Here’s what I want out of life: no risks.
I want complete control. I want to know that every action I take will have its intended consequences and only those consequences. I want everything to go exactly the way I want it to go.
What are my chances? Nil. Zip. Nada. Geez, I ought to know this implicitly at my advanced age. Actually, any adult who takes a minute to observe and reflect on life ought to know it.
But, oh, so many Americans these days – sometimes including me and my well-meaning friends – seem to have overlooked the fact that absolutely nothing in life is without risk. Nothing.
Going shopping without a mask in the age of COVID is absolutely taking a risk, but so is shopping while wearing a mask. My risk level goes down if I take precautions, but I still can’t entirely control the outcome.
Sharing what I have with those who have less means they might take advantage of me by somehow gaming the system. And sharing means risking that I might not have as much as I need – or, at least, want – as the years go on. I cannot entirely control the outcome.
Welcoming those who don’t look like me to my community leaves me open to all kinds of risk. What if their culture clashes with mine? What if their culture changes mine? What if my group is no longer the dominant one? Reaching out in welcome may lead to an outcome I can’t control.
So back to the basics: Nothing in life is entirely without risk. Nothing is completely under my control.
But who says I should be in control in the first place?
The American system of government gives each of us a lot of control, founded as it is on the idea that the individual should not be under the thumb of a king, a dictator or an oligarchy. But it includes measures that check my own desire for risk-free decisions, by also protecting everyone else’s desire for the same thing.
If the freedom is mine, it is also yours. We are to be free in this nation not just from tyranny but also for opportunity, the opportunity not only to fulfill our own dreams but to foster those of our fellow human beings.
Perhaps, if we focus more on how our freedom can be used to benefit not just ourselves but also our neighbors and our community, we will take the calculated risk to set aside our fear, our desire for complete control. We have to admit we’ll never have it anyway.
But the risk is less scary when we go forward together, however loose and fragmented that progress may be.
Our history, despite its dark moments, gives us hope.
Every time America has floundered into a crisis, we have come out stronger. We’ve moved forward – maybe one step forward and two back, but forward nonetheless. Together, united in our freedom and the opportunities it brings with it, we have gradually made progress.
We can do it again, re-forming a community out of a bunch of individual control freaks. Reclaiming “we.” We can look the risk in the eye, calculate the benefits of taking it, and move forward. Together.
Charlyne Berens, a retired newspaper editor, professor, and associate dean of the University of Nebraska College of Journalism and Mass Communications, is passionate about the First Amendment and freedom of expression. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.