News headlines are intense enough to infiltrate my dreams, which then can snag me as I push up from sleep like a drowning woman. I breathe the sweetness of early spring air, blink in the daylight and can’t believe such luck, the fate that grants me another moment of life and relative peace. Today I am not running or fighting for my life as someone, somewhere, is every second. I soon rise from rest–even if spotty, most likely I will find it later or the next night–and initiate comfortable routines. Illness may slow me down; my perspective may need altering. But I have choices that countless others on this earth do not have. It gives me considerable pause.
Does it come down to safety? What does that mean in the twenty-first century? The constant reminders of worldwide fighting, a myriad of brutalities, make it clear it is tentative at best. And, of course, we are inundated with advice about how to protect our homes, health, families. We are admonished to safeguard our computers and passwords, our possessions and personal information. Major money is spent on security systems that are to provide a decent deterrent to intruders casing property of all sorts, and, hopefully, an effective barrier. We realize these work a certain percentage of the time only. But we develop an educated hope, indulge in denial–or risk living in fear.
The so-called “age of anxiety” we have been hearing about for several decades was in existence long before being given a catchy name to commercialize, but the past century’s rapid industrial-technological expansion has ratcheted up pressures and problems, as well. For one thing, there are more people so there is bound to be more encroachment on personal freedoms, daily comfort zones and actual territory. Do we even expect to live without a modicum of nervous uncertainty, anymore? Anxiety has become a byword, a pass key that admits us to the club, makes us a part of industrialized cultures. We all get to feel besieged by a greater world anxiety, too–just turn on the computer, t.v. and radio. Glance at the newstand. The mood is unsettled at the least, tinged with nihilism and prone to cast the future as doomed. More often than not, even entertainment feels more like being dragged through a briar patch than a respite of any good sort.
But have we come to expect to feel anxious and to believe it is terrible? Or is all this angst one easy explanation for self-doubts that assail human thought and endeavor? Afterall, the age of psychology has writ large the prescriptions we need–more talk therapy, more medications. We are told we’re naturally in knots and we must fix it fast. Or is there another way to tame the toxic circle of ruminations? Learn to live with the variable weather of life?
I apologize; I digress as is my bad habit. I can’t ignore that the world has been chronically ill at ease, beset by moaning and wracked by power struggles. Marked by mourning. I’m not sure our ancestors made it the number one public enemy. Life was certainly no simpler in the past despite less fancy inventions. Survival was key, a battle against a host of huge odds. In many ways and places, it still is.
I cannot speak to others’ histories or much of current events. But I can share some of my family history. I doubt that my German-Irish-Scotch-English forebears felt much more secure than I, for one reason or another. I know my mother’s family had plenty of troubles. She told tough stories of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, her hard-working father losing his farm in Missouri so that he was forced to become a tenant farmer, his dignity shredded. The poverty that resulted was fierce for his wife and eleven children, one–my mother’s favorite brother–who died for lack of affordable, timely medical care. Her tales informed me that our educated, middle class lives in mid-twentieth century were by far a finer circumstance. They also showed me that folks could be overtaken by events, wrestled to ground. A small child, I didn’t know that might include me.
I was of the conviction that my mother was a hearty woman of body, mind and soul. But one way I knew she had known fear was how she hesitated if someone rapped suddenly at the back door of our house. A stairway led from the kitchen to that door. We could open the door at the top of the steps and see a silhouette through the rectangular flowered curtain. She would hold her breath. In general, there should be no back door knocking. Friends, family, music students of my father’s or customers who brought instruments to him to repair generally used the big front door. But not always; his repair shop was in the basement. I also knew the washer might need fixing or the furnace was on the blink but she could become alert as a creature in the wild.
“Wait there,” she ordered in a firm voice.
She pushed apart the curtain just enough so she could see who was standing there. If she lifted her hand in a wave at me, I knew it was okay. If she came back up and locked the door in the kitchen–an unusual occurrence–I knew to stay put. We often waited at the kitchen table until the person gave up. She tried to think who it could have been. I wanted to run upstairs and peer down at the driveway to see who it was that left.
