Safety is a tricky, squishy concept. We talk about it as the ultimate goal when it comes to self defense or personal protection, where it generally refers to some sort of freedom from or avoidance of physical injury to our bodies or, more ideally, even the threat of that injury. We more rarely think of psychological or emotional safety, a way of defining when we are able to freely express our thoughts and feelings without imposition of outside control or disapproval. Life being what it is, there’s always some level of risk, some potential for danger in any or all of those aspects – and that’s no bad thing. Our ability to let our guards down and escape the idea of perfect safety and to connect with the thrill of adrenaline and the spirits of other human beings are parts of what makes life beautiful and worthwhile. The trick, really, is to know how to do so in a way that makes vulnerability intentional and mindful, especially when it’s connected to those less obvious areas of safety.
There are times and places we know are straight-up dangerous, where the line between being safe and not is shadowy and thin. We know we need to stay away from them, or at least be extra careful if we can’t. I probably don’t need to tell you that dark alleyways, twilight parking lots, and isolated paths or roads are the kinds of places where bad guys look for victims. I probably don’t even need to tell you to be careful in the transitional spaces of life that we talk about so much in personal safety classes: the hallways, the elevators, the gas stations. You probably also know that you need to watch out in bars and clubs, perhaps airports and hotels. You know that the unfamiliar and the temporary are where predators seek prey and it’s rare that you wander into those situations unthinkingly. For those types of situations, the answers to turn threat into safety are concrete and relatively easily applied: limit your time in those spaces, go into them with trusted people, be suspicious of strangers, carry and know and how to use weapons.
Stranger danger and physical danger aren’t all we have to worry about, however, and that’s where it gets so much harder.
Many crimes and other acts of violence are committed by people who already touch on our daily lives. They exist on the spectrum from a barista or trades person who has served us to a friend of a friend to the members of our most intimate inner circles. It’s not that everyone we run across is a criminal or an attacker lying in wait, but that there are attackers who take on those guises before they rob us, assault us, stalk us, or otherwise harm us, whether that was their initial plan or not. There are also people in our orbits who may intentionally or unintentionally hurt us by belittling our experiences, our thoughts, our emotions, our core identities. They may make us unsafe in other ways, controlling our finances, our connections with other people, our professional lives. When those dangers come from those we know and, at some level, trust, it’s difficult to believe that they are not the good guys, that they don’t have our best interests at heart. It’s not obvious sometimes that our bodily, spiritual, mental, emotional integrity are threatened. It’s difficult to believe we are, in some way, not safe from people we trust to be parts of our lives in big and small ways. Worse, others may not be able or willing to see we are not safe, especially when we are housed, when we are fed, when we have the trappings of a good life. They may try to convince us that we are safe, in the most well-meaning of ways, when we are the exact opposite.
It’s complicated by the fact that life is a series of gives and takes, that we may legitimately change our actions and our minds due to the input of other people because we genuinely like their ideas better. Boundaries in particular may shift because we grow to love and be loved more deeply, or we learn to more deeply trust another person’s ideas and thoughts, so we permit them more influence over our lives. Context matters too: what is harmful to one individual may not be to another, depending on their specific circumstances and relationships. It’s natural, normal, and healthy to debate with friends and be challenged by loved ones. It’s not always a bad thing when they nudge us away from an action we want in the moment but that they believe, for whatever reason, isn’t what they want to support. Safety, after all, isn’t only about being wrapped in a bubble where we rule everything. It’s true that we don’t always know what is best for us, and what keeps us able to thrive in the long run. How, then, do we distinguish between maintaining our personal integrity, making decisions and changes in how we think and feel and live out of our own free will, and being saved from ourselves from being manipulated, violated, coerced, and abused?
There are no easy answers here. Certainly, keeping everyone away from us may be a way of guaranteeing at least some measure of safety, at least from external dangers. It’s also almost certainly a guarantee that our lives will be less joyful and less rich, and that we won’t have the resources available to help save us from internal dangers. Balancing those two options, as we move through relationships that expand and contract, requires frequent and regular attention to ourselves and honest accountings of why we are doing the things that we are and thinking the way that we do. Making conscious decisions to take on potential danger is a good start, much like knowing you need to be more alert when a shady-looking person joins you in an otherwise-empty elevator. Nothing bad may happen, but you know you need to be ready if it does. Simply knowing an expanded definition of safety so that you are aware of all the different pieces of yourself and your life that you need to examine also helps so that you are looking at the right places to spot dangers. But in the end, accepting that you can do everything right and sometimes you will still not be safe and unharmed, and that that’s okay because the good parts are worth it? That perhaps trumps the goal of ultimate safety, in the best of ways.