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A lesson in risk from a long time ago

Friday 20 January 2017

Friday's Feature 

By Dr Bob Murray
We have a lot to learn about the psychology of risk. We know from very recent research that some of us are more genetically averse to risk, and many of us are the opposite. We used to think that men—you know, that old testosterone thing—were more prone to risk-taking than women. Now, we know that that is both kind-of true, and kind-of not true.
A high level of genetically-driven testosterone in either sex can lead to risky behavior, such as gambling, fraud and a number of other unsocial things. But as to men being the dangerous ones…it turns out from other research, published a couple of months ago, that while men generally take the lead in risk, fraud etc., often, it is those high-testosterone women who are their willing accomplices. Thus, it is fair to say that either gender can be equally risk-averse or risk-prone.
Scientists and psychologists find it difficult to define “risk-taking” behavior, since it is so contextual. This leaves us in the rather strange position of knowing, neurogenetically, what causes individuals to either be cautious or incautious, virtuous or fraudulent, without being able to define with certainty any of these terms.
I was reminded of this when I was reading a passage from “The Book of Timothy”, a series of fragments of 14th Century writings by the Abbot, scientist and heretic, Timothy of Llangibbi. Timothy is mostly forgotten to history; his brother, Wulf of Llangibbi, however, and their childhood friend, Maud de l’Arbre, are not. Many scholars cite Wulf as the original Robin Hood and Maud (a courtesan at the court of Edward I, and a spy for his enemy, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales) as his Maid Marion (Marion is a variation of Maud). But Timothy is the more interesting. He served briefly as Abbot of Tintern Abbey (c 1304) before being declared a heretic on the basis of his writings, and his books were burned. To this day, his period as Abbot remains blank on the abbey’s list of abbots. The Church—and subsequent historians, it seems—are determined to forget him.
A great friend of mine, historian Garnet Pritchard, translated from the Latin what remained of Timothy’s writings and called them “The Book of Timothy.” When he died, he left the manuscript to me. The following is a passage called “On Taking Risks.”
We all age. We all die. Most of us—the cautious, the careful, the neither-saint-nor-real-sinner—leave nothing behind but a gravestone, some grieving men and women, and a plough. They took no risks, these people. Their lives were set in feudal order, like monks who also go, they hope, to Heaven with nothing but a cassock left to remind others of their passing.
The risk-takers are different. Where there are rules, they disobey them. Where there are conventions, they ignore them. Where there is safety, they distain it. Perchance they were born to dare, for that seems to be their pattern. Often, they also leave nothing, and sometimes, their legacy is distain. Sometimes, they leave riches for those that follow.
Yet they, too, age and die. Even if they are successful in their chances, and leave a gilded hall or other riches, even that is not a tribute. It is but a reminder.
I, as a monk, am not a risk-taker. I live within the rules of my order and within the walls of this monastery, and I venture not from it.
But what if I would be different? If I were to be open to risk, what could I leave behind?
But what is risk? Most people believe it lies in not following rules or injunctions that you know to exist. For me, it might be missing one of the eight services of the day, talking during meals, spending an entire daylight not working.
But every day we face the choice of obeying instructions we know to be mistaken. Yes; every man or woman, every day. We are asked to obey commands or to follow rules that force us to make a decision to risk disobedience or not.
What if the rule, the injunction, the command, is wrong, or immoral, or impractical for a human being to accomplish, as many are? Are we still taking a risk by disobedience? Would the cautious man say “yes” and obey, hopeful that he can still bequeath his plough? Would the risk-taker be braver? Perhaps.
But is disobedience in such a circumstance really a risk? If a man cannot do what is asked then there is no risk in disobeying, for the attempt to obey will fail. If the rule or the order is immoral, then there is also no risk because to obey would imperil the soul’s journey to Heaven. If the rule or the injunction is wrong—mistaken, rather than evil—then caution lies in pointing out its wrongness, prior to any attempt at obedience. This is hardly a risk.
But there are risks that take real bravery and which, I suspect, we each of us face more often than we admit. For me as a monk, having taken vows of obedience in all things, it would be to let my mind wander; to question that which is not allowed to be questioned. And if I did, when I died, what would I leave behind? A book perhaps? An idea remembered? A change effected? Or nothing; would I be just forgotten?
Would I be brave enough to risk independence of thought and then be forgotten?
I was not born to take risks. I was born to obey, and my destiny is to leave my cassock as my memorial.
Timothy did disobey. He wrote a number of songs, books and sermons, which subtly questioned Church doctrines and procedures in many areas. For this, he was stripped of his position, accused of heresy, excommunicated, and hounded around Europe under sentence of death for the rest of his very long life (it’s said he was over 90 when he died). The authorities burned every copy of his works they found.


Dr Bob Murray, Co-founder of Fortinberry Murray

Dr Bob Murray is a co-founder of the international consultancy
Fortinberry Murray. He is the author of 10 books. The latest, published
this month, is “Leading the Future” (Ark Publications), co-authored
with Dr Alicia Fortinberry. He works with Global 500 companies,
Governments and major professional service firms in Asia, the US,
Europe as well as Australia. He can be contacted at