A year ago this week, I published an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer that explored how who I am can contribute to my vulnerability to violence and unpleasantness. It’s disturbing to realize that bad things can happen to people who are like us in some way, to us, but it’s even more disturbing when we realize that there are aspects of our lives that put as at risk, and that we cannot control. See, it can be hard work to arrange our lives to increase our safety. Sometimes it requires distancing ourselves from old friends, finding ways to move homes or change jobs, figuring out how to carry tools like pepper spray or guns, or learning challenging skills like managing boundaries and fighting against physical attacks. Even if we are not entirely successful, or if we choose to leave some danger in our lives because of the enjoyment we’d otherwise lose, we have the agency of effort and choice. We can do the work, or decide that we don’t want to. When it comes to inherent qualities of our very existence, it’s more difficult.
After all, there is less we can do when it comes to changing or disguising core parts of our biology and our identity, and certainly less than we might be expected to do in pursuit of safety. Theoretically, we could undergo plastic surgery and gender reassignment, completely change our hair and the way we dress, but those are all enormous asks and beyond what we can expect someone to change unless they individually decide they want to for their own reasons. We might also rebel against changing other areas vital to us, even if others might not agree, like maintaining family relationships, staying in careers we consider akin to callings, or refusing to move from the area we’ve lived in our whole lives. Much like we can’t tell someone to live in a bubble to avoid potential danger, we can’t tell someone to change the things that make them who they are. We certainly shouldn’t have to subsume our very beings into trying to survive, so much that we lose the self we are trying to save. Even if we could, it might not actually be possible for a whole host of reasons, not to mention that some of those changes may themselves be a catalyst for conflict.
We can become torn between the desire to feel and be safe, and the desire to be true to ourselves. We might be simply struggling with what it means to be us, with whether we are or can become comfortable in our skins and the more permanent features of our lives or if we are simply staying because we are afraid to explore the unknown, long before we are ready to consider how those might affect our physical safety. Or we might be perfectly happy with who we are and how we express our inner selves externally, or how we show our heritage in our looks, but fear the consequences of others seeing and not appreciating us in our full glory so much that we consider muting ourselves. We might also have to grapple with the fact that our innate qualities might protect us in some ways while exposing us in others, and wonder if change is worthwhile even if it were possible. You might consider it a tension between different forms of safety: safety from outside attacks, and safety from internal turmoil. In our quest for one, it can be all too easy to forget how much we need the other to thrive.
Since we have to live in our bodies every day and for most of us, danger does not come daily, one could argue that we should prioritize what it takes to feel safe within ourselves. However, it is inarguable that external factors can influence that feeling. If we are able to protect ourselves from all comers, then we may feel more free to be who we want to be in truth. If we are not, then we may shrink ourselves in any way possible, to seek the least threatened version of ourselves. And yet, if we are more secure in our beings, we may be more willing to do whatever it takes to protect ourselves against those who would threaten us, rather than succumb to the hopelessness of not valuing ourselves enough to make that effort. It’s circular, and I can’t tell you where to jump into the cycle, which must come first so that the other follows. Whichever is more important to you now is enough, or whichever is more accessible for you to address. Just start somewhere. Be safe in one way so you can be safe in others.
There are no easy answers here. It’s a true fact that certain parts of who we are can inspire people to treat us poorly, even to try to hurt us because they are offended by our very existence. It’s also a true fact that if and when we try to stuff down essential parts of ourselves, edit ourselves to be acceptable to the world around us, we may suffer unspeakable psychological harm. We simply can’t predict if and when either will happen, and the exact nature of the injuries that might result, so we can’t simply plug in a risk/reward equation on which we should do. Besides, there is no fairness and there is no justice in being forced to change ourselves to accommodate the bad guys who are out there. It’s one thing to take on a smaller burden of attention and care to our safety; it’s another thing entirely to take on the much larger burden of becoming an entirely new person, in answer to another’s demands. So what I have for you today is that I see you and your struggle to feel safe as yourself, and I can assure you that you can have both, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday.