Risk Awareness Lessons - From Modernist Fiction

If there’s a mindset that I’d like to consign to history, it’s that of self-imposed misunderstanding. When people say ‘who could possibly do such a thing?’ it helps no-one. Instead, we should be asking ‘why can someone act in this way, and what makes it something that, in that moment and to that person, made sense?’

Risk, risk assessments and risk management are often seen as dull, tedious processes (and filling out risk matrices certainly are), but good risk awareness requires imagination and empathy. You have to be able to see the world as it might be, not just as it is. And you have to be able to imagine the actions of others, even when those actions are unthinkable to yourself.

This is where one of my other loves, aside from accounting, comes in – my love of literature. Literature, reading, art of any kind, allows us to exercise our ability to understand points of view and experiences that are not our own. Sometimes it expands our view and sometimes we can take a holiday in a way of thinking to which we would never wish to fully subscribe. Often it is a mixture of all these things and more.

Here are three lessons on perspective, taken from three classics of (post)modernist writing.

1. Zero-Sum Thinking – Kafka on the Shore

“Oshima reaches out and lays a hand on my knee in a totally natural gesture. “Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

Oshima is a guardian as well as a guide. He provides the teenage Kafka with a perspective into adulthood that is wider and more encompassing than anything he has experienced as a child. Oshima shows the way over a threshold but is also himself trapped. He is a liminal figure, made of edges, flaws, and yet despite his rejection of binaries and embrace of imperfection, he slips into zero-sum thinking throughout.

Oshima suffers from a haemophilia that would make even the slightest injury fatal, and so he drives narrow mountain roads at speeds that ensure any mistake will be catastrophic. His is not a live fast die young philosophy – he doesn’t want to go out in a blaze of glory. To him it is a hard-headed assessment of the situation he is in. For a character that exists on the boundary his philosophy denies that boundary-living can exist. One is alive or dead.

Zero-sum thinking often seems completely logical, but to an outsider the actions people take can look extreme. When we feel we have no choice we go all in. Where the pressure is invisible it can mean the decision is completely ‘inexplicable’ to those outside, but the explanation is still there.

2. When Winning is Losing – The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

“You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding mugs of water and bottles of iodine in case you fall and cut yourself so that they can pick you up - even if you want to stay where you are - and get you moving again.”

Smith, the titular long-distance runner, is very good at what he does, which is running. But, the context within which he does what he does, which is as an inmate at a juvenile correction facility, is anathema to him. More than that, the whole system thinks that it can take what is his – his very physicality – and use it to prove its own ability at enacting change. Smith is forced to choose between winning and upholding the values of those who look down upon him, who want to better him, who co-opt his life for their own purposes; or ‘losing’. Smith chooses to lose.

I would recommend this story to anyone working with those who exist outside of the systems of middle-class privilege, of structure and labour-based economics and, yes, philanthropic betterment that the charity sector exists in. Alan Sillitoe goes deep into the mind of someone who doesn’t want anything to do with the system and we as reader get a look at some of how those mindsets can develop.

We should not dismiss those who do not want to be part of the same set of values that we hold dear, because their decisions and reasons have logic that is informed by the values that they hold. We don’t have to agree, we can hold our own values as superior if we have reason to do so, but we should still endeavour to understand the decisions as both reasonable and foreseeable ones.

3. The View from the Top – To the Lighthouse

“The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long life seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed...”

Virginia Woolf specialises in the small picture. Her work goes deep into the experience of being and the importance of experience. She is perhaps most famous for her rightful assertion that the mind of a woman is as important as that of a man, and for her excavations of those minds.

Yet she is almost completely uninterested in the minds of the working class. Mrs McNab in To the Lighthouse has thoughts, but her thoughts are given the same value as the thoughts of the house that she is custodian of. She is as animate as an inanimate object – a repository of the bright lives of the house’s owners. Without Mrs McNab, who feels that she has failed the house by allowing its disrepair, despite her age and efforts, the surviving Ramsey’s would not be able to make it to the Lighthouse at all in the books third section.

To the Lighthouse is a masterclass of perspective. And by perspective, I mean both the differing viewpoints of the first section and the long-term view of what is important now, how it can become both unimportant in the future and of vital meaning. Life continues, but for those of us still here, it leaves its marks that make us behave in ways that, without context, history, feeling, would not be clear. The lesson is that none of us is an island, but instead a part of a complex tapestry, affecting and affected by the deeds and desires of those around us.

Understanding risks requires understanding people. The mistakes, preoccupations and patterns that make us us.

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