Walter Mitty, Suicide Bombers, Safety and Risk

October 2011 Sarah and I were standing at the ticketing counter at the Austin Bergstrom Airport checking our bags to fly out to Istanbul.  Let me pause.  You won’t hear many “normal” vacation stories from us.  It’s been about 13 years since we visited any sort of touristy resort.  This is not the way we vacation.  It’s not a bad way, it’s just not our way (though we may be ready for a little touristy trip soon). Back to the Turkey story. 

As we were standing in line to check our bags I received a text, “have you seen the news?”  The text came from a buddy of mine, Chris Marlow, who runs a nonprofit out of Haiti, and he traveled a lot.  I said, “no, I hadn’t.”  But just then we looked up on the television and breaking news was coming across: a suicide bomber had just gone off in Istanbul.  Before he could reply, I texted him and said, “Nevermind, I have.  Can you do me a favor? Find out if any of your contacts might have any information that would be pertinent for this trip.”  I then called another friend, Alex Shootman, who traveled more than both of us together.  I asked him to look into the situation in Istanbul, and I would call him back after I called all the different travel authorities, as well as contacts within my network.  It was Sunday, so most offices were closed.  We couldn’t get anyone to give us a safety report, except that not only had the bomber detonated himself in Istanbul, but more specifically, in front of the hotel we were booked to stay.  I called Alex back and asked him, “Man, what should I do?  Should we go?  Should we stay?  Is it safe….?”  He cut me off, “is it safe?  what do you mean is it safe?  Since when has Matthew Hansen used safety as a lens through which to make decisions?  The question is not is it safe, but is the risk worth taking?  Do you want this to be part of your story?”  I pulled the phone away from my face, finished booking our bags, and we headed back to our gate for an unforgettable adventure.   Alex, loved me too much to allow me to make a choice that confined me to a swim in the shallow waters of safety.  In other words, fear as a decision-making tactic was not an option.  

While my example lacks normalcy - how many of us have had a suicide bomber detonate in front of a hotel you were booked in?  Fear as a decision motivator is all too normal.  In fact, fear has been the guiding force for choice architects, politicians, marketers, parents, professionals, managers, and yes, church leaders…Fear as a guiding principle has become so normal we have become pontificators of this very propaganda:

  • what if we become like Europe (then we'll have better breads and cheeses)
  • what if this business venture fails (and I end up reinventing myself)
  • what if more Muslims come in our country (and we learn from them)
  • what if Mexicans take our jobs (or what if we learn how to share our resources)
  • what if I lose the money I’ve invested (or what if I'm awakened to a new path)
  • what if… you fill in the blank with any sort of fear excuse you’ve used that helped you justify a “safe” life (side note: fear as a motivating factor often allows us to justify acedia and prejudice, but that’s for another write up).

The safety song-and-dance that we buy into as a decision-making tactic is an illusion.  In fact, the only thing it really protects us from is becoming the type of people we were meant to be and from living the life we were destined to live.  

I find it ironic that the most given command throughout scripture is some rendition of “fear not”, “take courage”, or “do not be afraid.”  But if you watched most of us who claim to serve the very God who gave this command one would assume that God actually said, “fear change”, “fear Muslims”, “fear progress”, “fear risk”, “fear those who are different”, “fear….” - again you fill in the blank.  

But what would life, church, business, and education look like if we actually believed Jesus?  What if we believed that he was actually reconciling ALL things to himself? What if that was the point.  What if we believed that he is actually making all things new?  What if we allowed the prospects of possibilities and new (and sometimes strange) relationships guide us rather than the fear of everything else?

My family loves adventure movies: Wild, We Bought a Zoo, 127 Hours, Captain Fantastic, Walter Mitty, and so on.  Each of these movies act as modern parables to the way we try to live our lives.  In fact, in our home we have a chalk board in the shape of the United States that says, “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

What if we had the courage to live that!