“People would steal from the farm until we finally lost it,” she explained. “They’d sneak on our property in the night and take a chicken or even a squealing pig. I’d listen to the dogs barking, chasing them as I tried to go back to sleep by my sisters. I worried: one less chicken, one less pig.”
She looked out my bedroom window, grey eyes unfocused.
“Once I was working in the hayloft when a dirty man rushed in, his eyes wild, face so thin, clothes hanging from him. I knew he was very hungry. We all were, sooner or later. He glanced up in a frenzy as he dashed about looking for something. I froze. That moment felt like a million years. I tried to call my brothers but my voice stuck in my throat. He looked at the ladder to the loft, then ran out. I collapsed in a heap but I never told anyone.”
I snuggled under my blankets, hanging on every word. The Farm Stories, as I called them, were some of my favorites at bedtime, a whole other world taking shape, with many moments of wonder and laughter, too. But this was serious and sad.
She sat close to me, her hand on my arm.
“Your grandmother did feed people if they came to our back door. If she could spare anything at all. It might be half an apple or a thin piece of bread. Maybe they’d get lucky and get a piece of pie. Sometimes they seemed crazed, acted angry but sometimes they were so glad to have anything. Some seemed ashamed to ask. But she shooed us away from the door, and said not to tell our father. She kept a shotgun close by. I came to fear the sound of strangers knocking at our door, not knowing what they would want or demand. Those were desperate days, and they got worse.”
I’d ask a few questions and she’d tuck me in, kiss my cheek. “Thank heaven I met your father, and we both got to go to college, poor as we were. And here we are. We have so much. Now say your prayers.”
But some fears were never fully allayed. My father (whose father had been more secure as a public school superintendent) always worried about money and how he would take care of five children, working seven days a week in music education and administration, giving private lessons, keeping a piano tuning and instrument repair business.
I also suspected that worse times alluded to by my mother indicated she and others suffered more than I’d ever understand. And then came World War II and that was another hell that bypassed ones like me, born after it ended. All this left scars on those who survived.
So, safety means different things to different people, perhaps. What feels reasonably safe to a child, for instance, in India may be very unlike that which a child in New Zealand or the Alaskan wilderness feels. Yet we all seek protection of (or fight for) basic human rights and fulfillment of biological needs. We all hope for love and acceptance. Without the essential criteria of human well-being met, we begin to weaken, find ourselves living in a Netherland of worries.
I felt deeply safe for the first several years of my life. I recall what that was: freedom. It was the pleasure of making friends and enjoying many activities without a second thought. It was counting on the day to unfold tidily, though little children don’t foolishly imagine the future as adults do. There was a steadiness in my world, my parents and siblings being at the center. Hopscotch on the sidewalk of a busy street. Swing from the maple tree. Jump rope in the front yard. I’d hop on my bike and ride all over, go around our big town block with nary a concern. I just had to tell my mother where I was going (well, first I asked) and she told me when to be back. No cell phones kept us connected. If I made any small detour at a friend’s, I called her from the landline.
That freedom was curtailed by the time I was eight years old when I was sexually abused by someone we knew well. It continued for some years. I was under the perpetrator’s constant threat of ruin of my family or harm to me including death. It involved being kidnapped for short periods on occasion by car, so that eventually when I noticed the vehicle pull up terror jumped into my heart and lodged in my stomach. In other circumstances, I became hyper-aware, senses working overtime so I could outwit him. I most often failed. At night I had nightmares that this person would break into the house. No one could protect me. He was found out–he was an elementary school teacher–and fired by the time I was eleven. And my life had been altered irrevocably.
