The Difference Between Exposure and Risk


A Rock Climbing Parable

Some years back I learned technical rock climbing, and fortunately had a great instructor who was also a bit of philosopher. At unusual moments, Steve would offer up a profound insight gained from climbing. I sometimes joke about it as "parable-based learning," which is quite effective.

One day, in the Shawangunk Mountains in New York, we were ascending a fairly long route with varied pitches. At several hundred feet up, we had to climb a chimney, which is a section surrounded on three sides by rock. We were ripping it up when the route capped. Steve disappeared around the edge and I could hear him positioning protective devices and placing ropes.

“Come on around,” he called to me a few moments later.

In order to move, I had to grab a large knob above me, extend my leg outside the protected chimney, and pull myself onto a ledge on the face of the rock. I could not budge.

“Ron, it’s a bomber ledge. You could not fall off of it if you wanted to,” Steve shouted.

I could feel the fear rising up in me from my core into the back of my throat. With a deep breath, I grabbed the knob, but that was as far as I was able to go.

Steve knew what I was battling so he allowed me some quiet before he again called, “You okay?”

“Hell no!” I called back.

“Trust the ropes!” came his reply.

I laughed to myself. Not a pleasant laugh, rather one of awareness of my situation. I was cornered. Pun intended.

Several deep breaths later I extended my leg as my arm trembled wildly above me. I’d been clenching the knob too long and was experiencing muscle fatigue.

Knowing full well that signaled the need to get on with it, I took a very deep breath, dropped an f-bomb into the silence, and moved.

The feelings in my gut were overwhelming, and yet a moment later I stood on a ledge that was quite wide with a beautiful view into the distance from my perch four hundred feet above the valley. I was stunned, both from the view and the adrenaline.

Steve spoke gently. “Good job, man. Just breathe and get used to it.”

So I breathed and settled myself.

Moments later he commented. “That is exposure, my friend. It feels like danger, but there’s actually very little risk. You just have to work through what you perceive.”

As the years have passed and my experiences have increased, I’ve used that idea as a parable for living. We have evolved to equate the feeling of exposure to risk. And while sometimes that may be true, quite often it is not. Unfortunately, too often we retreat as soon as the feelings arise. We do not explore further. Of course, the result is we do not realize possibilities for they remain just beyond our grasp.

Seeing True

The ego with which each of us is provided is fundamentally risk-averse. It is also closed to new possibilities. Left to that alone, our only option is to retreat. Yet with some effort we are teachable. We can learn that the feeling is not the fact. From this we can go far beyond apparent limitations.

Seeing True in Action

This is an arena where experimental efforts can serve us well.

Pick something that feels risky, but not too risky. The goal is to gain some experience not to affirm our fears.

Get someone you trust to help you work your way through it. Regardless of the outcomes of your efforts in working it through, examine the lessons you have learned in the attempt. What proved to be true? What proved to be false? What did you learn about yourself? What worked to urge you forward? What failed?

Now develop a few strategies that seem to be effective for you. Pick another seemingly risky situation, and repeat the experiment.

With time and practice, you will find a great deal of possibility.

Remember, no matter where you are with your challenges, there is always another barrier to be overcome.

Updated February, 2018