JULY 29, 2016
I JUST SAW the movie The Shallows, about a surfer terrorized by a great white shark while stranded for hours on a tiny ocean rock. She is resourceful, determined, brave. I had two primary thoughts while watching: 1) I would have curled up on that rock in tears, given up, and died instantly, and 2) Bernadette Murphy would have kicked that shark’s ass in about five minutes.
Murphy is the author of Zen and the Art of Knitting, The Knitter’s Gift, and (with Michelle Huneven) The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, The Rumpus, Ms. magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, Climbing magazine, the New York Observer, LitHub, and multiple magazines, websites, and anthologies. She’s an associate professor in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.
She’s also my friend, which, on the face of it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Beyond knitting and books, we have virtually nothing in common. I am a risk-averse couch potato, afraid of everything (I’d have survived the shark in that movie, actually, but only because I’m too afraid of surfboards and waves to have gone in that water in the first place), while Bernadette, as a writer, as a woman, and simply as a person in the world, is fearless.
Except that’s the wrong word. Bernadette is as scared of scary things as any rational person might be — she just does them anyway. Sometimes she does them because of the fear. And that’s what I admire. The “fearless” person does not inspire me, because I can’t relate to fearlessness. But Bernadette seeks out the scary — ice climbing, marathon running, cross-country motorcycle riding (not to mention writing books) — not out of recklessness but because she wants to push beyond the fear, to feel the life-affirming rush of risk, to test her mettle and her emotional and physical limits. She’s resourceful, determined, and brave.
Her beautiful new book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, tells us how, at 48, she decided to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and transformed her whole life in the process. It’s a compelling and insightful study of the riches to be found in doing the scary thing: one I can happily read and admire — and ask about — from the safety of my couch.
TARA ISON: I have no interest in riding motorcycles, nor taking any kind of the physical risks you describe — and yet I was utterly fascinated by this book, as if you were speaking directly to me. Did you have a “readership” in mind? Did you aim to connect with people like me?
BERNADETTE MURPHY: The motorcycle, along with the other risk-taking adventures I explore, is a metaphor for the larger truth I try to limn: that it’s important to challenge ourselves if we don’t want to spend our lives cowering in fear. I remember being in an airport and seeing a frail little nun reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. She wasn’t going to scale Everest anytime soon — but readers who will never ride a motorcycle or climb a mountain will nonetheless face other difficult circumstances: losing parents, dealing with divorce, getting past painful childhoods, encountering accidents that change their perspective. And that bigger story is the one they seem to connect with. The motorcycle is just a vehicle (ahem!) to examine this question: How do we come to terms with the fact that life is often terrifying?
While written from a women’s point of view, much of what you describe regarding the human drive to seek out risk and authenticity is universal, something men can also relate to. Did you find any specific gender-based differences in how we grapple with risk and fear?
There are definitely gender differences when it comes to our appetite for risk. Women tend to be more risk averse than men in the physical realm and yet are often more willing to put themselves on the line emotionally. But there’s something for all of us to learn in looking at risk, namely that we can get comfortable with it — that we can develop an acceptance of the overwhelming parts of life, whether they are physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual. Repeated exposure to situations that spark my fear helps to lower my threshold for freaking out. I get to know how my body responds when I’m scared — I realize that my fear won’t kill me. Once I’ve stopped shaking, I realize I have choices. And that realization makes me feel empowered.
This book is about so much more than riding a motorcycle — there’s serious and fascinating research here about the neuroscience of risk and the “road narrative” in popular culture, as well as interviews with a range of experts. Beyond the surprises of your own experiences, what discovery as you researched the book surprised you the most?
Well, much of the research out there pathologizes risk, looking only at the ways it’s unhealthy, as with gambling, unsafe sex, and illicit drug use. But when I spoke with the experts directly, many lamented that their fields tend to study only the way risk can harm a life. Almost every one of them went on to tell me how they’d personally undertaken some form of risk — skydiving, or getting a big tattoo — and reported feeling more confident and complete as a result. So that was surprising — that so many of the people I interviewed (neuroscientists, psychologists, and others) agreed with my theory, namely that risk-taking can be a good and necessary part of a fully lived life.