My partner sent me this quote this morning, and inspired this week’s post.
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.”
— from p. 79 in The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
As I draft this, it’s Election Day. It’s a work day for me, but I have a long break between a morning and evening shift, so I voted, ate lunch and worked on a big clean-up project my partner and I are undertaking in an outbuilding on our place. The clean-up involves dust, dirt, trash, food debris, rodent and bat droppings, broken glass, sticky empty bottles and cans and cigarette butts. It’s filthy work, but this afternoon, forty-five minutes before I go back to my pay-the-bills job, I feel happier and more peaceful than I have all summer.
I feel safe.
My earliest memories are of feeling unsafe. The people around me were unhappy and unwell. The air was heavy with tension and unexpressed feelings. I was afraid all the time, and I knew that was bad, because it irritated the adults, so I tried to hide it. The world was unpredictable, inconsistent and baffling. Ever since those days I’ve comforted myself in times of stress and fear with a fantasy of being held in loving, protecting arms and feeling safe.
I’ve been ashamed of that need. If I verbalize such a need, people will hasten to assure me that life isn’t safe, as though I haven’t figured that out, as though that wasn’t the point in the first place! An internal, jeering voice calls me a baby; a weak, pathetic thing, dependent and needy.
Yet safety is the most important thing to me in relationship, and healthy relationship is the most important thing to me in life. I want it more than I want money, more than I want a dream house, more than I want anything I could buy. At this point in my life, I’d much rather be alone than be in relationships that don’t feel safe.
I suppose safety is a term we each define differently, but I know what I mean by it. I mean knowing my thoughts, needs and feelings count. I don’t want to be the most important person in the picture, but I want to be as important as everyone else.
One of the things I need to feel safe is an orderly and predictable environment. That’s why raking up trash, sweeping, packing the car with bottles and cans and watching the man in the bottle shop count them is so satisfying. Creating order out of chaos stops my bleeding. Empty space, a clean dirt floor with the drag marks of the rake in it, allowing the dusty scent of old wood and fallen leaves to replace the smell of stale cigarettes and beer, are all calming. The energy of broken glass and animal-torn trash, the debris of self-destruction, is released. I can breathe again. There’s peace. I’m safe.
I’ve seen a lot of headlines about the national stress around this election. Political opinion and affiliation aside, I think most of us can agree we’ll be relieved to have it over. At this point it’s hard for me to even care who wins — I just want the hate and intolerance to end. It hurts me to see us tear ourselves apart, as friends and families, as communities, as a nation, as a globe. It creates no safety for anyone. We’re all vulnerable to hate.
This afternoon, breaking down cardboard and recycling bottle caps, I knew that part of my feeling of relief is that this election is over today. Whatever happens now will happen, and we’ll all have to go forward. Likely what’s ahead won’t feel any safer than what’s behind, but at least it’s movement away from this.
I wish I could take the last year of presidential campaigning and empty out the dregs of malodorous advertising and sound bites, sort out the ridiculous from the frightening and bag each speech, event and word. I wish I could sweep our memories clean of it, pick up the shattered broken glass of integrity; rake up all the greasy, moldy, broken egg shell stinking scandals and e-mails and recordings.
I wish America felt safe to me.
I wish Democracy felt safe to me.
The Morning After
As I sit down to finish this post, American voters have chosen a new president, and I wept as I ate breakfast with my partner.
As the day has passed and I’ve gone for a swim, taken myself to lunch and gotten a haircut, I realize what lies beneath my anger, despair and incredulous disbelief.
It’s right back to the beginning of this post. I’m afraid. I don’t feel safe. Overnight I seem to have become disenfranchised because I’m female, I’m not a Christian and I’m deeply concerned with human rights and freedoms and our planet.
I also realize I’m not alone. This election has been based in fear. In our fear, we’re truly united. Everyone fears something. We’re all looking for safe, strong arms to shelter in. Pick any campaign issue, and you’ll find fear. There’s fear of climate change, fear of economic collapse, fear of immigrants and shifting population demographics, fear of war, religious fear, fear of illness and disease. We all live in fear that someone or something will take our power away, and that fear makes us weak and vicious.
Fear breeds hatred. Racism, misogyny, censorship and terrorism are fear-based behaviors, Great-and-Powerful-Oz distractions that hide cowardice. The world is changing, and we’re terrified. We look for someone or something to blame. We look for someone or something to save us. In our fear, we cling desperately to our ideologies and annihilate any who disagree with us or question our beliefs. In our fear, we seek a hero/heroine, a representative of what we feel is just and right, someone who will help us retain our power, someone who will assure us there are no monsters under the bed.
Here’s what I believe: Power-over is always and inevitably doomed to fail, sooner or later. The only sustainable way forward is power-with one another.
None of us are safe until all of us are. Safety at the expense of another’s terror and repression is an illusion.
I pray for peace and unity for us in the coming days, months and years, but if that is not to be I will fight. Every Hitler and Pol Pot, every Sauron and Voldemort, create by their very existence heroic resistance that cannot be silenced. I will not turn against my friends, neighbors, families and communities in fear and do the bully’s work for him. I’ll work to undermine the bully himself, and I won’t stand alone.
Has anyone read the book I quoted at the beginning of this blog? Please comment about it if you have. I’m adding it to my reading list.
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Wow. Every thing you blog here helps me realize the deep wounds in my own life, that of course began with my earliest memories.
This blog about safety vs fear,is perhaps number one.
The only time I felt truly safe in my life was when I met the man I would eventually marry.
After being married for several years living a truly safe life, the other unmet needs began to surface, which had me questioning those that at the time I didn’t have a clue what an unmet need was.
In reference to your last post on reciprocity, that was missing, value was missing, and feelings of being taken for granted were expressed but not taken seriously until I left the relationship.
Since that time I was thrown back to a fearful world where people never made any sense. The world and the people in it are still scary to me to this day.
I search for the good, but the shadow lurks behind them, and mine haunts me.
Your blogs are wise blessings for me to help heal myself, and I am grateful for them.
Love, Light and Blessings,
Margie: Thank you for sharing a little of your experience. If anything I can offer is helpful or healing, I’m honored. I think an important thing about fear is what we do with it, not that we feel it. Turning fear into diminishing and hurting others only creates more of it. I like to think that fear can be shaped into warriorship instead, a tool for justice, authenticity and respect for ourselves and others. Jenny
I’m in the middle of reading the book, and posted that quote that your partner shared with you. It’s a remarkable book and it’s anchoring me somehow, if there’s anything like an “anchor” in these times. It helps me to look inside myself and at this country as a whole and observe that this is trauma. I usually get caught in my own head and feel dissociated but I’m hoping this book will help redirect me towards real healing. I don’t think we can separate individual and collective healing.
Thanks for writing this. I’m praying too.
Jen: Thanks for reading and commenting, Jen. It sounds like we have a thing or two in common. I’m a librarian, too, and a brief exploration of your blog lets me know the same kinds of things are occupying our attention. It sounds as though there might be a chance that we could meet. I would like that. Jenny
Yes I too was saddened then angered then saddened again….at the end I realized that I will still be me and stand for what is right and just…..not all Christians act like non-Christians……
At the end of the day that’s all any of us can do–stand firm, hold hands and live our beliefs. Power with. Jenny