Friday, December 05, 2008

Gambling for the Risk-Averse

I have never been much of a gambler. The few times I have been to Las Vegas or Reno, I take $10 worth of nickels and I get two cups and head for the nickel slot machines. I put my 200 nickels in Cup#1, and I use Cup#2 to catch my winnings. When Cup#1 is empty, I quit. Period.

I often leave with more than $10, but I am never going to get rich this way.

Small risks equal small rewards.

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I am not a gambler, and I have always been a world-class worrier. My mind has always been able to go from zero to my own impending (and terribly painful) death to total annihilation of everyone on the planet in about three seconds flat.

It is worse when I contemplate dangers to those I love.

To be honest, my descent into madness and my close brush with death three years ago left me with no fear of my own end. God Herself spoke to me (or so I believe), and the experience was one of overwhelming love and concern. So I no longer worry about death--nor do I worry that I am gambling on my salvation or my relationship with God when I fail to live up to Jesus' call to "be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). God was kind enough to relieve me of those fears.

But I still fear losing those I love. And last week, I was reminded of how deep that fear goes.

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Seeing Dear Friend hooked up to IVs...watching the concerned looks on the faces of those caring for him...listening to him moaning in pain in his sleep---I was gripped by my old, deep terror of loss. In the depths of the night---folded uncomfortably in one of those chairs they TELL you converts into a bed---I could only cry out my fears in prayer.

So I prayed. And I took great comfort in knowing that other people--all over the world--were praying too. If you prayed for us, please accept my heartfelt "Thank you!"

And I thought. A lot. About life and love. About why we make ourselves vulnerable to love when we KNOW we will be hurt---or will cause pain ourselves.

Why do we gamble, when we know we will lose?

That question has no easy answer. Most of the time, we cope by tucking our fears in a deep, dark place and then we try to pretend they don't exist. We pretend that we, and those we love, will live forever. That we will always be healthy and whole. That if we just do what we are "supposed" to do, nothing bad will ever happen to us.

Sometimes we try and close ourselves off to the possibility of pain and loss, and we refuse to gamble at all.

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As a result of my natural aversion to risk, I very nearly chose to be child-free--because I sensed the kind of vulnerability to which I would be opening myself if I had children. My great-grandmother was 88 when she died, and to her last breath, she worried about my grandmother. I knew that motherhood would not end when the baby turned 18--and I wasn't sure I was up for the job.

And, to be honest, when it came to vulnerability...motherhood was every bit as bad as I was afraid it would be. It was worse, even. I worried incessantly about everything. Would my babies be born normal? Would they dies of SIDS? Would they choke to death on a grape or a piece of hot dog, or fall out a window?

Each age brings its own terrors--and I haven't even gotten to the stage where my kids are driving or dating! Sex, drugs, and rock and roll will be knocking on our door soon enough---and I expect the sleepless nights I endured when they were infants to return, as I wait up for the sound of the car in the driveway.

But always--ALWAYS--there is the joy of loving my beautiful children. This is what I almost did not factor into the equation--the potency of the joy of love. My vivid imagination sought to prepare me for all the awful things that can happen in life--but it could never prepare me for that joy...the ultimate gambling pay-off.

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I thought of all of that in the nights in the hospital, when I lay awake listening to the beeping of IV pumps and the squeak of the nurses' shoes on the tile floors. I thought of how many times in my life that I have contemplated closing myself off to love and joy for fear of what might happen if I took the risk and opened my heart.

The older I get, the harder it becomes to take that risk.

I thought of that, too, when I looked at Dear Friend (who, it has to be said, is the only man I've ever seen who could still manage to look good in a hospital johnny). What am I thinking, to open my heart again to someone who could break it?

But it is too late for that, of course. Just as it was too late the instant I got pregnant with my children. The heart will break---that is a given. But it will also know joy and love, if I let it.

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Advent is a time when I am forced to contemplate that risk-taking. Forced to recognize that we live in faith that there will eventually be a light in the darkness. We have no guarantees that our hope will be rewarded--but we keep hoping anyway.

Ultimately, I believe that we are gamblers because we are made in the image of God. God--who gambled on a crazy experiment called "humanity." Who gambled that we would respond to Her message of love and joy, and poured Herself into human form to walk among us. Who appeared to lose that gamble in the shadow of the cross--but came up with sevens in the final throw.

To be truly human--and to manifest that spark of the divine within us--we must gamble everything on life, love, and joy. I have come to believe that is what Jesus meant when he said:

Luke 9: 23—25
..."If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”
What was Jesus' cross, if not to make himself vulnerable? To experience pain and love, life and death--of his own free will?

So I will put it all on the table. I will "deny myself" by ignoring my fear and desire to protect myself from pain and loss, and I will "take up the cross" of loving wastefully--without holding anything back. I will risk my heart and my life to follow my Savior who gave up everything to be fully human and vulnerable to all that flesh is heir to...

The House will always win---of this I am sure. And, at the same time, the payouts to the gamblers will be extravagant.

I'm betting on it.