‘Hey! I thought you said you had vertigo!?’
‘Yeah... may be I shouldn’t go!?’
‘You don’t have to go...’
‘I don’t want to go... but I want to go also!’
There was some apprehension in the youngster, but also determination and no loss of control due to panic.
‘O.K. then: put the right foot here in the gap, and the left just behind the edge!... not so low... push out your bum back now! Let go of the wall! You can trust the rope . . .’
After a couple of minutes of hesitation– trying different positions and approaches, checking and re-checking the ropes, probing the balance, clutching and grasping, testing for the necessary strength, casting worried glances at the ten meter drop below—the youngster was happily spidering down the wall of the water tower, bouncing and swinging on the double rope, and laughing, unable to contain the exhilaration of the moment:
‘Wo-o-ow! I wish I could hang here forever!’
I think I have never met such intense and whole-hearted investment of one’s faculties and such enthusiasm in the academic classes I have taken. This happened during an education programme at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary with a group of thirteen-year-old children.
What is the place of risk in our growth? I look here at the kind of learning involved in taking direct physical risks, not at the more indirect or psychological ones; though other forms of risk–courtship or exam situations, etc.–may also provide great arenas for learning.
Children, as other young animals, show an instinctive and clear drive to stretch their limits: trying to jump longer, run faster, throw further and more accurately, learn new skills and so on. These processes involve the development of better and newer capacities of the body and brain: strength, coordination, reflexes, aim and much more. In many such endeavours – like in the abseiling episode described above – one recurrent factor is coming to terms with one’s fear. Sometimes it is just that – as when as children we dare each other or ourselves to brave darkness.
I remember a small kitten sitting on my shoulder, eyeing a table at some height, about two and a half feet from the ground and three to the back. The furry ball was mesmerized in the very act: its eyes focused intensely on the table, its tiny claws took a firm grip into my skin, its legs bent and its back arched. After fidgeting in that state for a hesitant while, the tension dropped. The kitten relaxed, stood normally and looked around. Then again there was the call and build up for the jump, and again hesitation and letting go. I could sense the kitten burning with the challenge, and also see that the table was too far away for the small and young fellow. Yet to my surprise it suddenly leapt – and failed. It touched the edge of the table with its front paws and its nose and fell on the ground without any further damage. I hailed this burst of courage and life.
Another day I saw two children taking turns in jumping down from progressively higher steps of a granite staircase. ‘One, two, three...’ they were counting. One of them jumped from the sixth step, which was fairly high for him, and on the next turn it was the question of the seventh one, which was quite high indeed. He stood there gathering strength and determination, eyes sharply fixed on the landing spot, knees slightly bent. Then he relaxed, stood up, started breathing more freely, and re-considered the situation. He came down to the previous step and said aloud to himself: ‘O.K. I did it from here. Now, ’ and he slowly moved up, backwards, to the seventh step, without letting go with his eyes of the increasing span and all the time, trying to comprehend the task... Then he regathered his energy – and jumped. Bravo!
Is meeting risk a way towards greater intelligence? Risk presents us with the uncompromising, that which we have to eventually face alone and that which we cannot talk or just think our way around. Danger doesn’t leave much space for physical and psychological idleness, for the comfort of the familiar. Words of our own or from others can help only that much, and then we have to open, move, learn quickly and come up with new, immediate, real responses. When risk and fear are not overwhelming, when there is no pressure and the movement is spontaneous, such moments of learning are moments of great absorption and motivation, of enjoyment of a special kind. Body and mind function in tune and there may come about a wholesome, sharp yet relaxed receptivity to one’s environment and person. It is often a humbling experience, when our ego activity yields to other priorities and allows something else to act.
In our programmes at the Gurukula Sanctuary, like the one mentioned above, we allow youngsters to encounter some risk in a number of small ways, for instance, in climbing trees, in swimming and diving in the river, walking through the forest, abseiling, etc. How much risk is too much, though? How much can we allow for? If there are some reckless individuals among the children in our care, I think there are also too many overprotective educators.
David Bohm once mentioned the relevance of risk in education, contrasting the situation of a tribal child in the Amazon with that of a child in California. The former lives in the secure heart that is his village, surrounded by the ever-present, ever-dangerous forest, where life and death is always a possibility. Growing up there consists to a large extent of venturing further and further into the wild, learning about its ways and becoming an anonymous part of the forest. In California, if a child wants to build a simple tree house, the family has to submit plans for safety check and wait for official permission. The former child would grow at least with a heightened sense of alertness and sensitivity to his surroundings. An exposure to natural risk, which we seem to instinctively play with, perhaps also brings us closer to the actuality of life and death and helps our brain put these in a different and maybe truer perspective.
Our bodies, if they are not dysfunctional, look after themselves intelligently, at times inspite of ourselves. When necessary, there is an intense, instinctive assessment of risk, careful evaluation of one’s possibilities, precise experimentation, and building up of the necessary capacities to meet the challenge. The body can find extra strength and doesn’t do self-damaging things. Reinhold Messner, in one of his books on mountaineering, expressed his confidence that nobody who was considering suicide, if taken climbing up a rock face, would avail of that opportunity to let go.
It is true that accidents do occur and one should be told how to do things safely. Yet, meeting risk, one must remember, needs no mediation. If, as educators, we do not recognize this, how can any youngster reach a sound and intimate confidence in and command of his resources, or kindle the flame of the courage to move alone? I’ve heard that children growing up sheltered from the slightest danger become more accident-prone. Further, there is a certain maturity and spark that one can sometimes detect in people who have embraced risk in some realm or the other. Overprotection and underexposure may hinder the development of a spirit of initiative and adventure, and a ripe functioning of the physical organism. When we see someone facing risk, especially a young child, we may become afraid. To learn how to trust another’s natural intelligence – though with careful observation and consideration: a rope may be worn out or a person too excited – and to give it space to thrive, may be part of our job as educators. And it may call for us to take our share of risk.