“LIve at Your Own Risk” by Mark W. Harris – March 19,2006
“Live At Your Own Risk” – Mark W. Harris
March 19, 2006 – First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words – from Susan B. Anthony
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” is the name of a film that was released in 1993. It depicts the true story of a young chess prodigy, much like the real Bobby Fischer. Bobby Fischer is a name that first surfaced when I was growing up in the 1950’s. He was a young man whose obsession with the game of chess brought him fame, but it also robbed him of any kind of normal childhood, as his genius for the game took over his life. Fischer was also known for his personality; a reclusive, mentally unstable genius. He disappeared from public life for a time, surfaced in 1972 to win the World Chess championship, the first time an American had ever done so, and then disappeared again. He was a true mystery man known for aberrant and unfriendly behavior juxtaposed with incredible ability and a computer like mind for this game. The film is interspersed with documentary footage of Fischer’s life. It reminds us that we are witnessing another life story that is the beneficiary of this tremendous gift of chess playing ability, with the consequent pressures of being totally focused and ruthless in the pursuit of winning the ultimate prize of grand chess master.
Chess was an important part of my family growing up, and I am reminded of this every time I play a game with Levi, Dana or Asher, all of whom know how to play. We play in fits and starts, but it has always been a game I have loved from those formative years in the 1950’s when my father would bring out the old wooden box that housed the playing pieces divided by the slotted barrier into black and white, and say on some chilly Sunday night, how about a match?. There was the mantra of playing rules – queen on her color, white moves first. There were also the proper moves, always king’s pond two forward to begin a game and never sacrifice your queen, and its not an official move until you remove your hand. As the youngest child my goal was always to beat any member of the family, especially if they were trying to win, and ultimately defeat my father, when he was trying, for he was the household master.
What I loved about chess was its seeming historical context that gave it such descriptive medieval names. If I moved a pawn it was an army of peasants, a rook was a magnificent castle that I dreamed of one day visiting, a knight was a joust of striding horses and heavy suits of armor thundering towards one another on a field of glory. Then, there was a king, a queen, a bishop who were all the players in an historical drama of intrigue in the politics of the times when heads rolled and kingdoms fell. Finally, there was the challenge of the game itself. My father always said it was a game for people with brains, which may give you some clue that he thought he was pretty smart despite his lack of degrees. But what he said about the game is true. It demands that you think ahead to what your next move might be, and the one after that and so forth. There is lots of strategy and anticipation of what your opponent might do in his/her next series of moves, and so you try to psyche them out. The nineteenth century writer, Siegbert Tarrasch wrote, “Chess is a form of intellectual productiveness. Therein lies its peculiar charm.” You have to take lots of chances in the game of chess. Pieces that you don’t want to lose may be exposed. They can be taken, but if you see the right response on the part of your opponent, it might mean, check, and then mate, and the king is laid down. I was reminded of some of this intellectual intrigue in the Boston Globe’s Sidekick on Monday in the “Chess Notes”. Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote a novel about a chess genius once said that chess is “the game of the Gods. Infinite possibilities.” Of course that is exactly what life presents us with. In fact rather than repeat opening moves, like the king’s pond two forward, that my father taught me, Bobby Fischer chose not to be repetitive when he played Boris Spassky a generation ago. Your opponent can never guess what you are going to play, if you don’t know yourself.
The movie, “Searching for Bobby Fischer” tells the story of Josh, who has this incredible skill for chess, but lacks the killer instinct that he supposedly needs to be a champion. His father, a sports writer, drives him towards this goal of fame and success, and hires Bruce a former champion, played by Ben Kingsley, to coach him. Bruce pushes Josh relentlessly, and is also offended by the local chess hustlers in the park, especially Vinnie, played by Laurence Fishburn. The problem with this plan for Josh’s success is that it is forcing him to become something that he is not. There is an expectation that he will win all the time. At one point in the movie Vinny tells him something to the effect of, “you must risk, you must risk everything, you must go to the edge.” One could look at these mentoring words, and say we must devote ourselves exclusively to our goals, that the ultimate goal in life is to achieve this kind of successful drive to be the best. Yet with Josh we come to understand that this drive to always win kills his love of the game, and when he does lose the championship he feels as if he has let everyone down. That kind of risk to be the best has resulted in his losing his soul. For the truth of the matter is that Josh is a boy who loves many kinds of sports, and he is also a kind boy who does not want to be ruthless in dismissing his opponents.
