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Inside and out: Safety’s Illusion

by Steve Harrison

I’ve been thinking a lot about safety. We all want it. COVID has made it more of a feverish topic. We frequently align ourselves with a certain political ideology, thinking that a political party will bring forth the safety we crave. There is plenty of evidence on both sides that we rarely get the comfort we need, and if we are lucky enough to attain it, someone else is left wanting or there are plenty of people trying to take it away from us.

Safety comes in many forms. Are we talking about physical safety, financial safety, safety in old age, or safety as a child? When I was a kid, it was safe to sit in the car’s front seat or on my grandfather’s lap, pretending to drive. It was one of my favorite memories, now a ticketable offense.

It was not uncommon to walk alone six blocks to the grocery store, even at dusk, beginning around the age of 10. Schools were thought to be safe, with hardly a death on school grounds making the news. We still struggle with the notion that most sexual abuse, something so well hidden when I was a child, usually comes from within close family circles. We encourage our elderly to move to an assisted-living facility or at the very least a 65-and-over community, hoping that their safety will be ensured.

In thinking about safety I ponder how much we give up in its quest, and I wonder how much safety is an illusion when we think we’ve got it. I wrote last time that after much thought I moved my mom into assisted living. However, I’m left to wonder how much safety I can ensure her, and whether the very concept at age 89 is possible. How many broken hips take place in the old-folks home? How safe did mom or dad feel at the senior living establishment during COVID, without a visit from the outside world except maybe through glass. To what extent do we diminish life and all its pleasure in the name of safety? Maybe for my mom, living alone with all its dangers was worth the risk.

We love risk taking. Rock climbing, roller coaster rides, football, skiing, even scary movies thrill, the closer we are to danger. Risk taking seems ingrained in the American character. Certainly, caution comes with age, with generational conflicts resulting in the navigating of just what is too dangerous or too safe. Risk is a young person’s game. But I keep wondering if we can be too safe; if after a spurt of carefree, youthful risk-taking, we batten down the hatches once the truth or fear of mortality becomes more of a reality. Is it possible we diminish life by attempting to make it so safe?

We grow comfortable with safety’s illusion. We believe our democracy is safe from outside or inside interference; we want to believe we all play by the same rules. Our banks’ pass codes and accounts are safe from manipulation. We believe in the very financial currency that is based on little more than mass agreement. (Can we really cash in our $100 bill for something of tangible worth — wampum or a pot of gold?) We believe our retirement funds are solvent and safe. The drinking water free of contaminants. Churches, schools, and medical facilities free of abuse. Vaccines pure, tested, reliable. We need to believe. A friend suggested our illusion is what keeps us sane.

When confronted with safety’s illusion, its security built on quick sand, we quickly look away or rationalize away the truth. We go to great lengths to assure ourselves everything is okay. A slap disrupts order but can’t stifle the comic. Laws passed or rescinded don’t make America great again, the concept of a “perfect” past America is absurd. Perhaps all we are left with is abiding by and honoring the social contract — people getting along and respecting one another even when the other doesn’t seem like us. Maybe that is really what provides the safety we crave. We all need to be like Lady Gaga: “I’ve got you!” Compassion. Empathy. Respect. The Golden Rule.

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