We should avoid excess risk as we age. So says conventional wisdom.
After all, it takes longer to heal a bone broken learning to ski in our 50s than in our 20s. There won’t be time to regain a financial loss suffered past our early 40s if we become too aggressive with our investments. Going back to school later in life to embark on a new career seems a waste of time and energy. And don’t get me started on those folks who leave long-term marriages for the greener pastures of a new relationship.
I believed all these things. Until, at age 48, I fell in love with a matte black, brawny beast of a machine. I took a motorcycle safety class as research for a book I was writing and surprised myself with the depth of feeling that burbled up. My father was dying at the time and I felt entombed in a marriage that, after 25 years, had lost all its verve. I had raised three on-the-cusp-of-adulthood children, served as a professor of creative writing, and knew my place as a suburban Los Angeles homeowner.
But getting on that motorcycle turned all I thought I knew about myself on its head. Surprised amazement burst forth as I gained mastery over a machine that outweighed me four times over, that I never had an inkling I could like, much less love. The parts of my psyche that had grown brittle and dry, my sap no longer able to rise, surged again, reminding me of who I’d been when I was younger, reigniting the self I’d lost in my efforts to play it safe.Neighbors and family members shook their heads. I was a cautionary tale. But I felt more alive than I had in decades.
The day after my father died, I walked into my local Harley dealership and bought the matte black bike that had stolen my heart. And I began the process of dismantling my life through a series of are-you-out-of-your-mind? choices.
People warn you about all the bad things that can happen if you take risky options. But no one tells you about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly hot water, if you don’t put your true self on the line.
From that first, seemingly insignificant choice, countless others, each one crazier than the next, flowed. I left the empty marriage, moved across the globe, learned to ice climb, ski, and SCUBA dive, paddled an outrigger canoe across a span of open ocean, and took my burly machine, with its solo seat, on a 5,000-mile cross-country road trip.
In other words, I had a midlife crisis, one that was visible, and thanks to boisterous motorcycle pipes, audible, for miles around. Neighbors and family members shook their heads. I was a cautionary tale. But I felt more alive than I had in decades.
I trace my former misery back to an insidious lie: The idea that risk by definition is negative, a factor to be eliminated whenever possible, especially in midlife when biology makes us increasingly risk averse. Risk infers the possibility that something bad or unwanted may happen. But risk in midlife –when so many demographic markers have been set in place, when we think we can no longer astonish ourselves, when we believe we know completely who we are as humans – is nothing short of vital.I slowly changed my emotional state away from what scares me toward what makes me feel most alive.
When I first started making risky choices, my behavior appeared capricious and unpredictable. So I looked into the subject, craving assurance I wasn’t going off the deep end. Through interviews with neuoscientists, researchers, and psychologists, I learned that risk, the very element I’d attempted to isolate myself from, was the tincture that was making me feel healthier emotionally, increasing my libido, encouraging the wonders of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and building my self-confidence. I learned that by deliberately engaging new challenges, even as simple as trying a different restaurant or gym routine, improves my happiness and safeguards my mental and physical health. Women, I further learned, are less likely to engage risk than their male counterparts and may benefit even more from taking a chance.
Like gender, biological as well as cultural influences incline some of us to be more enthusiastic about new experiences than others. Still, risk taking is part of our human DNA, and for some of us, downright central to who we are. According to researchers at Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with a largely new set of cells every seven years to 10 years, and some of our most important parts are revamped even more rapidly. Whether it’s replenishing lung cells, shedding skin, sprouting new hair, or making fresh brain connections, the human body is in a state of constant flux and change. So too, I venture, is the human psyche — but only with our cooperation.
By training myself to take small risks and building on them daily, I slowly changed my emotional state away from what scares me toward what makes me feel most alive. In doing so, I rediscovered my eagerness and curiosity. Of course, not all risk is beneficial. Impulsive, emotionally driven risk often creates negative outcomes. But positive risk taking, undertaken with forethought and intention, has become my elixir of youth. As a result, I approach life with a new kind of zest and enthusiasm. I feel emotions more keenly than before, even the tender and excruciating ones. By falling in love with a motorcycle, I opened the door to a more full existence.
Call it a midlife crisis if you want. But four years since the onset of that crisis, I have to call it the best thing I ever did for myself.