So Josh refuses to toughen himself up to be the champion he could be. Then he finds that when he has experienced failure, and learned from the losses, he can embrace his own sensitivity to the world and others, and truly be free to win or lose. As I watched this movie again this week in preparation for this sermon, I wondered about my own expectations for my children, and indeed those of all parents and how we often try to mold our children to be what we want them to be or even dismiss them for all the things they lack that become the focus of parental disappointment. I am reminded of someone we know who fails to see any positive qualities in her daughter-in-law because she can only focus on how overweight she is, and thus her judgment clouds everything. When children have certain skills, what are our expectations of them? How much do we drive them to succeed? How much do we judge them if they don’t want to be the athletes or the musicians or the artists we were or are? How much do we reject them or fail to see if they have learning problems or behavioral issues? Josh’s father tries to make him the tough male competitor he wants him to be without reflecting on who he is as a person. Yet Josh shows us that the ultimate courage of all is to resist attempts to make you into something you are not. It is to understand your feelings. It is to come to some understanding of your failures. It is to never lose your love for what brings meaning to your life. The movie is a lesson in how we might become less judgmental, more accepting of our children, and let them discover what it means to be men or women, successes or failures on their own terms. For them and us, it means the greatest risk in life is not about what we are afraid of doing or what we should stay away from, but to move toward the sometimes scarier risk of deeper awareness of yourself. The greater risk is not willingness to meet expectations for success, but the courage to continually develop deeper relationships with those we love, and a deeper engagement with the world.
To some extent this is the same theme that dominates the novel, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. John Ames is the seventy-something minister who has received a medical diagnosis that seems to spell his imminent doom, and he is writing to his young son a long letter about the meaning of his life, and all of life. The father has chosen to remain the minister in this small Iowa town, where he has been settled for years, and has served with dedication and devotion. He is almost too good a person to be true. Where is his malice?, we want to know. Like the good son in the parable of the prodigal son, Ames believes in a wideness of God’s love so that even though his best friend’s son deserts him in his hour of need, Ames still believes there is forgiveness. The novel in some ways tells us that perhaps the greatest risk in life for John Ames is to defy the expectations of leaving, of seeking greater success in some place other than Gilead, Iowa. The greatest risk is to embrace who he is, and live that to its fullest in the place where he finds himself rather than to escape to somewhere else, or to be someone else. This is a novel of the generations as grandfather abolitionist quarrels with pacifist son, and then wanders off to Kansas to die. How do we forgive ourselves for the relentless expectations we place on our selves and our children? Ames wants to forgive the bad son in the prodigal son story, who in his own life is the son of his best friend, a man who is named for him. He believes in a love which can embrace those who we are inclined to reject. In the story, this is God, but for us it is that power within us to know that the true depth of understanding between fathers and sons and in all our relationships is to understand the pain we feel for the judgments we have made or for the rejections we have imparted to others. We seek forgiveness for the times when we failed to affirm that person we loved, and thus can free ourselves to love again, or perhaps truly love for the first time.
In some ways the themes of the Bobby Fischer movie and Gilead are the same. The greatest risk in life is not to drive yourself or your loved ones down a torturous path of parental judgment and success that ultimately lacks acceptance and forgiveness of who and what we are. For the true risk taker of life understands their own pain at not being all that was expected of them, or in embracing their failures, and is courageous enough to be who they are, where they are. I had an occasion to rent a car last week. I walked down to the Enterprise Car Rental place on Arsenal Street. As the customer service person was entering my personal data into the computer, I looked down and saw a sheet of paper marked, Successful Failures Log. While I am not exactly certain what this meant, I surmised that it was somehow situations that were either an apparent accident or a threat or claim against the company that turned out positive, or were at least learning experiences so that the same failure was not likely to happen again. In the same way Josh learned that the drive to win destroyed his love for the game, and it was in losing that he found his way back to what he valued most, what he loved. Perhaps the successful failure at the car rental place was that the employee learned to listen to the customer, learned to give out some information that he/she failed to give out before, learned to forgive a customer so that the relationship was not destroyed. These are times of personal admission and confession. They are what brings us to forgiveness and an opportunity to start over again.
The words “At Risk” always seem to be used in a negative context. If we have a parent who had heart disease or cancer, then we are at risk to those same diseases due to our genetic makeup. If we are a woman who passes the age of 35, then we have an at risk pregnancy because statistically we are more likely to give birth to a child who has some genetic abnormality. My insurance company once told me I was at risk for smoking. I am at risk for prostate cancer because that is what killed my father. Teenagers seem to be at risk, simply by being teenagers because they have raging hormones, or are especially subject to peer pressure to try drugs or alcohol. They want to be liked. They want to be cool. All of these risky behaviors or even situations we find ourselves in with the genes we have inherited make it appear that something bad is more likely to happen to us under the circumstances we live with. Of course for a teenager the behavior that puts them “at risk” is often the easier choice to make. It is not risky at all in the sense of being accepted by many of their friends. The harder or riskier choice personally, is to say no. It is harder to not give into the role or expectations that others have for us. We want to please our parents with grades and successful sports achievements. We want to please our friends by saying, let’s party tonight. It is so hard to discover what it is that is truly what I want to do or be or say or embrace. Being truthful to ourselves and honest with others is the most risky thing of all for a teenager, and for us.
