In the Company of All Who've Said Goodbye
Reflecting on Alternatives to Violence, Part 1

Bottom Line: Safety


I want to be Carolyn Hax when I grow up.  I don't want to write an advice column but I'd like to be as wise as she is.  She's funny and insightful, hopeful and realistic.  And she has just about the best BS detector of anyone I've ever read.  

This morning's column was a good distillation of all her advice on relationships.  A reader wrote in questioning whether there exists in the world a relationship which is completely free of the "red flags" Carolyn has warned about in her column.  Carolyn wrote in response:

"My lone standard for relationships, romantic and platonic, is that you both feel safe enough together to be your honest selves.  That to me defines a close and healthy bond--which doesn't rule out disliking some things about each other or annoying each other sometimes.  These relationships will look different for different people, just because we all have different ideas of safety and comfort." 

Exactly!  And what's more, this is the standard by which we should judge our communities:  are we safe enough together to be our honest selves?  

Physcial safety is obvious a base requirement for civil society.  In order for people to be able to engage with the people around them, in order for them to talk to neighbors, walk down the street and greet each other, in order for them to be willing to stop and help someone in obvious need they first need to be assured of their physical safety.  

During one of the very first sessions in my Leadership Howard County training we had a small group discussion about the question, "What is the basis of Howard County's high standard of living?"  While every other small group decided that our excellent public school system was the foundational community asset in Howard County, my group came up with a different response.  Several of us had previously lived in communities where we feared for our physical safety.  For us, it was clear that public safety was what everything else rests on.  

But physical safety isn't the only thing that Carolyn Hax is talking about, and it isn't the only thing that matters in a community either.  Emotional safety is essential to intimate relationships. I would argue that the same is true for communities.  

This doesn't mean that we can expect all our emotional needs to be met by our faith communities or our neighborhood.  I've been in settings where someone comes into a community with that hope and the people around them scatter.  But there are, I'm convinced, emotional needs that can only be met by a community--and in order for that to happen, we need to feel safe.  

What does emotional safety look like on a community level?  For starters, we need to be sure that we won't be ridiculed or rejected.  We need to feel like we can voice our opinions or share our experiences without being mocked or ignored.  We need to be confident that the people we engage with are not lying to us or intentionally misleading us.  We want to know that they people we are in community with are basically trustworthy, people of good will.  Everything else, absolutely everything, rests on that.

I haven't always seen things this way.  Some years ago, the Kittamaqundi Community did an exercise at one of our annual Community Retreats which generated a wide range of responses to the question, "What are we called to create together?"  I remember being excited about the conversation.  I had every expectation that God was nudging us to reach out, to push out of our comfort zone, to be daring.  So I was surprised--and to be honest, disheartened--when the responses that came back kept highlighting safety.  The strongest call our community felt, it seemed, was to create a place where people felt safe.

Really?  That's it?

My first reaction to these responses was that the community hadn't really discerned God's call.  We simply were recording our sense of what WE wanted.  We wanted to be loved and affirmed and taken care of.  But was that really what God wanted for us?  Most of the people who hear a call from God in the Bible understand that they are supposed to leave places of safety to do or say things that feel very risky.  I highly doubted the Kittamaqundi Community would be any different.

It took me several years to finally admit that the community might have been on to something.  To use Carolyn Hax's phrase, they put their finger on the "lone standard" for relationship.  We expressed with astonishing clarity our bottom line for being in community with each other:  we needed to be safe.  Only then could we be our "honest selves" with each other.  Only then could we consider what it might look like to construct a relationship with God that might take us somewhere we wouldn't go on our own.

We have a sense of how to protect and promote our physical safety.  What are the equivalent measures for emotional safety?  We know that community policing helps deter crime.  What would a preventative approach to emotional safety look like?  What would the equivalent to a street patrol be--a person who inquires after their neighbor's health and well-being?  We know that communities feel physically safer when we fix broken windows and remove graffiti.  Would we feel safer emotionally if we tended to minor infractions of civility like name-calling in public forums?  What do you need to bring your "honest self" to your community life?



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Bill McCarthy

Can I feel accepted and respected for who we are by the community ? Do I accept and respect others for who they are,even in the differences ?

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