Refusing Radical Risk


There are many ways to explain anxiety. The most essential way is probably to define anxiety as what happens when we refuse (or attempt) to eliminate radical risk. This definition is very helpful, but in order to appreciate it we first have to explain what is meant by the idea of ‘radical risk’.


The way to do this is to think in terms of trivial uncertainty versus radical uncertainty. Suppose I am dealing out a hand from a pack of cards. Now unless I am cheating (and we will assume I am not) there is going to be uncertainty regarding which particular cards will be dealt out in the hand. But this uncertainty is of the trivial type because although you don’t know exactly which cards you will get, you know all the possibilities and so you are not going to be radically surprised. Trivial uncertainty can therefore be defined as uncertainty regarding which event or events will occur from a known set of possibilities. This is like watching a soap opera on TV – we are kept watching by the fact that we never quite know what will happen next, but the fact of the matter is that the sort of events that happen in most soap shows are very predictable really. If its not one sort of scandal it will be the other sort, so to speak.


Radical uncertainty is when life deals you out a hand of cards from an unknown deck. The difference here is that you simply do not have a clue what sort of possibilities are in that deck of cards, never mind which ones you will get given to you. It is easy to see that while we can have some sort of preparedness for trivial uncertainty, for radical uncertainty we have no way of being ‘prepared’ at all. This makes radical uncertainty a very challenging sort of thing (although it is at the same time a very interesting and exciting sort of thing). To put it in a nutshell, then, we can say the following:

Trivial uncertainty is defined uncertainty which makes it – psychologically speaking – safe. Radical uncertainty, on the other hand, is completely undefined, and so it is not psychologically ‘safe’ (i.e. it is ‘unreliable’ and so we can’t afford to relax and get comfortable about it).


Now the point that we have been building up to is that life is not like a soap on TV because it contains uncertainty of the ‘radical variety’. Life is inherently ‘not safe’. It is the unspoken function of our controlled and carefully regulated ‘social environment’ to eliminate this radical type of risk, but the fact remains that we are only ever kidding ourselves that we ‘have it under control’ because the truth is that anything could happen, anytime. Of course, radically unexpected stuff doesn’t usually happen, but that isn’t the point – the point is that it could happen and that it what (unconsciously) disturbs us.


But, even accepting that this psychological analysis of the basic human situation is true, we might still wonder why we shouldn’t be allowed to live within a carefully regulated environment, an environment within which there are no radical surprises lurking. Why can’t we refuse radical risk if we feel safer that way?


The answer to this question is that we don’t have to accept radical risk if we don’t want to. We can (and do) deny the existence of radical uncertainty. In practice what almost all of us do (without consciously acknowledging it) is to replace radical uncertainty with trivial uncertainty. The beauty of this substitution is that because the one perfectly replaces the other we don’t actually notice any difference!

What this means, then, is that we ‘get away with it’. Or so it might initially seem… The overall point that we are getting at in this discussion is that although we might initially seem to be ‘getting away with it’ there is a price to pay that comes along a bit later. Only at that stage we don’t (naturally enough) have any idea that it is the ‘price’ for something that we have previously decided to ‘buy’. We simply do not have a clue that it is the price-tag that comes with our ‘psychological security’.


What we are talking about here is of course anxiety. When we refuse radical risk what happens is that our refusal doesn’t actually go anywhere (it has nowhere to go) but what it does do is to cause our ‘attitude of refusal’ (or ‘resistance’) to come right back at us like a boomerang, only when it comes back we don’t recognize it because comes back to us differently – it comes back in a ‘disguised’ (or ‘surrogate’) form. What inevitably happens is that the original ‘fear of radical risk’ comes back as ‘fear of trivial risk’. How this works is very simple: I start to find that I am getting anxious about the outcome of my everyday goals. Often it happens that I notice myself being disproportionately anxious about some relatively trivial or unimportant thing. For example, my plan is to get all the household chores done by 12:00 so that I can go to the bus station to meet my aunt Hilda – I find that I am running behind and as a result I start to get stressed out and anxious. I know that it isn’t exactly the end of the world if the house work doesn’t get done, but I just can’t stop feeling bad. So why am I so worried about something that isn’t really all that important?


The answer that we are suggesting is that the concern that I have regarding the outcome of my everyday goals and agendas is getting loaded onto by the fear of ‘radical uncertainty’ that I had repressed and then forgotten about. What is happening is that the original fear has simply been displaced from where it really belongs onto all sorts of ‘random everyday situations’. The ‘original fear’ is like a misplaced coat that is floating about the room and can eventually end up being hung on anything at all.

This ‘misplaced fear’ makes everything very deceptive because even if I do successfully solve the problem in one place, the anxiety is only going to pop up somewhere else. When I am anxious I get very short-sighted – all I want to do is to ‘fix’ the problem that is currently worrying me. All I am concerned with is how to eliminate the trivial risk (i.e. the risk that my trivially important goal might not be attained), and because I insist that each particular risk must be eliminated, I am setting myself up to go around and around in circles. I have set myself a ‘self-deceiving task’ – a task that can never be finished. The reason we say that the task is self-deceiving is simply because just as long as I am preoccupying by endlessly trying to solve surrogate problems (i.e. endlessly chasing red-herrings), I am more-or-less successfully distracting myself from what I am really afraid of.


