I’ve been thinking a lot the last year about the trade off between safety and strength.
I think about trade offs a lot in general. Too often I see people miss out on stuff because they were focused on one desire without realising it cost them another equally important desire. And too often I’ve been those people. And in the past year, as we’ve gone though unprecedented global disruption, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the trade off between safety and strength in particular.
We want both, of course but that’s not really how life works.
Here’s what I mean. Imagine a parent raising a kid. You want them to be safe, of course. But you also want them to be strong. And half of the tension of parenting lies in the simple fact that building strength will require you to put their safety in risk to some degree, however tiny. Whether it’s going to school to sharpen their intellect or entering into social situations or navigating the physical world, every one involves some degree of risk. And yet, the whole point of raising kids is to help them become independent of you.
So most parents accept the risks, and try to ensure their kids grow stronger, while trying to ensure there’s safety nets when they fall.
But every now and then you meet the parent who is unable to do it. The ones who make it their goal to focus on keeping their kids safe above all else. The important thing about these parents is that they very likely aren’t thinking, “Oh I’m not interested in my children being strong, that’s irrelevant to me!” In fact, they’re probably not thinking about it at all. They simply assume the children will grow stronger. But safety? They cannot bear to take that at all for granted.
The problem, of course, is that safety is an illusion, in the end. For one thing, catastrophe can always come to you right in your own house, in all sorts of ways. As last year showed us, the order in our world, while it is generally stable, is also far more tenuous than we realise. A virus brought the globe to its knees in a matter of months. Heck the amount of data we need just to make really good guesses about weather is a daily reminder of how much uncertainty is built into our world.
No matter how much safety we build, catastrophe will never stop being a possibility. We can (and should always work to) reduce it but we cannot eliminate it. In healthcare, for instance, we can prolong life in ways that were never possible, but we remain unable to prevent death.
Because this isn’t simply about parents, of course. It’s about all of us, and how aware we are of the trade offs built into our experience of reality.
I say “our experience” because sometimes—maybe many times—we can actually get both and the dichotomy is false. It’s often the case that risking safety to obtain strength is precisely how to be safer. But in the moment we experience it, it often doesn’t feel like that. In the moment we will often feel certain that we can only pick one of two options.
And the wrong option will mean losing both, while the right one can mean gaining both.
Choosing safety at the expense of strength can leave you neither safe nor strong, while risking safety to build strength might be your best shot at actually being safer.
There’s another reason safety is so illusory. We tend to long for safety because we’re aware of danger. And in the moment of that awareness, everything else can become easily clouded. In fact one of the defining things about anxiety disorders is how awareness of danger becomes attached to otherwise innocuous things.
The problem is safety is a function of knowledge: you can only try to stay safe from what you know. And the real world is full of all sorts of things we don’t, and can’t, know. To be overly focused on safety is to live in anxiety, because no matter how much you do, there’ll always be that nagging feeling that you missed something. And you’d be right.
Strength on the other hand is a function of capacity not knowledge: it’s about what you have, not what you hide from. And where focusing on safety leaves you feeling never safe enough, focusing on strength has you finding you don’t realise how strong you are.
Let’s face it, though: everyone of us is different in our appetite for risk. The point here isn’t to suddenly become an entirely different person. But being aware of it is a start. Being aware helps us be open to receiving help from each other.