Three weeks ago, my wife and I welcomed our new son, Max, into the world. Now that mommy and baby are both home, healthy and happy, I can admit something that I didn’t tell my wife during the delivery . . . I was terrified.
While I was excited to meet my new son, I couldn’t help but think of all the things that could go wrong. We had a complicated delivery with our first son, and we already knew this one would be somewhat challenging as well (our son weighed over 10 lbs at birth!)
I can’t think of anything scarier than having my wife and child, two people I love more than anything in the world, in the hands of our health care system. Don’t get me wrong, the staff in the hospital were all amazingly wonderful. But it is terrifying when powerful drugs are being administered, risks are being explained, and decisions are being made. I want to trust in the medical professionals that are caring for my wife and son, but I can never be sure what decisions are being made for the good of the patient versus the efficiency and financial interests of the hospital. This is the problem with our capitalist society.
In retrospect, everything worked out great. Our baby is beautiful, my wife is healthy, and all of us couldn’t be happier. But during the delivery, and in the hours leading up to it, I couldn’t help thinking of danger . . . lives were at risk . . . we could lose it all.
This is the downside of having great things happen in your life. The more you have, the more you have to lose. And life is unpredictable . . . so anything that you hold dear: your family, your loved ones, your home, your car, your wealth, your career . . . it could be ripped away at any time.
According to psychologists (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky,) humans naturally seek to avoid losses. The utility curve is steeper for losses than for gains, meaning that we value avoiding losses more than we value acquiring gains. We have much to fear.
This could be one of the reasons for the Easterlin paradox: the theory that growing wealth does not seem to increase happiness (this is controversial . . . see my article on it here.) Increasing wealth means we have more potential losses to worry about and this offsets any boost to wellbeing that we get from the gains.
Luckily, in the case of childbearing, Mother Nature has ways of making sure we aren’t discouraged by these possible risks. So we don’t think about this at all when we’re actually making the baby. These fears surface later when you realize you are expecting, or later still when you are watching your wife writhe in agony in the delivery room.
But it is hard to imagine accomplishing anything great in life without being able to move forward in the face of risk. Helen Keller is quoted as saying, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” You have to be willing to confront your fears to bask in the greatest rewards (as I am basking now with my darling son.)
It seems to me there are three healthy psychological strategies that we can take when confronting fear of loss:
1. Play it safe. We exercise our loss aversion and take the safe road. This strategy protects us from losses but jeopardizes our potential to live a life that is remarkable (see “safe is risky” at 14:19 in this great video from Seth Godin, who preaches the importance of taking risks to be successful.) Because of our aversion to loss, we have a good chance to overreact to fear, allowing it to prevent us from acting, even when action would be in our best interest.
2. Practice realistic optimism. “Reality can be fuzzy,” says psychologist Sandra Schneider. And perceived risk is often exactly that, a figment of our perceptions. Realistic optimism means assessing concretely the reality of the situation and focusing on the positive possibilities from among the possible interpretations of the situation. This helps us to maintain a realistic approach while not being derailed by our tendency to focus on the “worst case scenario.”
3. The glass is already broken. Buddhist philosophy teaches a deep acceptance of human frailty. We, and everyone we know will get sick, get old, and some day die. By accepting this impermanence of life, we are able to appreciate more the moments we have, and rebound faster from losses that occur. “The glass is already broken” is a Buddhist meditation on this principle. It’s not about the glass being half full or half empty. When we recognize that we are experiencing a precious moment of unbrokenness of the glass, we can cherish the moment, knowing that it is fleeting.
For us, the fear has passed (at least for the moment,) and we are cherishing the unbrokenness of our beautiful family (see photo of Mommy, Dylan and Max!)
How do you handle fear and risk?