We’re on a quest, one that started the day we were born. We’re on a quest to find something more precious than silver, more lasting than a good day. We’ve sought to find this something in the friends we chose to keep, in the attitudes we nurtured. When we were young and spent the afternoons riding bicycles in the sun, we were seeking it. When we were on our first date, caught up in the vortex of fireworks and emotion, we sought it. When we married, we sought it. When we moved across country, we sought it. When we moved back home, we sought it. When we go to sleep at night, we dream of capturing it. And when we lie upon our deathbeds, we hope we’re close to it.
Each of us goes on this quest. Each of us searches for, hopes for, desires and needs something more than anything else. Can you feel it? That tiny void in your soul that keeps you trying even when all logic says you’ll fail? Can you feel it? That inexplicable need for something that you can’t really name? We’re drawn to people and places and songs and movies and ideas that symbolize this something… Sometimes, we manage to grasp it for a few minutes, a day; maybe, if we’re lucky, a few years. But it always slips away sooner or later, leaving us to pick up the quest again. The cycle repeats itself over and over: we seek, we find, we lose, we seek.
For me, that something is safety. Safety is more important to me than romance. Safety is more important than fun. Safety is more precious to me than silver, more valuable than materials. Safety is more important than writing, which says a lot. Safety is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But how can I chase something if I don’t know what it looks like?
The book I’m writing deals with teenage suicide. As I worked on it tonight, the question flashed through my mind as if on a marquee sign: what does safety look like?
My parents fought a lot. And not like the Bradys. He ran over Mama’s foot once. The sound of people being hit and wrestled to the floor was an almost nightly occurrence. When they weren’t fighting, my mother and extended family were. My grandmother hit my mother over the head with a cast iron skillet in front of my sister and I. Later, as we drove off, a rock crashed through our windshield. There were no “arguments” in my life, only loud and dangerous violence. Even when no one was shouting, anger simmered just under the surface. Lest we forget that, our world was subject to complete upheaval on a whim. My mom, sister and I were once taken to a movie theater and dropped off by my dad. He never came back to pick us up; we walked home. Similarly, we were abandoned in Florida and had to rely on my grandfather to drive to Florida to pick us up while he traveled to Las Vegas with my mom’s crazy brother.
Let’s not stop there.
Violence and instability has been a part of my family history for generations. My great, great grandfather put out his cigarettes on Mama O’s arms. We have a relative who was institutionalized for chasing her father around the house with an ax because he raped her, and another who was found with her wrists slit near a river.
I am an author who makes her living with words and bits of poetry, and I could never fathom the reality I inherited. Interspersed with the lunatics, there are gems of course. Mama. Mama O. A handful of others. But, when I was young, they were often overshadowed by sheer terror. I would go to bed and wake in the night to the sounds of my parents crashing through walls and screaming obscenities. I spent countless hours praying for them to stop, and even more hours praying that no lasting harm would result.
Safety. I prayed for it.
Ironically, though, I prayed more for physical well-being than emotional. I prayed that the fights would stop far more regularly than I prayed he wouldn’t come to my room. In fact, to be really, really honest… When I was young, I did everything in my power to “be good” in the hopes that it would keep the peace. Everything, including remaining silent in the face of sexual trauma. Even when I knew I could speak up, I didn’t, in part because I was too afraid of upsetting fragile peace.
When I was young, safety looked calm. No fuss. No complaint. Agree to everything. Please the adults in my life without question. Never, ever disobey. Disagreeing or questioning anything meant risking anger; I had learned that anger stole peace. So I was silent. In essence, I learned to be whatever others wanted me to be. In exchange, I was granted reprieves. Morning always dawned; no one was ever irreparably injured from the fights. And I always had the ability to pick up a pen and block everything else out. I felt moments of peace and security… Enough to inspire me to continue living as a poster child for obedience. I thought being good’s reward was protection from violence and instability.
The problem arose when I couldn’t survive without expressing the pain. When I was in the 3rd grade, I took home a pair of glasses from a classmate because she was smart and no one would ever hurt her and I wanted so badly to be like her. I gave the glasses back, but it was still wrong. In trying to be an individual, I sacrificed feeling secure. In relationships, I unwittingly sacrificed joy and individuality by trying so hard to please that I refused to see that what was wanted wasn’t a servant but an independent self-thinker.
I was on that quest, and I was searching hard for the assurance of safety. Eventually, I learned that being physically safe did not necessarily preclude emotional safety. You don’t have to be surrounded by violence to be left. Today, my definition of safety includes all kinds of protection.
Safety is the bone deep assurance that at the end of the day, you’re not alone. It feels like the arms of someone priceless wrapping you in a hug full of warmth and comfort. Safety is the freedom to express your own ideas, opinions and thoughts without fear; the knowledge that disagreeing is allowed. It feels like admiration for being just who you are. Safety is the confidence to chase your dreams, no matter how far fetched or illogical, because even if you fail to reach them, you’re still not a failure. Safety feels like trust. It’s the desire to run to someone and tell him you’re deepest fear… Not because he can fix it but because you know he’ll hold you through it. Safety is accepting that you can’t do it all. Safety feels like rest. Safety is the ability to let loose and laugh until you cry for no reason; it is spontaneously singing in the car even though you’re not alone. Safety looks like a warm glance that tells you you’re loved without a word. Safety brings hope. It’s deeper than a romantic relationship but a relationship that doesn’t make me feel safe cannot possibly last. Feeling safe is key to living in honesty and joy.
Easter is Sunday. I will gather with hundreds of others at church to pray and sing and rejoice that Christ is the risen one. My girls and I will dress in bright colors, eat sweets all day and participate in egg hunts. We’ll read the most important story in the Bible, the Easter one, and celebrate an empty tomb. Easter is one of the happiest days of the year. Easter gave us the greatest protection of all: a Savior with whom we can have a personal relationship. The promise of Heaven.
I’ve spent most of my life seeking safety from those by whom I’ve been surrounded. But the greatest assurance of safety comes from the cross. Tonight, as I worked on my book, it dawned on me that no matter what happens to me, no matter what happens to my emotional or physical safety, I’ve already been guaranteed eternal protection. That should give me all the warmth I need to live with confidence and joy because while my safety on earth isn’t guaranteed, I will one day have a place beside the One whose very name scares anything evil away.
I crave safety like some people crave coffee in the mornings. I look for it every day and every decision I make has that objective in mind. I will not argue with someone I love, care for or even like just a little. Winning an argument is not worth the emotional upheaval of being abandoned. I am drawn like a magnet to places like parks and creeks and big oak trees and mountains that give a feeling of peace. Being near them makes me feel safe.
But tomorrow is Easter, the happiest day of the year. I’m not so worried about safety right now, for once. I’ve reached an impasse in my quest… I have captured just a piece of what I most desire and my heart is full. I am getting ready to take my girls to the zoo, where we will enjoy Easter festivities. Tomorrow, I’m dressing up as Mary to teach the story of Easter to a class of 4 and 5 yr olds. And I will tell them that the greatest protection they could ever have is in Jesus’s arms. I imagine they will one day wrap around me with a level of warmth I have never felt before. I imagine His touch will erase every fear and make every void I have ever felt disappear. Safety looks like Jesus.
We sing a song in church that has been on my mind lately. It says, “Did you feel the mountains tremble when all the people rose to sing of Jesus Christ, the risen one? Did you feel the darkness tremble when all the list began to sing of Jesus Christ, the saving one?”. It makes me smile and remember that light gives both power and safety.
And, as such, there is nothing to fear.