So early on I learned what loss of safety was. I wouldn’t have known how to define being no longer secure. It meant, for me, that some crucial life-giving light went out of every day and the night felt like a burden. I lived moment to moment in survival mode that remained a hidden thing while going on with my life as expected, doing well in school and engaging in youthful activities. Strangely, the following few decades brought other dangerous events. It would have been easy to feel as if an invisible target was on my back. For a time I did, and found myself at odds with all I wanted to reach for–God’s plan for me was kinder than this, wasn’t it? I got lost in the journey toward wholeness in more ways than imagined. Post traumatic stress disorder landed me in psychiatric wards as a teen (no one knew what happened–I could not speak of it–and in the sixties this issue wasn’t given press, was a taboo topic); to the spiral of substance abuse; emergency rooms and near-death. Unwise relationships. And to my knees, beseeching God, for God was the tensile thread that kept me alive. In time, I got back to my innermost core, the healthy, sturdy self I was developing before I was held hostage by fear.
Perhaps nonsensically to others, I also had to surrender my definitions of safety and fear. Not everything or person was unsafe, was it? Of course not. I did not want to live looking over my shoulder. I also didn’t want to be inured to danger’s signals and take undue risks so paid close attention to intuition, that other sense. I had to learn to live free again. And I wanted to be wiser. To be a woman of substance who did not give up. It might have been my bent for the dramatic that made me want to be–to act–far braver than I felt; it helped. At seventeen, I designed and created a silver ring with a shield and cross and wore it as a visible reminder of spiritual strength via the grace of God. (Ironically, it was lost at a party right after senior year. It felt like a warning to me and, in fact, there were a few years’ rockier times ahead.)
And what was truly worth being scared or anxious about? Just what was the safety I most desired? How was I going to define what was acceptable in my life script as a woman, as a human being? And could I accept that life is unpredictable even in the best of times?
Answers thus far:
*very little is worth being anxious about as it hinders, doesn’t help, and sometimes I need to accept things as they are or make a change;
*the safety I seek and find most crucial is built upon a spiritual foundation;
*what is acceptable to me is what will do no harm to others or self and does good in the name of Love;
*unpredictability is a standard feature of being alive and it is invigorating as well as confounding.
If I long ago discovered life was riddled with illusions and painful experiences, I also believed God would not abandon me, no matter what. That I would find enough strength to endure. There was a way back to beauty and joy if I looked hard for it. I am not alone in this; the statistics on abuses of all types are sky-high for children and for women. And men, as well. It takes emotional drudgery to regain motivation to go on as well as unwavering mental commitment to reorder life following such events. Much patience and support. It is a bleaker road to travel without care from others and resources to help heal. I am grateful for all that has lit the way. And I have been able to offer a hand to others in serious distress, something I promised God as a teen.
But the genuine security desired and sought required that persistent faith in God–despite my anger and pain. It was the world that was often harsh and tricky, not Divine Love. Life’s unpredictability had to be navigated daily; its challenges had to be understood and well met. God did not fail me but withstood and carried the suffering of Earth and its people long before I was present. I have been one more person out of billions come and gone. God so loves us far beyond our limited understanding. Believe it, despite the realities of world news and our daily lives being tested, too often within harm’s reach. Why do I believe? I was rescued from the poison of bitterness, from a murky abyss of despair time and time again. I have known others to suffer far worse, then get up and start anew. I am filled with thanksgiving for this life, this blip in the celestial timepiece of eternity.
I like to read the Psalms, those fervent prayers that King David offered to God. He did not have it easy in spite of his adoration of life and God. He was a conflicted person in many ways, one who felt anger and lust, tenacious regret and humiliation, despair and self-righteousness and all the other failings humans seem heir to despite our best efforts. His songs/poems or psalms give me comfort. I appreciate how David struggled and how his faith lifted and inspired him. The magnitude of his devotion to God and the strength of his committment to become a better person (and ruler) sheds illumination on my own small life. His words remind me to keep my priorities straight, no matter what. Spiritual protection is real and it makes an enduring difference.
Teach me the way I should go,
for to You I lift up my soul.
–from Psalm 143
Where are we looking for safety? This world has always been and will be dangerous, tomorrow unknown. But we can still step into each day empowered with hope and courage nourished by our spiritual nature. We can take good direction from unshakeable Love. We can help one another. Let your life be bountiful even–especially–in the face of uncertainty. May your soul’s refuge be a stronghold.