I recently met with a group of doctors who gather at Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s house monthly to discuss a variety of topics and seek meaning in medicine and in the human experience. The topic of the month was “Safety,” our quest for it, our desire for it and, as we discovered, our complete inability to attain it, given the certainty of uncertainty.

It got me thinking about how many years I spent striving to feel safe. It’s not like I grew up unsafe and spent the rest of my life seeking it. My childhood was full of white picket fences and loving parents and bike-riding in the middle of the barricaded street at neighborhood block parties.  I was rarely sick, never abused, and nurtured like an object of precious affection. With the exception of seventh grade, mean girls, premenstrual acne, and the inevitable heartbreak of unrequited crushes, my young life was as safe as they come.

Yet I sought even more safety, perhaps to fend off the imaginary demons that might threaten such safety. When you have so much to lose, life automatically feels unsafe. Somehow, you know it could all be taken from you in a blink.

Medical School Trauma

My sense of safety ended the first day I started medical school, when our dean announced that, although we all graduated at the top of our college classes, half of our class would be graduating in the bottom half of the class (a statement to which a fellow classmate snickered, “C=MD.”) For the first time in my otherwise pretty sheltered life, medical school felt wildly unsafe. Not only were there HIV-infected needles carelessly thrown at me; there were also medical school professors sexually harassing me, screaming at me across operating room tables, telling me I was worthless, and threatening to fail me unless I did as I was told in any number of sordid ways.

Any sense of safety I once had abandoned me by the time I graduated.

Inspiration Point

Residency was no better. And then, during my third year of residency, I was on vacation in Colorado Springs with my cousin, and we were driving up to a scenic overlook on Pikes Peak in a convertible, when two masked and armed men blocked a tunnel we were driving through and held us up. After the terrifying experience of being thrown to the pavement while guns were shot off all around me, my cousin and I found ourselves still alive, uninjured, but feeling massively unsafe. I dreamt about being shot for years after that, a trauma that subsided until September 11, when my feeling of being unsafe resurfaced and lasted several more years.

My Perfect Storm

I spent my early thirties doing everything I could to reclaim the level of safety I felt as a child. I got married, bought a house, got a stable job as a physician that I thought would lend me job safety until I retired at 65, socked away $40,000/year into retirement, bought lots of insurance in case something bad happened, and prayed that my efforts were enough.

Until I got thwacked with the triple whammy of my Perfect Storm, when right after having a baby, my dog died, my healthy young brother wound up in full blown liver failure as a rare side effect of a common antibiotic, and my beloved father passed away much too young from a brain tumor.

Clearly, safety was an illusion, and it couldn’t be purchased.

Embracing The Unsafe

Now, in the wake of tragedies like the movie theater shooting in Colorado, many of us feel unsettled by how unsafe life can be. Yes, it’s true. Bad things happen. It could all be over tomorrow. You could lose your job, your child, your spouse, your health, your life. Nothing is guaranteed. Anything is possible.

In the face of this much uncertainty, it requires a nearly constant spiritual practice to find peace in the face of unsafety, rather than succumbing to the temptation to choose fear over courage. Without such practice in faith and courage, we might all avoid the movies – and all the rest of life’s precious gifts – in search of a safety we’ll never gain, no matter how we try.

I finally realized that I would never be safe – that at any moment, I might get held up at gunpoint or that I too could wind up with a brain tumor or lose someone I love or get shot in a movie theater. I could cling to my child, hold my husband hostage in my heart to protect our love, barrier my life with as many back up plans and safety nets as possible, and if life decided to thwack me with the big one, it wouldn’t make one damn bit of difference.

I became fully aware of my complete vulnerability, and the unsafety of my naked, exposed heart and all it had to lose terrified me. And yet, what would be the alternative? To live paranoid that I might one day lose it? To close my heart so I wouldn’t feel anything if I did?

Nah, that’s no way to live.

Instead, I realized that perhaps the quest for safety is misguided in the first place. Perhaps it’s like trying to squeeze the sunset. Sure, we can take precautions. We can avoid walking in dark alleys alone at night in big cities. We don’t need to court danger or put ourselves unnecessarily in harm’s way.

But since we can’t buy or plan safety – since life is essentially unsafe – why not make peace with the fact that safety never lasts forever, and revel in the moments when we do feel safe?

