Where Risk Resides

Wikipedia photo

When risk is choosing this one or that, I always think of  Linda Pastan’s poem, “Ethics.”

In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter–the browns of earth,
though earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.
Linda Pastan, from the collection Waiting for My Life (1981)

The poem sets up an array of caveats—whether the woman is loved or a stranger, whether or not one is mature in experience or just beginning to experience life, whether or not to choose—each requires risking this or that, one or the other, or not at all.

Mark Nepo writes:

“There is no substitute for genuine risk…the very core issues we avoid return, sometimes with different faces, but still, we are brought full circle to them, again and again” (The Book of Awakening).

Avoiding risk, somewhat akin to eschewing responsibility, seems to be a circular choice every time. Yet, in oneness—here and there, this and that–risk is whole, not one or the other, not old or young but the one truth that resides in us:

“It is we who, in our readiness and experience, keep coming back, because the soul knows only one way to fulfill itself, and that is to take in what is true” (Nepo, The Book of Awakening). 

Maybe that’s why the poem puts the annual question to children, who are no strangers to truth.

Rhythm of ROW80 Sunday Scheduling:

On February 3, added a 30-minute writing stretch—free writing that is timed—it helps clear the minutia of the moment so my daily writing is more focused.

Alternating short fiction, novel, and blog posts as daily writing

Doing the Tao with Dyer, still stuck in duality

Nepo morning meditation continues

17 thoughts on “Where Risk Resides

  1. What an interesting post, Karen. I keep asking myself Rembrandt or elderly lady? I’m sure it would be the elderly lady — because I just couldn’t NOT – but I’d have such regret to leave the painting.

    Now that’s perplexing.

    Congrats on your ROW80 progress. (Although I’m weeks late. . .) 🙂


    1. It is perplexing, Bridgette. In truth, I do think of it at least once a year, maybe just to test myself. Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you again as you are never late here!



  2. These which-would-you-pick choices are not choices we are expected to decide with our hearts. They are artificial choices created by clever minds to be reasoned out by other clever minds.

    If I ever find myself in a burning building with an old lady and a Rembrandt I will trust my heart to decide–and the old lady will have nothing to worry about.

    Your posts are always such a pleasure Karen.


  3. While I am an admitted Pollyanna, I do believe that oneness, the wholeness that means it’s not either or but both, is a way to absorb the pain and feel the joy. As humans, we tend to pursue duality as an inevitability. What if it’s not?

    All we can do is be our truest self and live with an open heart, moment by moment.

    Peace and love to you my friend,


  4. Sad, but sometimes I find myself facing the choice of either~or in my life. It’s not a peaceful feeling, either reading the choices like you give or like I must live. I’m sure I would choose the old lady, as she is a living person. In the choices in my own life I must choose the one that is not threatening to harm me. I’ll live with my decision, knowing the hurt that will go with my choice.
    Thanks my friend for making me think, even if they are sometimes subjects that I’d rather not think about. You are great, and oh so thoughtful!


  5. I choose the woman, because the truest beauty, to me, is what is within each of us.

    That is sacred.

    And I love how you are giving me the Nepo quotes back again – giving me another chance to glean wisdom and truth from them….

    As a young woman without husband or children, I would stop to remove road-killed wild things from the path of more tires. i couldn’t bear the thought of them being further destroyed….

    As a girl, I would move nightcrawlers to the side of the road after a rain, so they would not be as likely to be killed.

    And still, in the springtime, when it rains at night and the frogs come out onto the road while I’m driving, I do my utmost to avoid hitting any, and feel a lurching sensation of sorrow when I can’t.

    Alberta – how perfectly awful of those parents.


    1. Shan, as an old woman, I, too, do my best to dodge frogs and stop for geese crossings to avoid that “lurching sensation of sorrow” that you so beautifully describe. And yes, the oneness within is sacred. Lovely post.


  6. I was once told at a job interview (I was to take care of two children in their parents absence) in case of a fire I was to save the baby(6mths boy) amd leave the child (2yr girl) – there was no fire and I would have saved whichever I could – I was disgusted they even thought of it let alone told me –

    in above I would without hesitation take the old lady with no regret- she is a person I am a person- I would save my kind -the other is a painting – a replica of something- no matter how good – how old – how much people are willing to spend on it – save the real thing even if the old woman died two minutes after being saved it would still in my opinion be the only choice – but then i’m an old lady!! (well with more than a few years I hope:) but I know as a 20yr old I would still have chosen the old lady


    1. I agree with Shan. What a horrid reminder that we still haven’t grown as much morally as we like to think.

      And yes, I agree that being an old woman doesn’t detract from the woman’s value as a person. And yes, her life should be saved. I don’t know why, but when I was writing my response last night I was using the terms here and thinking of the terms of that classic morality test with the trains, the switch, two possible tracks where one person is trapped on the track and five are trapped on the other…

      The question is always “Would you save the one or the many?” and the questions keep twisting just a little to try and make the One extra special and the Many somehow “lesser” (as in old or homeless, critically ill, whatever derogatory classification the tester can use to try to enhance the single person more).

      And I hate those tests for exactly the reason you stated, and because I hate the idea that we seem to be determined to have an “either/or” mentality here. Why do we seem convinced that we cannot achieve more?

      Sorry… I shouldn’t be ranting here. Thanks KM for putting up with us.


      1. From one old lady to another, Alberta, nice to meet you! Seems to me you know your truth and always have, quite remarkable. A most thoughtful response.

        Eden, I don’t know why we hang on to duality as we truly know that all is whole and in oneness we find all, not one or the other. Rant on, although I didn’t see your response as a rant.



  7. I always hated those types of “morality” questions. 😛 The idea of having to be the one who places such value on the life of one person or the potential inspiration of countless others… I hate the thought of being given such responsibility. (I’d be a terrible president). If push came to shove, I’m sure I would try to save the old woman’s life. But I would never do it without feeling a sense of regret that I could not do more. And I would try to do more (maybe pile some paintings onto a bench and try dragging that with the old woman to the exit, maybe toss the painting out an open window (they’d be damaged, but they’d survive better than being burnt to a crisp) and then fireman’s carry the old woman out as best I could).

    Is it because I’m not young enough to follow my gut anymore and not old enough to understand yet?

    BTW, I loved this post. Anything that makes the gears turn… Thanks KM!


    1. Oh, Eden, what a lovely response! I deliberately chose a Rembrandt of an older woman (of which I am one) to twist the question a bit more. Like Nepo says, we keep returning until we get to our truth, whatever that maybe.


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