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Trust and Safety: Who Can Hope to Be Safe?

Joined: 10/31/2011
Posts: 1
I’ve grown up in a safety-obsessed society. From baby-proofing supplies to metal detectors to construction regulations, my culture and society is fixated on safety for everyone everywhere. Jodi Rell, a contemporary politician, summed up America’s attitude: “The goals are simple: safety and security.” These goals direct our lives, our worries, and our expectations for our government. America has decided that the government’s purpose “is . . . the general good and safety of the community,” as George Mason said two hundred years ago.

But this premise, that an individual or institution can protect me completely from pain, is wrong. “Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious? Guard himself as he may, every moment’s an ambush,” wrote Horace. People are unpredictable. So are technological, medical, and natural emergencies. Once, my mother told a friend to visit Yellowstone National Park if she ever could. The friend said, “I can’t go there! It’s on top of a volcano!” My mother went through the regions of the Unites States -- Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, West, Pacific. “If you live here,” she said, “you get blizzards and ice storms. Here you get hurricanes. Tornados here, earthquakes here, volcanoes here. It’s no greater risk than living where we do.” The incident stuck with me along with the lesson: no matter where I live, what I do, how I try to protect myself, there’s always something beyond my control. It’s even harder to shield someone else, and there is a price: for a sense of safety I sacrifice confidence, creativity, and the greatest experiences of my life or my charge’s life.

In spite of these problems, some argue that every leader has a duty to his followers to pursue safety wholeheartedly. I read a letter to the editor once concerning a racecar driver who died in a crash. The writer said the driver had “no right to purposely endanger his life” because he had a family. She overlooked how many times she “purposely endangers” all her dependents by driving a car, riding a bike in traffic, cooking on a gas stove, boiling water. To make society work, to live, we all “purposely endanger our lives” a hundred times every day and do it cheerfully, because we believe the reward outweighs the slim but ever-present chance that someone will get hurt.

I can try to protect myself, and I can expect my government to pass laws to keep me safe, but in the end “there is no safety in numbers, or in anything else.” But James Thurber’s words should not act as a catalyst for panic or despair but as a spur urging me to broaden my life instead of scrambling to lengthen it. After all, meaning doesn’t come from longevity; it comes from impact, from lives of courage and love, determination and passion. Safety has a place, but saddling authority with the impossible responsibility of protecting me from everything will leave me disillusioned, and looking to safety for purpose will leave my life empty.

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