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Taking risks: Why you need to keep doing it as you age


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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 06/19/22

Children are natural risk-takers; as adults we need to maintain that sense of adventure no matter our age.

“I’m going to sing the Mass this Sunday,” I declared to anyone who would listen. This was about 15 years ago when I was still an Anglican pastor and fresh out of seminary. Not that I was proud of my vocal skills or fishing for affirmation; my declaration was more an exercise in burning bridges. I’d never sung solo in front of other people before.

Announcing that I would be warming up my priestly vocal cords in adoration of God at the next Sunday worship service was my way of forcing myself into not chickening out. If I told (literally) everyone I was going to sing and then didn’t sing, that might be more embarrassing than going ahead with it but not singing particularly well. I backed myself into a corner. Nervous or not, I would sing.

This was about 10 years ago, and sing I did. It did not go great. It also wasn’t terrible.

Leading up to the Sunday, I practiced and practiced until I had all the notes learned. On the day of, though, with all those parishioners looking at me, my throat tightened up. I squeaked the notes out, definitely was pitchy on a few, but basically managed to get through it. Afterwards, all the parishioners were very polite about it — which I appreciated.

I’m happy I made the resolution to risk singing in front of other people and carried through with it. Today, I sing Masses every weekend. No one will ever confuse me with Pavarotti, but now that the nervousness is gone I sing well enough.

Taking risks is uncomfortable … but necessary

Public performance anxiety has always been an issue for me. When I was in grade school, I had to play piano in a recital every year. In our living room, I could play all my songs perfectly, with feeling. On the stage, all my focus shifted to trying to stop my leg from shaking uncontrollably. My parents pretty much forced me into playing, and to this day I’m grateful. It was a lesson in facing fear, making a resolution and taking a risk.

Some of my children will happily go up on a stage to smile and dance and sing for an audience. They soak up the attention and adore being in the spotlight. A few of the children, though, have inherited my reticence about being on public display.

I still remember a dance recital our two oldest daughters participated in when they were 3 and 4 years old. As soon as the music started, the 4-year-old immediately ran off the stage crying. Her sister danced a few steps, noticed her older sibling had abandoned ship, and quickly followed.

Risk-taking is inherently uncomfortable, but without it we would never change or grow. It’s far easier to settle into a rut and never try new things or push boundaries, but it seems to me that settling for comfort over risk would be allowing life to pass us by. I’d hate to wake up one morning forty years from now and realize I never fully lived.

We win some, we lose some … and that’s the whole point

Taking risks has increased my confidence and willingness to absorb new experiences. Looking back, some of the risks I took were successful and others were total failures. Even the failures helped my confidence because, after the dust settled, it became clear that life would go on.

I’m still happy to have confronted my fears, regardless of the outcome. In any case, the failures revealed my boundaries, areas in which I needed to improve or probably just am not all that gifted. With singing, for instance, I’ve come to understand that I’m not winning American Idol anytime soon and that I need plenty of time to prepare ahead of time if I need to sing something new. When I don’t prepare, singing does not go well at all.

With risk-taking, there’s always downside, but it also has the upside of finding a new foothold. I discover that, as I age, I’m more risk averse in some ways because I know myself better than I used to, but I’m also more open to risk in other ways. I’ve given up the need to perfectly control a manicured image. If people see imperfection in me when I try something new, that’s okay. In fact, one of the most gratifying parts of taking risks is how kind people are when I’ve failed. Risk-taking reveals just how encouraging and supportive people can be. None of us takes risks on our own. We have tons people who want to see us succeed.

As a father, it’s gratifying to watch my children take risks. One daughter, who just a decade ago was running from dance recitals in tears, just got her first job working a cash register at a pretzel shop. Her younger sister is singing in the church choir and even cantoring on some of the Psalms. Both have come such a long way as they’ve grown. Their lives and experiences have expanded as a result and I love watching them figure it all out, uncovering personal gifts and talents and learning to be bold in developing them.

For children, it’s natural to take risks. Almost everything they do is new to them. As an adult, though, I want to continue to be childlike in this specific way, continue taking risks. Every day, there’s more joy and happiness to be discovered if we’re willing to search it out. This Sunday, at Mass, I’m going to sing.

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