Risk Tolerance and the Search for Meaning

amsterdam biking
Each year I come to Europe for the month of May. Work brings me here. Delight keeps me coming back, as well as curiosity about the human condition. Take personal and social risk tolerances in different cultures as an example.

Everywhere in Europe I see young people smoking cigarettes. I see people on bicycles without helmets. In Amsterdam (I was there last year, not this year), cyclists overwhelm the number of cars. They bicycle (or ride scooters and motorcycles) without helmets in the tens of thousands every day. They carry young children without helmets in bicycle baskets without a second thought.In the United States, most of would not think of smoking. Few of us would ride a bicycle without a helmet. To ride a motorcycle without a helmet seems like the height of irresponsibility. And carrying a child with no helmet in a bicycle basket on a long daily commute in heavy city traffic? We would shake our heads in disbelief.

But when it comes to social risks—such as chemical contamination, carrying guns, fracking, accepting GMO foods, imprisoning vast numbers of peoples—the risk tolerances are reversed. Europeans look at us and think our willingness to take these social risks is beyond the pale.

Of course these risks are not all the same. But as a broad generalization, Europeans accept personal risk behaviors that seem bizarre to us while they resist U.S. efforts to force them (via compulsory trade agreements) to take on social risks that seem bizarre to them.

Yet while many Europeans smoke, they live healthier lives than we do in other ways. They have built walking and cycling into their transportation systems. They often eat healthier foods and they eat together and in leisurely ways. They work to live rather than living to work. Social and family time is at the center of their lives rather than at the periphery.

But one thing I find on both sides of the Atlantic is the hunger for meaning. The search for lived (not abstract) truth in our lives. The same struggles with the great questions of the heart, the head and the hands—how we love, what has meaning, and how we act and serve in the world. These are the universal archetypal questions that appear in different forms in different cultures. These struggles are the stories of our private dreams and our shared mythologies.

Tolerance for private and social risks vary. The great life questions find us wherever we are.

3 thoughts on “Risk Tolerance and the Search for Meaning

  1. Thank you for the interesting entry. It is hard for me to explain, but I think
    perhaps the “risks” you describe in the first part reflect a subtle trust of
    their society, a trust that most people have been educated to behave responsibly
    overall, and that American style precautions aren’t necessary, because drivers, walkers,
    bikers are paying attention, have common sense, likewise their children. It is so subtle a balance in social relationship that it’s hard to unravel it analytically. Of course, they have universal
    health care, and perhaps are less litigious than Americans. It adds up to a complex
    blend constituting European society–you can isolate certain likely factors, but
    really it’s those and so much more we Americans are incapable of grasping, to our chagrin.

  2. Pingback: Risk Tolerance and the Search for Meaning | Our Health and Environment Blog

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