I delight in watching a baby learn to crawl: her dimpled hands push powerfully into the carpet; her round tummy starts to lift; she cries out in triumph; her arms buckle; she face plants; I coo and encourage her; she lifts; buckles; repeats. What is the fierce current in her that initiates this push, and that flows through her again and again? In these first pushes, in all the pushes, there’s no certainty. At first, the only certainty is to wind up with her face in the carpet. Imagine you’re that baby: why not just curl up there and go to sleep?
From the moment of our very first breath, we are not destined for safety. We are destined for love.
Now, I should be clear. When I talk about safety in this case, I’m not talking about basic human rights, like shelter, a nonviolent living environment, nourishing food, healthcare, equal rights and access to mind, body and soul education. Every human being ought to have that kind of safety, and I wish that for you always. Those of us who have been blessed with this bounty have a responsibility to help make sure everyone on earth is safe in these ways. One way towards becoming the grown-ups who can advocate for the rights of others has to do with coming into right relationship with this other kind of safety...
Here, I’m talking about safety in the sense that: “Everything is copacetic. Everything is solid. I’m OK. Nothing can harm me. I am one self.” (Maybe the Beatles said it best: “Jai guru deva om…nothing’s gonna change my world…”) Or maybe it looks like bargaining: “If I do xyz, I’ll be healthy/happy/beautiful/eternal/saved…”
Once upon a time last night, I’m curled on my bed keening in a voice that’s older than time. It’s fall, and death is on the make. I’ve just had a conversation with a dear wise soul sistar about parts of the self that need to die, about ugliness, about loneliness, and these currents are churning thickly in me like a tornado. Between sobs, my inner girl is leaking out something like “I just want… I just want… I just want… someone to hold me and make me feel safe.”
Guess what, dear readers? No one comes. There’ve been plenty of times, in a case like this, when no one has come. And I’ve played mother to myself. I’ve stroked my own hair, murmuring, “you’re safe, you’re safe.” Making a shushing sound like an ocean or a womb. There’s a time and place for this, to mother your self, to mother others. The world sorely needs it. But last night I realized that the type of safety I was seeking, the kind that made me a beggar for stasis and sameness, was an illusion. I find that the more I beg not to be bewildered, the more strange and unfamiliar my everyday life becomes.
It doesn’t work to shut yourself up in your room and sleep in your pink nest (tried it). It doesn’t work to journey to a paradise in which you’ll be drenched in beauty 24/7 (tried it). It doesn’t work to force yourself into a prestigious career track or rush your self into a hurried, undercooked version of your very real dreams and vision (uh-huh).
This kind of safety just isn’t. You cannot insulate yourself from hurt, from change, from death. If you try, it will emerge as demons or killers within your own psyche, undermining your confidence. It will emerge as the unhealed wounds of your parents or your ancestors. It will emerge as people and situations that mirror back to you what you perceive as ugly in yourself.
But here is what I now know: In the death of illusionary safety, love is at hand. Freedom is at hand. A feeling, I felt, of being cradled by a mercy so much bigger and deeper than my attachment to being one self. Of being held in the palm of a great longing that is our most basic ground, to belong. In the deepest well of loneliness, I had a split-second glimpse of myself as a universal being.
The love that loves us
If you let the illusion of safety die, you might loosen your grasp on other attachments that are causing you to suffer… addictions, relationships that have run their course, deadening jobs or draining living situations. If you can’t be safe anyway, you may as well live with even greater creative courage too: write an audacious fan letter to someone you admire; dare to sing like Nina Simone; listen to your loved ones with your whole heart, and agree to see them as they are in this moment, beyond the old stories.
Or you might—despite being a small woman in a big city—walk out into the night and be bathed in silvery moonlight up to your ears. You might name it love, and you might allow it to cradle you through all your deaths and rebirths, through all the gorgeous and brutal and astonishing ways you are becoming your selves. And you might forget and remember this mercy, over and over again.
It’s not so much different than learning to crawl.