Glimpses of Safety

A few weeks ago, I was at the Sonoma Mission Inn Spa with a girlfriend, and we were floating on two noodles in a 98 degree pool filled with water fed from a natural thermal springs underground, and when I laid my head back into the water, I heard the music of angels piped in from speakers under the water. Floating as if within a womb, rocked to the heavenly music by the lapping of the water, I noticed how safe I felt, held, cherished, at one with Mama Earth and the Universe and everyone on the planet and All That Is.

And I drank it in, gulping safety like a parched desert wanderer. And then I got in the car and heard the sounds of sirens and saw an ambulance racing off to somewhere where someone felt unsafe. And I was filled with gratitude. How lucky that we’re blessed to feel safe, even if only in these little pockets of heaven.

The Illusion of Safety

I still crave the illusion of safety I once had in my younger years, but I realize there’s a gift gained in what I’ve lost – the peace of finding your center, tapping into your Inner Pilot Light, and discovering that still point within where safety always lies, even in the midst of a maelstrom.

Seeking safety outside yourself will always fail you. I hate to break it to you, but you can’t control your life, no matter how many safeguards you put into place.  But you don’t have to control your life to find peace. It lives with you all the time, deep within, in that place where your divine spark flickers, even on stormy days.

Since life is essentially unsafe, why not abort the constant quest for safety and be brave enough to take risks? Why not go after that risky dream, make that risky investment in your business, risk opening your heart when it’s been broken before? Why not seduce unsafety like a lover, buy unsafety flowers, sidle up to unsafety and get comfortable with it, so it’s not so foreign and scary, an unnamed, faceless bundle of fears that keep us stuck. Why not befriend unsafety, and as we name it, look at it, and make peace with it, learn to stop trying to avoid it?

Have You Found Your Inner Safety?

Can you access that still point when life feels unsafe? Are you willing to take risks? Tell us how you navigate the storms. Share your tips for embracing the unsafe.

Seeking peace amidst the chaos,

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12 Comments

  1. Andrea

    Hi Lissa,
    Thanks for your thought provoking post…what a huge topic. I wonder if its also a cultural message…as I think we (as Americans) expect that life will (or should?) be without dangers, crises, hardships, failures…rather than seeing these things as part of the fabric of life that we can accept, grow from, and overcome. For me, not taking “failure” so personally, and learning to see my results as part of a learning process, has allowed me to feel much safer within myself.

    Reply
  2. kristina

    For me to feel safe I remember I can never be without God wether Im alive or dead. The thing I fear its the pain of death, so I just hope it s quick. Gratitude helps, too, because it puts me in the moment with what is now.

    Reply
  3. Tina Siuagan

    This is something my parents should be reading, Doctor. Lol. 🙂

    Reply
  4. Brown Eyed Girl

    Thanks for this great story.
    I’ve never felt safe as I’ve had deeply traumatic experiences since childhood. Now I’m learning to just be with my fears. My fears feel huge, overwhelming sometimes, especially now as I am reducing medications for depression and anxiety when really it’s mainly Post Traumatic Stress I suffer from. I’m using deep breathing, meditation, chants, focusing. Sometimes I have to just scream into a pillow to release the intensity, or cry for relief. So I’m also trying to learn that it’s ok to feel my emotions ~ they are not going to kill me. And a real biggie is learning acceptance of everything that arises in me feel the fear and do it anyway. Learning that it’s ok to feel afraid and vulnerable feels like a huge challange every day at present but I’m taking little steps and finding out every day that it’s ok though some days are really really tough to get through. But I don’t want to continue living being doped up and feeling powerless and disconnected with a dead heart and stuck in the past. Moving forward is terrifying but staying stuck is too unbearable so I need to choose the former for my survival I think.

    Reply
    • Christi

      Brown Eyed Girl and Lissa,
      I understand the life lived without ever having felt that feeling of safe. My childhood was also a traumatic experience from minor to major much of the time. Sprinkled in were good times of play and friendships, but it seems that the PTSD took over after a major life event in my early 40’s. Life now is to try to live with the fear and keep it at a minimum. Local and regional traumatic incidences like the Colorado shootings do nothing to help me locate that safe feeling. I’m lucky though. I feel safe in my home. That may be an illusion, but at least I get some place in my life free from the constant and nagging fear. Brown Eyed Girl, I could have written your comment. Hang in there and know you are not alone. Thank you for you blog, Lissa.

