Is “Stay safe” a dangerous thing to say?

Since the pandemic began, it seems the most popular thing people close their emails with is, “Stay safe”. Today I’m calling out the dangerous underbelly of that message.

When people tell me to “stay safe”, I know they are not intentionally wishing harm. I suspect, however, they have not thought about the underlying message they are communicating. 

Here is what I hear: “Behave in ways that protect your safety.” “Organize your life in ways to ensure you are safe.” I have a vision of putting on a thick jacket and me wrapping my arms tightly around myself, huddled inward to weather the storm. It is an inward focused, defensive posture.

These words bring to mind the notion of gated communities (also called walled communities).  These are communities with strictly enforced exclusion of non-residents or unauthorized visitors, often in the form of physical walls with security entry points. They are supposed to offer a controlled environment that protects residents from crime. However, statistically people living in gated communities experience just as much crime as those in normal communities.

I think the reason I’ve been feeling a rub every time someone sends me the “stay safe” message is because I was brought up in a community that actively taught the value of courage, and if ever there was a time for courage, it is now. I learned courage through the feeling imprinted into my physical body in meditation practice: sitting with a strong, upright back and a soft, open chest. This posture embodies both dignity and vulnerability, strength and kindness. From a lifetime of exploring this posture, I have come to believe it is an ideal way to train ourselves for living a good life, no matter what the external circumstances.

There is perhaps a natural reflexive response to the pandemic that encourages “huddling in” to weather the storm. However, we are unable to have much vision when we are looking down, with our head enveloped in a fur-lined hood for protection. Our decisions and activities are likely to lean towards reacting to things, rather than taking in the full scope of choices and making proactive decisions.

So rather than “staying safe,” I’m suggesting we raise our body upright with dignity, feel the softness and vulnerability of our humanity, take a steady gaze toward the horizon and from here, we can best navigate through the pandemic. Rather than “weathering the storm”, we could use the multi-faceted challenges of this situation to grow as human beings, develop new skills, and dig deeper into our potential for compassion and grow our connections and community.

Perhaps we could close our emails with, “Let’s meet today’s challenges well and always remember our hearts!”

As part of my own vulnerable process of digging deeper, I’m writing 12 of these monthly newsletters to respond to the needs identified in our monthly community needs survey (the link is in this month’s newsletter email). The top need identified in last month’s survey was, “Overcoming internal barriers to accepting love and help”. 

This need is directly related to the “Stay safe” discussion above. Whether we put up walls in response to the pandemic or to past trauma, those walls not only keep out “the bad”, they keep the good out too. It is understandable as a first response to trauma that we need to go into “lock down” mode, to stabilize and ensure a basic level of safety. However, it is unhealthy to continue in that walled-in way long term.

We need connection and flow with the outside world. Circulation is a sign of health. We see this on the level of our physical body and its circulation of blood. We also see it in the world in our exchanges in conversations, relationships and even financial exchanges.

So how can we come out of lockdown mode after a traumatic experience, so we are able to accept love and help? Trauma healing wisdom tells us that we can build trust by taking calculated risks. Calculated risks are in contrast to blind leaps of faith. A calculated risk involves assessing if the person we are taking the risk with has shown themselves to be reasonably stable and emotionally available. We can explore taking a small step beyond our previous zone of safety. The advice is a small step so we are not devastated if it does not work out. We can also let the person know that we are experimenting with trust, so they can be more attuned to our vulnerability. These are ways to experiment with building trust and intelligently begin to take down our walls to build healthy intimacy. 

And if one experiment does not work out and we get hurt, it does not need to be the end of building our capacity to learn trust. Building our capacity to be more open and trust is built over a number of experiments. As we build more and more positive experiences of vulnerability, we build our capacity to ask for and receive love and help.

I hope there is something useful here for you or someone you know. I’ve decided to hold another community healing Zoom this month – on November 11th. 

The topic for this month’s Community Healing Zoom is

Healthy boundaries: Increasing our capacity for intimacy

If you would like to join us, sign up here

Dialog is one of the most enriching way to create new ways of responding to the pandemic and creating vibrant lives. I welcome you posting your thoughts on this blog below and look forward to hearing from you!

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