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What is safety?

While it may seem an annoyingly philosophical question, I would challenge you to consider how critically important the feeling of safety is right now. Our emotions, and therefore our actions, are highly influenced by our sense of safety. In fact, as we start to ease restrictions on social distancing, the question of what makes us feel safe might just be everything.

My thoughts on this topic crystallized after reading a recent Atlantic piece on flying in a COVID-19 world, most notably this passage:

The glittering allure of “normalcy” that waits on the other end of these stay-at-home orders is a mirage. The things we miss most about our pre-pandemic lives—dine-in restaurants and recreational travel, karaoke nights and baseball games—require more than government permission to be enjoyed...until we stop reflexively seeing people as viral threats, those old small pleasures we crave are likely to remain elusive.

This passage was like a sucker punch to my soul. As we are increasingly granted the freedom to do more of the things we used to do, I wonder if we will quickly realize that being 'allowed' to do things does not make them feel safe. I wonder if we've been holding onto the return to 'normalcy' as a means of reestablishing our collective sense of safety, and if we will be crushed when the return to 'normalcy' fails to deliver on its promise. Where will we look for safety then?

Personally, I've been on a multi-week exploration of my own sense of safety as we get ready to 'reopen the economy'. When will I feel safe to go to restaurants, to fly again, to meet in larger groups? I've gone through mental lists of the PPE that I'd want, measures that stores or restaurants would need to have in place, and even contemplated whether it's feasible to only drive and never fly this year.It was during this process that I came to a powerful conclusion: none of these things will actually make me feel safe.

The problem was that I was looking at safety as something outside of myself, and it's an old pattern of mine that I didn't recognize at first. I have spent a lifetime looking for safety in job security, healthy bank balances, or home alarm systems. Despite all of these things, I still suffered constant anxiety, and it took me years to realize the root of my anxiety was the (mostly unconscious) fear of the myriad of threats against which I hadn't protected myself. I was never going to feel safe because there were always things outside of my control for which I couldn't possible prepare.

Amidst the current pandemic, this old pattern had re-emerged. I was looking for safety in PPE, data and statistics, and recommendations from health experts. I was waiting for them to tell me it was safe to resume past activities, as though the very act of granting me permission would magically envelope me in an impenetrable bubble of safety. If only safety worked that way.

Safety, however, is not logical or rational, nor does it arise only when external conditions are met. In fact, I would argue that when we place our sense of safety in anything outside ourselves, it is highly fragile at best.  When safety is tied to externalities, it remains intact only so long as those externalities remain unshaken. But we all know that externalities are largely out of our control: jobs can be lost, experts can be wrong, etc. etc. etc.  If we place our sense of safety in things outside our control, it is bound to crumble.

I'd somehow forgotten the source of safety I'd tapped into years ago, a source of safety that finally allowed me to escape my constant anxiety.  I experience safety when I remember that no matter what happens, I have the capacity to accept and respond to it. Put even more simply, safety is nothing more than deeply knowing that I can deal with anything. That doesn't mean I will enjoy dealing with everything, nor that I won't experience moments of fear. What it does mean is that I can more quickly move through fear to accept what is, and to know that I am equipped to handle it. For me, reconnecting to this inner source of safety has been truly freeing.

If we look inside ourselves as the source of our safety, any one of us can feel safe regardless of what is happening around us.  We can feel safe even if we don't know what will happen when we ease restrictions; even if we have to fly on over-crowded planes; and even when grocery shopping amidst those who seem blissfully unconcerned with maintaining appropriate distance. We can feel safe because regardless of what happens, we have the inner strength and wisdom to handle it. How would your emotional experience change if this is how you viewed safety, too?

So I'll ask you again, what is safety?

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