      Reply
  5. Julie

    Hi,

    This is very nice to read about and enocuraging. So it is true we can not feel safe and that that illusion will fail us always? I guesss…nothing ever feels perfectly safe…. even the pollution makes it physically toxic to our bodies etc. I hope I can start stepping out of my comfort zone since not doing so makes me feel stuck and bored and… it is so awful how even the education system has such criel teachers, who should be fired right away I feel. Take care. xo.

    Reply
  6. Gina

    Brilliant and insightful post. I continue to use my mantra of faith, patience and humor when the going gets rough in real life or just in my imaginary internal dramas and old stories. thanks for who you are and for sharing.

    Reply
  7. Leslie

    Thank you for posting such wonderful insights. I have essentially been on my own my entire life so I have never really felt completely safe and still struggle to know what it means to be safe. However, in knowing I don’t have much to lose I have been able to face the challenges in my life, sometime by having to breakdown each moment individually, just know that my only goal is to make it to the next moment. Having to go through this process teaches one to have gratitude for the people, things, experiences and opportunities we do have in our lives.

    Reply
  8. Michelle Medina

    I embrace it by recognizing unsafety is always there and then going and doing anyway!

    Reply
  9. Darlene

    Important lesson, Lissa. I spent a good number of my early years being afraid – of everyone, of men especially because of a childhood abuse, of the world, of life. Then a switch was thrown from the inside, mysteriously, that jettisoned me out into the world at 20 to overcome my fears, never totally, but by living life from the inside out. Freedom from fear is possible, but only as you say by connecting to the divine mind within (“inner pilot light” = Knowledge in my spiritual practice.)

    Here is the step that takes me out of fear instantly. It is from Steps to Knowledge: The Book of Inner Knowing (free online at: https://www.newmessage.org/nmfg/Steps_to_Knowledge.html)

    Step 162: I will not be afraid today.

    TODAY LET NOT FEAR OVERTAKE YOUR MIND. Let not the habit
    of negative imagination capture your attention and emotions.
    Be involved with life as it truly is, which you may perceive without
    condemnation. Fear is like a disease that comes and takes you over. But
    you need not give in to fear because your source and your roots are
    deeply planted in Knowledge, and you are now becoming stronger in
    Knowledge.
    REMIND YOURSELF UPON THE HOUR not to let fear overtake you.
    When you begin to feel its effects, in whatever manner that it exerts
    its influence upon you, withdraw from it and claim your allegiance to
    Knowledge… Give your mind and your heart so that you may be strengthened in that certainty
    where fear can never enter.Your fearlessness in the future must not be
    born of pretense, but born of your certainty in Knowledge. In this
    way, you will be a refuge of peace and a source of wealth for others.”

    Reply
  10. Allison W

    Dear Lissa,

    This was lovely and I thank you for your beautifully written words. I am struggling with how to teach my 16 year old niece these lessons. She is extraordinarily fearful and anxious and every incident like Aurora is a huge set back for her.

    Thank you also to all the heartfelt responders, especially Brown Eyed Girl. As Christi says, you are not alone. The power (and peace) is within, and you have your Lissa Posse when you need someone to talk to. 🙂

    Blessings to you all, Allison

    PS: What is it about 7th grade? God bless all the 7th grade teachers. I sure wouldn’t do it!

    Reply
  11. Mitzi

    Another great blog post. I too struggle with feeling safe, I’m sure the reasons go all the way back to early childhood and I haven’t untangled all those threads yet. As an adult I decided to do what I could in my environment (reasonably) to make myself feel safe, and then work on my head about the rest. So I became stronger and healthier (in case I needed to fight or run), I planned my finances to create a cushion (in case I lost my job), I got a concealed carry permit (in case I decided to carry a gun in a certain situation), and I improved security around my house (without being overly paranoid). Later, I may take a self-defense course. The process of doing these things helped me narrow in on some of my specific fears and I’ve been journaling and getting perspective checks on other things to help with the nagging feelings that specific actions don’t resolve. Life will always involve risk, so I just want to get better about evaluating it and taking conscious, calculated risks.

    Reply

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