can be dulled, blunted, and eventually lost to boredom, sin, and apathy. And while this can lead to lives that reek of “quiet desperation,” it can also cause this seed of curiosity—this yearning for meaningful adventure—to manifest in ways that don’t offer true, lasting satisfaction. This isn’t helped by the fact that our thirst for genuine adventure is also at war within us. The Holy Spirit prompts us while at the same time we’re tempted by pleasurable comfort devoid of meaningful risk. That’s the great lie of a life lived in total comfort and security—we crave these things yet they limit our capacity to be fully human. We will never be comfortable or secure enough in this world, but then again, we were never meant to be. “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

And so when we are temporarily comfortable and without a real sense of meaning, we may begin seeking ways to express our human desire for more in other ways. We see this with some who always have to be embarking on the most amazing trips or experiencing the latest trends. They are not content having an ordinary week, but must relentlessly be planning a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia, sorting the details for their next scuba dive, or devising an elaborate night out to the latest night club. Obviously, doing stuff like this can be great for us, allowing us the chance to explore creation more fully and find rest and enjoyment for our souls. But when it becomes the only thing that makes our lives exciting, such a thirst for adventure has morphed into a way of salvaging a remnant of meaning from life. In this case, we don’t seek adventure as a response to a divine calling and mission, but instead as a necessary drug to stave the vacant feeling that creeps beneath.

We see it to a lesser extent with TV and other forms of entertainment. I have to be honest with myself and realize that some otherwise good recreational activities at times can become unhealthy. In certain cases they can become an escape from the real adventure I’m called to—becoming a saint and bringing others to God. Instead, it’s easier to vicariously live someone else’s life of meaning or adventure through a fictional movie or TV show. It’s also easier to prove my life is exciting and worthwhile through frequenting exotic places and novel attractions.

As is always the case in our lives, which Pope Benedict XVI articulately and masterfully reminds us in The Yes of Jesus Christ, we are always presented with a choice in how to live: “Thus the situation today is characterized fundamentally by the same tension between two opposed tendencies that runs through the whole of history: the inner openness of God of the human soul on the one hand, and on the other the stronger force of immediate needs and experiences. We are torn hither and thither between the two.”

By saying “yes” to Jesus Christ, we open our lives up to meaning as well as great risk—a risk that is always worth it because of its flowering from love. But do we believe that a life lived for God can really satisfy our desires, our longing for adventure and new experiences? There are surely times when we attend Mass, and in the midst of a lackluster responsorial psalm and a restless, distracted congregation, we lose sense of the majesty and beauty of a life united to God. However, if we do choose to enter into communion with God—through prayer, the sacraments, and community—we begin to see ourselves as called to a great mission, one that risks a radical love for the entire world. And there is no life more exciting or meaningful than one committed to the love of God. “Nothing is more beautiful than love. Indeed, faith and hope will end when we die, whereas love, that is, charity, will last for eternity” (Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati).

And so if we choose to enter on this journey of love by abandoning the mirage of comfort and security in this life, as well as the need for constant worldly adventure and excitement, then we will find that it entails the very adventure and risk for which our souls yearn. And though we risk treading a path flecked with suffering and trials, we come to realize the risk is always worth it. With God’s grace, we come to welcome such risks for the sake of that which is most beautiful and meaningful: the love of God and his children.

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered” (G.K. Chesterton).