On Staying Safe
Stay safe. You hear these two little words a lot these days. They serve as the tag at the end of the phone call, the coda for the email, the last words before signing off yet another Zoom meeting, the wary exhortation as you watch your son head off to a shift at the grocery store. These two words have become part of the furniture of our leave-taking, virtual or otherwise, during the days of COVID.
They’re good enough words, I suppose. They express our desire for the best for one another during this unprecedented moment. We’re all kind of reeling in the absence of the familiar, of the sociality and human contact that we likely took for granted. We’re anxious about the economy and what the future might look like. We sort of assume that everyone’s struggling in their own way with this. And of course, we don’t want anyone to get sick and die. “Stay safe” is what we offer to traverse much of this anxious and uncertain terrain. Like so many of our words, they often fall a short of what lies behind them, failing to convey the depth of our longing, anxiety, dread, and, hope. We could say, “Stay strong,” “stay hopeful,” “stay resilient and resourceful,” “stay kind,” “stay human,” “stay loving” or any other number of more meaningful words. But these latter options leave us feeling a bit more vulnerable. So, we settle on “safe.” Safe is good enough, or so we suppose.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this word: “safe.” We know, of course, that life is not safe, and it never has been. COVID-19 is simply laying bare in acute form what is always true for each one of us. To eat and to drink and to go and to stay and pursue and to try and to fail and to run and to sit and to reach and to retreat… all of our human living and doing has risk attached to it. Bad things are always happening all around us. Sickness and disease stalk us all the time. We manage to ignore these realities most of the time, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Andrew Sullivan put it well in a recent article called “How to Survive a Plague”:
Living in a plague is just an intensified way of living. It merely unveils the radical uncertainty of life that is already here, and puts it into far sharper focus. We will all die one day, and we will almost all get sick at some point in our lives; none of this makes sense on its own (especially the dying part). The trick, as the great religions teach us, is counterintuitive: not to seize control, but to gain some balance and even serenity in absorbing what you can’t.
I think Sullivan’s description of the human predicament is bang on. His last sentence, however, sits more uncomfortably. “Balance and serenity” might be suitable words for some kind of generic category of “religion” (if such a thing is imagined to exist), but they’re an awkward fit for those of us who have cast our lot with Jesus of Nazareth. They’re “safe” words and there is nothing particularly safe about choosing to follow the way of Jesus through this life. We naturally wish this were the case and we very often reduce it to this. But there are just so many unsafe words that fell from our Saviour’s lips.
Words about taking up crosses and losing our life that we might gain it, for example. Words about scandalous generosity and irrational mercy. Words about love. So many words about love. And what could be less safe than love? Love of neighbour is risky. Other people are always potential sources of rapturous joy and deep connection or contamination and pain. This is even more so when it comes to our more intimate connections. To give yourself fully to a partner is to risk almost certainly being hurt along the way. To be a parent is to wander out into profoundly unsafe territory where you become vulnerable to hurts that sometimes defy description. Loving even the lovable is risky, to say nothing of Jesus’ crazy words about loving our enemies.
Jesus offers to us many things. Life, love, forgiveness, light for the journey, hope for the present and the future, meaning, salvation, in the truest and deepest sense of all these words. But he does not offer safety.
In the end, most of us want a good deal more than from life than “safety,” don’t we? If there’s anything that these last two months or so have taught many of us, it’s that safely sitting behind our doors is a very attenuated form of living (and an option that comes with no small amount of privilege attached to it!). Yes, it’s for the greater good, yes there are clever memes about how we’re all “saving lives” or being “heroes” or whatever else we need to tell ourselves to infuse these days with meaning. Yes, this physical isolation is probably the right measure for a time. But loneliness, poverty, despair, addiction, and meaninglessness will also threaten our safety, individually and collectively. They already are. We were created for so much more than safety and we ignore this at our grave peril.
I’m no expert on how and when we should try to get back to gradually, slowly resuming our lives in some semblance of “normal.” But at some point, we are going to have to emerge from our barricades and get back to doing the things that are necessary, the things we love, the things the world needs, the things that bring joy and connection and meaning. There are no risk-free options going forward. There never were.