Risk and Resp​onsibility in a Dangerous World


My friend Nina went to Israel for her junior year — and stayed for 11 years. Each summer, she'd come home to see her family in New York. Her parents' friends would pester her: "How can you live in such a dangerous place like Israel?" She'd counter with: "How can you live in such a dangerous city like New York?"

Our perception of danger is relative. The reaction of a beekeeper toward a swarm of bees will be different from that of a child who accidentally knocks over a hive. Our experience and familiarity with potentially threatening circumstances can certainly lower the fear quotient.

Why, then, would walking into work on a warm September day set off anyone's fear quotient? That was part of the incomprehensible horror of Sept. 11. We weren't at war, and it wasn't a natural disaster that felled the Twin Towers. It was a calculated, previously unimaginable feat of terror that came without warning and had no precedent.

Since that day, we've witnessed other large-scale tragedies. Who would imagine that while vacationing in Thailand you could be swept away by a tsunami and, if lucky, survive by clinging to a tree? Or that your home in New Orleans could disappear under water? Or that your son or daughter, sitting in class at a prestigious university, could be gunned down by a disturbed student on a rampage?

We Mid/Yids are no strangers to adventure. Many of us have backpacking-in-Europe stories and experimented with lifestyle choices that were best kept secret from our parents.

But now we're parents, and concerned for our progeny. It was nerve-wracking enough when the children were small. We strove then to keep them safe from falls, accidental poisoning and sudden illness. Now these same children — as well as our nieces and nephews and our friends' offspring — are flying the coop and heading out into the world. Now, that world has always had its share of danger. The difference now, perhaps, is that some of the threats invade unexpected venues: large office buildings in Manhattan, a campus in bucolic Virginia.

But as the Yiddish proverb teaches: Az men zitst in her haim, tserist men nit kain shtivel/If you stay at home, you won't wear out your shoes. You also won't have much of a life.

So what do we teach our children about risk and responsibility? For even when they're being responsible, they can't control the actions of everyone around them. Each day is a constant balancing act between caution and confidence. And that's not new: Every human being from time immemorial has had to deal with the challenge of how to make it safely to a peaceful old age.

I thought about my friend Nina when our daughter spent time in Israel this summer. When our daughter wasn't volunteering with Ethiopian teens, she was traveling around a lot. I was nervous for her to be on so many buses, as well as in clubs, cafes and open-air markets. But, in my heart, I feel that Israel has a certain resonance, a tribal familiarity, that makes us a bit more likely to risk the potential threat of terrorism there.

It could still be catastrophic if my daughter were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that, sadly, could happen anywhere.

Now that my daughter is back at college, the risk factors have changed from suicide bombings to speeding cars, alcohol abuse and unexpected hazards. It's helpful that my husband is not a worrier. It's also helpful that, like my parents before me, I don't actually see some of the day-to-day risks my child encounters.

There are, unfortunately, no guarantees about safety. We leave home in the hope of having some terrific experiences before the soles of our shoes wear thin. And we send our kids off with the sturdiest shoes we can cobble together — and pray that they'll travel down a long, well-marked and well-paved road.

Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected]


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