“There are no safe places anymore.” This statement was made to a friend of mine 14 years ago by a young woman who was a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, when she was asked during that country’s revolution, if she would remain in her country of origin or make an attempt to find a safer nation to call home. My friend repeated these words to me in passing as he was giving me the rundown on his recent trip to Kyrgyzstan at the time but they have haunted me ever since.
And if I thought that our world was an unsafe place 14 years ago, I clearly had no idea what was in store for us all in the years to follow. Just this week in Orlando we have been reminded once again of the fragility of our safety as violence has touched our city. We lost two brave law enforcement officers this week to an angry man with a gun and one of our prominent Jewish community centers was forced to close twice in two weeks because of bomb threats called in to it.
I ran into a friend of mine in the grocery store this week who had her little girl in tow alongside her. She informed me that her daughter would ordinarily be at preschool at that very minute but that she attended the preschool at the Jewish community center and so out of fear for her child’s safety, my friend had decided to keep her home that week. We talked briefly about the agony of that decision for her and her husband. They both wish to be brave and resilient in the face of terror and evil but her daughter is 2. Bravery takes on a different face when it is tied so closely to the face of a two year old child. As my friend and I pondered the hard questions of life next to the display of potatoes, I heard those words echoing again my head….”There are no safe places anymore.” And I found myself out of nowhere answering back in my mind, “Yes, but there are safe people.”
Being a safe person. To be a safe person for others is a recent goal for me and prior to the past two years or so if someone had asked me if I was a safe person for other people, I would have answered with a passionate yes because after all, I don’t carry a gun or actively punch strangers on the street or even have much of a violent temper and I drive…relatively…safely. But these past few years have taught me so much more about what it means to be a safe person. And as our world becomes more and more dangerous and as evil is given a freer and freer reign, it has been impressed upon me even more to uncover the qualities and character traits of a safe person and then do my absolute best to emulate them in my own life. Here is what I have found as some of the markers of a safe person for others:
Safe people are compassionate. And this extends far beyond going an extra mile of kindness in their lives. Safe people are truly compassionate. They feel deeply for themselves and they feel deeply for others. And they allow themselves to express those feelings. They cry with people who are crying, laugh with those who are laughing and live life with those who are somewhere in between. I recently found myself weeping hard on my counselor’s couch and as she handed me a kleenex, I looked up to see that she was taking one for herself, too. My tears and sorrow had triggered something in her and rather than brush them away quickly and take up a “professional” persona, she was openly crying with me. Because she is truly compassionate. Cathy is a safe person.
Safe people are inclusive. This is a biggie for me lately as I have discovered, with great horror, that I am a very exclusive person. I surround myself with my people and no one else better try to break in. I set up protocols and hoops for people to jump through to achieve friendship status with me and I consider myself the watch dog of my communities, in place solely to keep the “wrong” people out. For a safe person, for an inclusive person, there are no “wrong” people. Everyone is welcome at their table and as a result you will find everyone at their table. When I first became a mom and was bucking hard at the new relational restraints put on my life, a very kind and inclusive mom came to my rescue. Heather is by definition an inclusive person and she invited me to every play date, mom get together, and social outing appropriate for a child that she was invited to. She opened up her circle of mom friends and showed me that a social life does exist after kids. There is always room at Heather’s table and Heather is a safe person because of it.
Safe people are respectful. It’s become harder and harder to be respectful, hasn’t it? Or rather should I say, it’s becoming easier and easier to be disrespectful to others lately. Social media allows us to say some very unkind and rude things to other people that we would never dream of saying to their very real faces. We may even disguise some of this disrespect as “lively debate” but in the end, we type words our mouths would never dare to say in real life. And to that end, and along the same lines, I have discovered that safe people engage in discourse but never debate. And here is what I mean by that: safe people disagree without arguing. And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with debate but have you ever noticed that you can tell when a conversation you are having with someone goes from discussion to debate? Maybe you notice your pulse quickens just a bit or your voice raises just a tiny level more. Maybe you enjoy the thrill of the debate or maybe you immediately shut down because you despise the agony of debate, but regardless, you have recognized that your friendly chat has taken a less friendly tone. My childhood pastor is a great example of someone who engages in discourse rather than debate. He has opinions…lots of opinions…and he will gladly tell them to you. And they may or may not line up with yours but when he discovers that your beliefs run counter to his own he does something remarkable, he starts asking questions. And not the rapid fire, under the bright lights of interrogation kind of questions, but the gentle and probing questions of a man who is genuinely curious about your beliefs and opinions. And because of the nature of his questions, people who might sit at the opposite end of the spectrum from him feel respected and heard by him. Because Gary is a safe person.
And finally, safe people are tolerant. Oh man. So many of you just felt your spines rise up and your fangs start to poke through by that statement! We, and by “we” I mean mostly my Jesus following friends and I, have turned tolerance into such a dirty word. We believe that it means we will be forced to lie down and be overrun by every manner of evil posing as goodness in our lives. Let me tell you the picture that comes to my mind when I think of tolerance. I think of every time as a child that I was forced to sit knee to knee with my little brother in the back seat of some car while he held his finger two inches from my face and mocked, “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” over and over again and having to take a deep breath and ignore it. This is not tolerance. Maybe that’s patience or maybe that’s wisdom at knowing that blowing my top and taking action will just get us both in trouble. But it’s not tolerance and so many times I think that’s what we think we have to do in this world to be considered tolerant. We think we have to smile and nod as things we don’t agree with are piled on our heads. In practice being tolerant means allowing ourselves to be poked by our younger brother and then being safe even for him…even when it hurts. Even when it annoys us and makes our tempers want to flare just a bit. It means being compassionate, respectful, inquisitive, and inclusive people when we want to be the very opposite of all those things. It means caring less and less about being right and caring more and more about being safe.
There are no safe places anymore. But there are safe people and I think for every safe place we lose in this world, 100 more people should make the decision to be safe for someone. It’s one my goals this year to become more and more of a safe person for those who encounter me in life. Because at the end of the day, I don’t have any control over how safe my world is but I have absolute control over how safe I am for someone else.