“Safety is Overrated”

This outrageous statement, made as I described to a psychotherapist friend an incident involving my 25 year old daughter, stunned me. Several days before on Belair Avenue in Northeast Baltimore, my daughter waited at a bus stop with a friend. A van approached, two men with ski masks emerged and ordered her into their car—an attempted kidnapping. Her young companion, slight in stature, moved to shield her with his body. The van sped off, but her young friend suffered a gunshot to the wrist and the leg.

Later that week I told this story to R.C. Bingham (my therapist friend who also blogs for the Gathering), because I needed some backup. I had been trying to restrict the activities of my adult daughter. Wouldn’t he, a psychotherapist, agree that this extreme event justified more rigid parenting? Instead, he shrugged and said those words: “Kathy, safety is overrated.”

Since childhood, my favorite Biblical story in the Old Testament tells of Daniel, the Biblical prophet, and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, living in bondage in Babylon circa 600 BC. Here’s the story. Daniel and his friends were among the Jews captured by King Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylon. Later, these four were among the few who—due to their smarts and good looks—were selected for special training and privileges. Daniel, a gifted interpreter of dreams, became a trusted advisor of both Nebuchadnezzar and his predecessor, Darius the Mede.

The risk is real.

From the outset, Daniel and his friends followed the dictates of their faith without compromise. They refused the King’s wine and rich food (which would have violated Jewish dietary restrictions), instead requesting a vegetarian diet on which they thrived. As their influence expanded, their enemies mounted. In one instance, plotters convinced Nebuchadnezzar to commission a statue in his own image; he ordered everyone to bow down or be thrown in a fiery furnace. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused, the powers that be stoked those flames to seven times their normal intensity and threw them in. Yet they were observed walking around amidst the flames with a fourth figure (surmised to be an angel), and emerged untouched. Then, after plotters convinced King Darius to issue the command that no one could pray to anyone but him, Daniel continued to pray to his God, Yahweh. He was thrown into the Lion’s Den for his crime, but also emerged unscathed.

Would I have made either of those decisions?  Perhaps I could have traded certain death for a little more negotiating time. To benefit my people. Who were, in truth, held in bondage. How much use would I have been to them dead, rather than alive? This is the familiar logic so many of us turn to when faced by situation where sticking to our principles will cost us. 

But what if safety is truly overrated? 

I have made many compromises in my lifetime. In the incident with my daughter, I knew full well that I was being a bad parent—25-year-olds aren’t children. When our kids reach adulthood, our job is to enjoy, and not to control them. And it was clear that I was quickly ruining my relationship with her. Thank goodness for those wise words. A couple of days ago, I told my daughter I was going to blog about this story. She said, “Way to go, Mommy, in the personal growth!”

If I were to truly put my friend’s wisdom into practice in other situations, I wouldn’t say, “But don’t the circumstances merit my response?” Or, as R.C. Bingham so powerfully wrote in his latest post, I wouldn’t give in to the endless “what ifs.” I would stand firm with Daniel and his friends. I wouldn’t bow down.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is my go-to example in this regard. One of the few men of faith to stand up against the Nazis, he paid with his life just before the allies triumphed. This is an important reminder that standing on principle doesn’t always end well. The risk is real.

I don’t mean to oversimplify what it means to choose principle over safety. I loathe responses that are in lockstep with rigid ideological views. I try to seek multiple (and hopefully opposing) opinions when trying to ascertain which decision is best. I have go-to “wise people” I regularly consult, including several who blog for The Gathering. And, as a Christian, I really do believe in power of prayer and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Yet I still make mistakes. Plenty of them.

Yet I’ve found (through these mistakes) that when I privilege safety over principle, I feel polluted, sometimes even sick to the point of vomiting, over my own behavior. In one instance, I was part of an organization for whom safety-seeking—no matter what the cost to basic common-sense notions of right and wrong—was deeply ingrained. Our work together ended up in an unholy (and I mean that literally) mess. l bear the scars and shame of that experience.

I love my daughter. But thanks to a wise friend, we have a wonderful relationship. She may not be safe, but she’s strong.