18 July 2011

what in the world is safe

I was telling a friend about a poetry reading I attended recently at a downtown hotel.  21C is such an interesting place, filled with modern art exhibits, and including one of the best restaurants in the city – the kind of place you take out-of-town visitors who like art or enjoy gourmet food, or who just like to sit with a well prepared and presented cocktail.  That it’s located downtown is a problem though for some people who, like my friend, wonder if “it’s safe” to park and walk to at night.
My friend expressed this concern – she’d like to attend the readings, held at the hotel once a month, but worries about the neighborhood.  In reply I said something I’ve heard myself say many times to others.  “Sure it’s safe, I suppose.  Well, I don’t worry too much about it.”
This time I must have actually heard what I said.  And I’ve been wondering about it since.
My wondering took the form of a question.  Why does everybody else worry about that so much?  But soon I began asking a different question – why don’t I worry about it.
What I first told myself was – well it’s safe enough at night really.  There are people in the restaurant, coming and going from others in the next block.  And the rest of that block between 8th St. and 9th on Main contains museums and one of the biggest tourist attractions (Hillerich and Bradsby) in town.  But the reality is that, at night the museums and H & B are closed.  The next block really is a long one, pretty far away to expect help if something happened.
Then I got into defensiveness.  Well – I live alone, and sometimes don’t have anyone to go places with.  Unless I want to miss out on things I just can’t worry about this.
Defensiveness became resentment.  Well, these other people have someone, a live-in spouse or partner, who will go somewhere with them if it’s not safe.  They can afford to worry.
Even without the defensiveness or resentment those things are true.  But they aren’t to the point.  Why don’t I worry about safety?  Should I worry about it?  More than I do?
This line of thought led me to a question that I’d never asked any of those who’d queried me about safety – what did they mean by safety.  I knew what they meant, in a particular sense – was there a danger of mugging or purse snatching – would they return to their car to find it stripped, the windows broken, or even gone?  In a larger sense though, they were, I was sure, asking about emotional wellbeing as much or more than physical safety.
Just to make sure I was on the right track I called a few people who’d asked me that question.  Sure enough, each of them said yes, they were asking if they would feel secure.  One person brought it all into focus when she said, “Downtown isn’t familiar to me, so it’s just scary.”
And that statement provided the final puzzle piece.  The familiar feels, to most people, safe.  The unfamiliar – scary – to most people.  Looking at the completed puzzle, I got it.  I’m not most people – not anywhere close.  Safety, security and wellbeing are NOT things I expect from the world because I didn’t grow up with them, did not know what they looked like.  Instead, I learned early on that my only safety was in not showing fear, in plastering a brave countenance over my panic, and in escaping what was familiar in search of . . . well, I wasn’t sure what, then.
It has taken decades, thousands of hours in therapy, education, and even heart attack to learn that fear isn’t shameful, to appreciate that safety isn’t Out There somewhere, to understand that my early learning was based on bad teaching.  Yet that learning did hold gifts.
One is this lack of worry about external safety.  Now, I’m NOT out in the world taking foolish and unnecessary risks every day, though I did some of that when I was younger.  I do have, and use, common sense, and have at times pointedly driven away from places, people or situations that were clearly dangerous.  With time and learning and experience, I’ve identified what’s worth taking a risk for, and learned how much risk I am willing to take.
I suppose my way of being and doing looks mighty brave to others.  Honestly, I’ve never felt brave in going places alone, or exploring events or new cities solo.  Courage is fear that has found its legs, and I’m not afraid when I go out in the world – if I’m interested in what’s out there, engaged in what’s going on, meeting new people and trying new things.
In some ways that early, ungratifying, environment from which I learned a lot of wrong lessons has better prepared me to live in and explore a world that really isn’t essentially safe, or set up to be so.  I’ll never be one of those devastated by its inherent indifference to our individual wants or needs, as so many are.  I’m learning instead that safety comes from occupying my own true ground, from authenticity and even from vulnerability.
In learning this I understand that I really don’t have to worry if the neighborhood or the situation is safe.  All I need to attend to is the answer to the question – do I feel safe in it.

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