I recently met with a group of doctors who gather at Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s house monthly to discuss a variety of topics and seek meaning in medicine and in the human experience.
The topic of the month was “Safety”—our quest for it, our desire for it, and, as we discovered, our complete inability to attain it, given the certainty of uncertainty.
It got me thinking about how many years I spent striving to feel safe. It’s not like I grew up unsafe and spent the rest of my life seeking it. My childhood was full of white picket fences and loving parents and bike riding in the middle of the barricaded street at neighborhood block parties. I was rarely sick, never abused, and nurtured like an object of precious affection. With the exception of seventh grade, mean girls, premenstrual acne, and the inevitable heartbreak of unrequited crushes, my young life was as safe as they come.
Yet, I sought even more safety, perhaps to fend off the imaginary demons that might threaten such safety. When you have so much to lose, life automatically feels unsafe. Somehow, you know it could all be taken from you in the blink of an eye.
Medical School Trauma
My sense of safety ended the first day I started medical school, when our dean announced that, although we all graduated at the top of our college classes, half of our class would be graduating in the bottom half of the class (a statement to which a fellow classmate snickered, “C=MD.”) For the first time in my otherwise pretty sheltered life, medical school felt wildly unsafe. Not only were there HIV-infected needles carelessly thrown at me, there were also medical school professors sexually harassing me, screaming at me across operating room tables, telling me I was worthless, and threatening to fail me unless I did as I was told in any number of sordid ways.
Any sense of safety I once had abandoned me by the time I graduated.
Residency was no better. And then, during my third year of residency, I was on vacation in Colorado Springs with my cousin. We were driving up to a scenic overlook on Pikes Peak in a convertible, when two masked and armed men blocked a tunnel we were driving through and held us up. After the terrifying experience of being thrown to the pavement while guns were shot off all around me, my cousin and I found ourselves still alive, uninjured, but feeling massively unsafe. I dreamed about being shot for years after that, a trauma that subsided until September 11, when my feeling of being unsafe resurfaced and lasted several more years.
My Perfect Storm
I spent my early thirties doing everything I could to reclaim the level of safety I felt as a child. I got married, bought a house, got a stable job as a physician that I thought would lend me job safety until I retired at sixty-five, socked away $40,000 a year into retirement, bought lots of insurance in case something bad happened, and prayed that my efforts were enough.
Until I got thwacked with the triple whammy of my Perfect Storm: right after having my baby, my dog died, my healthy young brother wound up in full blown liver failure as a rare side effect of a common antibiotic, and my beloved father passed away much too young from a brain tumor.
Clearly, safety was an illusion, and it couldn’t be purchased.
Embracing the Unsafe
Now, in the wake of tragedies like the movie theater shooting in Colorado, many of us feel unsettled by how unsafe life can be. Yes, it’s true, bad things happen. It could all be over tomorrow. You could lose your job, your child, your spouse, your health, your life. Nothing is guaranteed. Anything is possible.
In the face of this much uncertainty, it requires a nearly constant spiritual practice to find peace in the face of the unsafe, rather than succumbing to the temptation to choose fear over courage. Without such practice in faith and courage, we might all avoid the movies—and the rest of life’s precious gifts—in search of a safety we’ll never gain, no matter how we try.
I finally realized that I would never be safe—that at any moment, I might get held up at gunpoint or that I too could wind up with a brain tumor or lose someone I love or get shot in a movie theater. I could cling to my child, hold my husband hostage in my heart to protect our love, barrier my life with as many back-up plans and safety nets as possible, and if life decided to thwack me with the big one, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference.
I became fully aware of my complete vulnerability and the unsafe-ness of my naked, exposed heart, and all it had to lose terrified me. And yet, what would be the alternative? To live paranoid that I might one day lose it? To close my heart so I wouldn’t feel anything if I did?
Nah, that’s no way to live.
Instead, I realized that perhaps the quest for safety is misguided in the first place. Perhaps it’s like trying to squeeze the sunset. Sure, we can take precautions. We can avoid walking in dark alleys alone at night in big cities. We don’t need to court danger or put ourselves unnecessarily in harm’s way.
But since we can’t buy or plan safety—since life is essentially unsafe—why not make peace with the fact that safety never lasts forever and revel in the moments when we do feel safe?
Glimpses of Safety
A few weeks ago, I was at the Sonoma Mission Inn Spa with a girlfriend, and we were floating on two noodles in a ninety-eight-degree pool filled with water fed from a natural thermal spring underground. When I laid my head back into the water, I heard the music of angels piped in from speakers under the water. Floating as if within a womb, rocking to the heavenly music by the lapping of the water, I noticed how safe I felt, how I felt held and cherished and at one with Mama Earth and the Universe and everyone on the planet and All That Is.
And I drank it in, gulping safety like a parched desert wanderer. Then I got in the car and heard the sounds of sirens and saw an ambulance racing off to somewhere where someone felt unsafe. I was filled with gratitude. How lucky that we’re blessed to feel safe, even if only in these little pockets of heaven.
The Illusion of Safety
I still crave the illusion of safety I once had in my younger years, but I realize there’s a gift gained in what I’ve lost—the peace of finding your center, tapping into your Inner Pilot Light, and discovering that still point within where safety always lies, even in the midst of a maelstrom.
Seeking safety outside yourself will always fail you. I hate to break it to you, but you can’t control your life, no matter how many safeguards you put into place. But you don’t have to control your life to find peace. It lives with you all the time, deep within, in that place where your divine spark flickers, even on stormy days.
Since life is essentially unsafe, why not abort the constant quest for safety and be brave enough to take risks? Why not go after that risky dream, make that risky investment in your business, risk opening your heart when it’s been broken before? Why not seduce unsafety like a lover, buy unsafety flowers, sidle up to unsafety and get comfortable with it, so it’s not so foreign and scary and an unnamed, faceless bundle of fears that keeps you stuck? Why not befriend unsafety, and as we name it, look at it, make peace with it, and learn to stop trying to avoid it?
Have You Found Your Inner Safety?
Can you access that still point when life feels unsafe? Are you willing to take risks? Tell us how you navigate the storms. Share your tips for embracing the unsafe.
Seeking peace amidst the chaos,
*Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry.
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