So what we are basically saying here is that when I refuse ‘radical risk’, I have to contend with the fear that I have avoided when it appears in disguised form, loaded onto ‘trivial risk’. The point about ‘trivial risk’ is that it really shouldn’t worry me that much. There is of course a certain level or degree of stress that is appropriate for each type of trivial risk, but when I am anxious the amount of stress that I am experiencing is as a rule disproportionate to the situation.

Having retreated from the open arena of ‘radical risk’ into the closed arena of ‘trivial risk’, there is (so it seems) no other option apart from retreating even further, and this is what we tend to do. I retreat from where the risk is (where the anxiety-provoking situation is) to a place that seems ‘safe’ to me – a place where there is no risk. But this supposedly safe place gets smaller and smaller and my world shrinks correspondingly until it feels like I have painted myself into a very tight and uncomfortable corner. I can’t go forward and I can’t go back. I can’t retreat any more because there is nowhere left to retreat to, and yet where I am feels unbearably uncomfortable. I have retreated right out of life into the relentless torture and frustration of neurosis.

‘Neurosis’ basically means that I am insisting on something that is flatly impossible, and I am stubbornly insisting to see that it is impossible. This is a ‘stuck’ situation. What I am insisting on in anxiety is the absolute and final eradication of all risk. I am insisting on having a type of ‘security’ that just doesn’t exist. Life itself is pure risk, pure uncertainty, and so there is nowhere else to go.


It helps to focus on just what I am asking for when I insist on ‘zero risk’. What I am essentially insisting on is that nothing should happen unless I know about it first, and give permission for it to happen. I am insisting on being totally in control, in other words. This doesn’t sound particularly unreasonable when my perspective is shrunk by anxiety. When I have no perspective I cannot for the life of me see why I should have to risk myself (or those that are precious to me).


I want life to give me an absolute guarantee before I agree to come out from under the table. In effect, my unspoken argument is this; “I will take whatever cards life deals me, if you can guarantee that they will be ‘safe’ cards.” But of course life is not going to offer me any such guarantee. Life is what it is, and it doesn’t need to make any deals with me. That is what is on offer and you can take it or leave it. That’s the only deal in town. It’s up to me – do I trust the process or not? Do I take a risk? Do I trust that life knows what its doing or do I hedge endlessly?


Needless to say, what I usually do is to ask for the life process to ‘prove itself’ to me, before I accept its terms, or I just keep asking for more time to think about it. “Don’t rush me!” I say. I don’t want to commit because I keep thinking that a ‘bad thing’ might happen if I let go control, and so I stay in my comfort zone. But this is the very essence of my problem – If I keep the door tightly shut and padlocked from top to bottom so that no ‘unpleasant surprises’ can happen, I am at the same time shutting the door to any ‘pleasant surprises’. Nothing can happen at all, because I have shut life itself out. And the final irony is that this ‘stale-mate’ situation with life is more unbearable and more terrible than any of the things that I am afraid of. No matter what happens, it can’t be as bad as this!


In the end, I have to take a risk. If I refuse risk, and refuse fear, then the risk and the fear simply comes at me from another quarter. If I don’t accept it cleanly and ‘out in the open’, then it comes to me from an unconscious, repressed place. But here is where I am liable to run into problems. If I have some understanding of what we have been talking about, and I decide that the best thing to do is to ‘force myself to take a risk’, I am unwittingly involving myself in a paradox.


Let’s suppose that I have decided that I want to ‘take a risk’. Very good. The next thing that occurs to me is “how exactly do I do this?” I want a method, so that I can achieve my goal of ‘taking a risk’. But methods and goals are all about avoiding risks. That is what a ‘method’ is for, to get from A to B without any risk – a method is how I ‘guarantee an outcome’. The same is true for goals – a goal is definite and certain, there is no risk here. I know exactly what I want and I know what I don’t want, and the whole point about goals and ‘goal-orientated behaviour’ is that I obtain what I want and avoid what I don’t want. Where exactly is the risk there?

So at this stage I start to get frustrated and I ask “how do I escape from the paradox? What do I do?” The answer is almost too simple for us to grasp – you don’t escape from a paradox, there is nothing to do. The whole point about a paradox is that it has us hogtied. It doesn’t matter which way I turn – there is no way out. What I find so difficult to understand is that all ‘doing’ is an attempt to eliminate risk. All ‘doing’ is control. The ‘risk’ is just to let things be what they already are. Letting things be what they are is ‘risking’. And so if I find (as I often do) that I am unable to let go, that I am unable to take a risk, then I let this be the way that it is. I accept myself as being this way, and this complete surrender to reality is itself the ultimate letting go. Surrendering to reality is ‘radical risk’.