Sometimes you have to take a chance.
When I was a kid, my dad took us to see comets. I can think of three: Halley’s Comet, Comet Hyakutake, and Comet Hale-Bopp. I remember the last two pretty clearly, being a teenager at the time. Halley’s, not so much. But it was kind of a thing, my dad taking us to see comets. It’s a good way to get a kid interested in astronomy, letting them stay up past their bedtime and driving out into the countryside at night because the sky is doing something cool.
So a couple years ago, when I read about Comet Lulin, I called up my dad and asked him if he’d like to go try and see it.
I printed out some star charts and, not having stargazed much, tried to work out how we would find it. Lulin wasn’t as bright or obvious as the others had been. Dad and I took some country roads south and east of town, trying to escape the light pollution. It wasn’t easy. We kept running into neighborhoods, and there was this one processing plant that apparently spent half its budget on floodlights. Eventually we settled for the nearest reasonably dark patch of road and got out to look. We searched the sky as well as we could, with and without binoculars, orienting ourselves by the stars we recognized. But try as we might, we couldn’t find Lulin. Eventually, we gave up and went home.
As we drove back into town, Dad asked me if I regretted going. And you know, it was easy to be annoyed that we went through all that trouble for nothing, or embarrassed that I had dragged my dad out to the middle of nowhere to look at a comet and not be able to find it. But when I thought about it, I knew I would have regretted not going at all.
It would have been worse to read reports and look at pictures of Comet Lulin after it left and know that I had a chance to see it myself, and never tried. On one hand, it’s only a comet. On the other hand, it’s only a gallon of gas, chilly fingers, and a goodnatured argument about skycharts. To me, that was worth the chance.
Some chances are worth a lot.
This sits at the root of science. It’s the soul of curiosity. It’s something that’s easy to forget as we try to pare down the craziness and business of life. When you’ve got twenty million Very Important Things hounding you, demanding your attention and monopolizing your time, what’s the point of doing something that has a chance of success? We’ll stick to certainties, thanks. We’ll do what we know is going to turn out right. We have neither the time or the energy to spend on something that might work.
Weirdly enough, it seems like when I’m bogged down and worn down, sometimes it’s the “might” part that helps. And maybe, maybe this is because taking a chance requires a few important things.
For one, you have to give up control. You can’t control a chance. Which, given that we never really have control of anything, should help us shake off illusions. We don’t control our lives. We direct them and have a great deal of influence, but we’re living in a pattern far bigger than we are, with elements running in and out, springing from places we can’t see and ending in places we can’t get to. When I’m grasping desperately at every aspect of my life, taking a chance forces me to let go. I’m forced to face how small I am, how big the world is, and how much cool stuff I might be missing because I’m trying to rule my little corner with an iron fist.
Secondly, you have to come to terms with failure. Now there’s a scary word: failure. That’s got a whole slideshow of scary pictures in it: rebukes, unemployment, disapproving frowns, empty bank accounts, looks of pity, and if we’re really lucky, mocking laughter. Which would make anyone want to hide under a rock and never come out. People say that failure teaches (which it does), but that doesn’t address the shame that comes with, or the lurking fear that if we fail, everything will fall apart.
It’s a fear of failure that sits at the root of stage fright. A lot of people think that the key to conquering stage fright is to have complete confidence in their skill. Having been a vocal major, I’ve sung a lot of solos, and dealt with a lot of stage fright. Confidence is part of it: it’s easier to sing a solo when you’ve had enough practice and know your audience likes your voice. But that’s not enough. You also have to believe that crashing and burning isn’t the end of the world. The best way to kill stage fright – or any fear of failure – is to imagine what it would look like if absolutely everything went wrong, then stare it in the face and say, “So what?”
Here’s a true thing: failure’s not that bad. Embarrassing, yeah. Frustrating, yeah. Difficult, discouraging, even painful? Sometimes. The end of the world? Not so much. And not as bad as not taking the chance. If you don’t risk failure, you can’t succeed.
Third, when you take a chance, there’s more to be got out of it than mere success. Failure teaches. Success teaches. So too does the chance itself. When you try something, you learn. When you try something, you meet people. When you try something, you might fail spectacularly, and at the same time, discover something really cool for later. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that library science degree I was going for, but the HTML class I had to take is sure helping with my blog. I’ve got a friend who moved across state to chase a relationship: the relationship failed, but then she met her husband. And then there are those chances that work, that open up whole new possibilities. Chances bring us to places we wouldn’t go otherwise, and teach us things we never thought to learn. My dad and I didn’t see the comet, but we hung out for an evening, and how could you argue with that?
Taking a chance shakes loose dust and fear and kicks us out of ruts. We can’t take every chance, and we shouldn’t take every chance, but there are some chances that must be taken. Whether we succeed or not, it will have been worth it.