The most helpful At Risk words I ever encountered were ones I never saw. These are the ones that many of us are most familiar with, especially when we go to a local pond or pool, such as Walden, and we see a sign which says. No Lifeguards on Duty, Swim at your Own Risk. In a literal sense this means that there is no one who will help fish us out of the water if we go swimming and start to drown. It is up to us to remain afloat. We are at our own risk. This means that no one else will take responsibility for us. Some of you may have guessed that the At Risk words for me were emblazoned on a sign at Pemaquid Point in Maine. They say something about swimming at your own risk, but also go beyond that to say how dangerous it is to be on the rocks there, and how others have been seriously injured or killed. I was nearly killed there when I was engulfed by a wave some years ago. Being out there on the rocks might have been considered risky behavior, but we thought we were safe when a rogue wave hit. The simple truth is that a rogue wave can hit our lives at any time. A car accident, a new boss that wants to clean house, a spouse who walks out the door, and we are devastated. Most of us realize that our lives are always at risk. My story is perhaps more dramatic than some others, but all of them cause us to take stock of who we are and what is important to us. What are we going to do now that we have been hit by a wave? The wave may come in the form of a child who does not meet our expectations and we are hopelessly disappointed, or the wave may come in the form of something you worked hard on which comes crashing down. We cannot protect ourselves form these waves, and sometimes the more we try to drive them away, or push for fulfilled expectations, the more the water rises.
After the wave hit, and the risk of surviving the accident was over, and my injuries began to heal, the greater risk set in. I had, to paraphrase Jesus, nearly lost my life, and now I had to find it. Here is the greatest continuing risk to me about living, how can I be real? How can a man truly know his sons? How can we love one another? For the threat of death, of losing life, stripped away all those things that once seemed so important. There was the appearance of being successful, of being right, of knowing all the answers, of being in control, of being the right kind of minister, and there was the reality of loss of control, the humility of knowing nothing, that success was meaningless when juxtaposed with how much I cared about others and what were the quality of my relationships, what I truly believed in. Wining chess matches was meaningless as long as he only cared about winning and achieving greatness. What about the longing to love other things? What about the longing for meaningful relationships? What about John Ames’ years and years of being faithful? There is greater risk in staying close to who you are and going deep into yourself and knowing others, than there is to running up the ladder of more success, while losing or sacrificing the very essence of who you are and what you love.
I have been thinking a great deal about what this means theologically. Long ago the idea of a demanding God was domesticated. That is God was conceived of as a distant deity who was difficult to please, if at all. He was as likely as not to throw us into the fiery pit of hell. For our Puritans ancestors God was the center of salvation, and not Jesus. The move toward having a relationship with a more human God is in many ways relevant to Unitarian Universalist history as Jesus became more accessible, and God less relevant. Even among our fundamentalist and evangelical brothers and sisters today, you are saved by coming to Jesus, and not by finding reconciliation with God. To most Unitarian Universalists this probably seems like a positive trend, but I am afraid what we lost was a kind of tension with God, or even a sense that religion or life demands very much of us. In her book of essays, The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson asks this very question, what if there was a reckoning?
I think that is what losing the chess matches was for Josh, and perhaps the pain of family conflicts for John Ames, or the wave for me. We all have our waves that send us falling head over heels, but I often wonder where the challenge is to find forgiveness and love again once we have experienced such pain? Robinson says God is domesticated, and I am afraid too much is covered with appearances and busy schedules, and not enough of our losses or pains are even reflected upon. Society encourages us to feel good all the time, but when we do that, we are not grieving our losses, or understanding the loss of feeling in our relationships. We simply move on to the next thing. That famous theologian Janis Joplin once sang, Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. But that’s just it. Reflecting on all our losses helps us achieve true freedom, whereas covering them up with busyness or success means just that, they remain covered, and we never do lose our life to find it. When those evangelicals find their domesticated Jesus, they say they are going to give their life to him. They say they are going to be transformed. They say they are going to be changed. We are not usually inclined to use such language, but I am not sure why not. I don’t mean in the context of the saving grace of Jesus, for he is not our lord and savior, but purely the master teacher. But if we don’t want to be transformed, if we don’t want to be gripped by a deeper form of love, if we don’t want to become more than we are, and create a more peaceful society, then why are we here? I think church should tells us we are at risk, but in a very different way than the fears of disease or behavior we once imagined. I hope you are at risk here to be changed and challenged to a new way of living. I pray you are at risk here to become involved in a way of life that helps you be honest and truthful to yourself and others, that helps you be accepting of others and be less judgmental of others, especially those you love, that helps you see and say what is real and truly a risk about the world around you so that together we might find a path to a society of greater justice and equality, and that you would walk that path and not just talk about it. Risk love. Risk truth. Risk honesty. In this case, the great teacher might say, Put yourself at risk. Lose to find.
Closing Words – anonymous
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk
To expose feelings is to risk exposing
your true self.
To place your ideas, your dreams before a
crowd is to risk their loss
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying.,
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken, because the greatest
hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing,
has nothing and is nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they
cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained to their certitudes they are a slave,
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.