Life Is Unsafe, So Why Not Take Risks?
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.
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.
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