January 11, 2023

How do we Protect Ourselves from the Unpredictability of Violence?

A few weeks ago, I saw a meme that referred to the importance of being a safe person in the lives of others.

It had me thinking about my self-proclaimed role of haven—a place where people can be at ease sharing their innermost feelings.

As a Social Worker/psychotherapist, I have taken a vow of confidentiality. Even if I run into clients or their family members in public, I don’t acknowledge how we know each other. At the onset, I let them know that since we are in the same community, that might happen. I remind them that they can tell the world that I am their therapist, but I won’t tell anyone that they are my client. In the past week that has happened twice when I have been at the same place at the same time with mothers of former clients. They referenced their children and said they were doing well.

I have so many secrets in this brain of mine that it is a wonder I have space for any other thoughts and memories. Maybe that is part of the reason I have had brain blips and memory glitches over the past few years. I think the “hard drive” is full and the problem isn’t storage; it’s retrieval.

I recently took a CEU class to maintain my Social Work license. We are required to earn 30 continuing ed credits every two years. It was called Social Work and Social Justice. The facilitator was Mildred Joyner who is the President of NASW (National Association of Social Workers). One thing she said, among many bits of wisdom was that as Social Workers, we are like lighthouses, beacons to guide people safely home. I feel that way sometimes, especially when I am working with clients facing the shadows in their pasts and doing deep dive cave explorations.

I was thinking about my parents today, as I do, in some form, every day. It occurred to me that one quality they shared was the ability to help me feel safe. They weren’t overprotective and, in fact, encouraged me to be active because I had asthma as a child. They didn’t shelter me because of that and yet, I always felt they had my back. I imagine it was scary for them since there were times when I couldn’t breathe. They relied on our family doc for guidance and apparently he knew what he was doing since he recommended joining a swim team to strengthen my lungs. At 64, I am still here to tell about it. Asthma attacks can be frightening, and that is what led me to the hospital in August 2021 when I was diagnosed with COPD.

Maybe that is why I chose the profession I did. I want everyone to feel safe and mistakenly thought it was my job to make it so for them. I want my family and friends to feel safe and I don’t have that power to make it so for them either. I can point out perils and pitfalls, but I can’t keep them from falling in or deliberately stepping in.

The world is an increasingly frightening place. Houses of worship, schools, bars, supermarkets, and streets have become killing grounds, held hostage by anger, the desire for revenge against self-perceived wrongs and easy availability of weapons of mass destruction. It means addressing the distorted version of the second amendment that has some people declaring that it indicates unlimited right to own and use any sort of gun they so desire.

How do we protect ourselves from the unpredictability of violence?

I don’t have a clue. I do know that what we are doing now isn’t working. Each night when I say my prayers, I surround “everyone I know and love, everyone they know and love…and so on” with safety and protection. I am not delusional enough to believe that I alone have the power to protect the people in my life. My spiritual practice has me straddling a line between believing that prayer is interventive and the God of our understanding wields a wand that points to some people and avoids others and that the energy of the prayers are what makes the difference. Some people who are prayed for survive their crises and some die. Does that mean that the one who lived is worthy and the one who died is not?

What I offer to those in my life includes physical safety. I have also made a personal vow to refrain from aggression toward others unless I am in danger and need to defend myself. I offer touch by consent and teach it as well. I do my best to have my words heal and not harm, using the Three Gates as a guide: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? If it can’t pass through, I reconsider my communication. Several years ago, during a phone call that I had with a relationship partner, as I was taking an afternoon walk, the words “I hold your heart sacred” came waltzing through my brain in a gender neutral voice. As I shared it with this man, I could hear his smile through the telephone wire, as I remember him responding “I like that.” All these years later, I do hold his heart and our friendship sacred, even as we are no longer in a romantic relationship.

Wikipedia defines the word sacred in this way: Holiness, or sanctity, is in general the state of being holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine or sacred; considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas).

What does it mean to hold someone’s heart sacred? It translates to respect, honor, and compassion. TLC in times of challenge to help ease the pain. Deep listening rather than hurrying to a conclusion about what they are saying. Embracing their view for themselves, even if I can’t quite see it or make sense of it. Being mindful that hearts and lives are fragile and need to be handled with care.

Can we hold the hearts of everyone we encounter as sacred, even if we disagree with them, even if their choices fly in the face of our deepest convictions, even if they leave a mess in the kitchen, or in our lives? Even as relationships have shifted, can we beam that devotional light in their direction and wish them well? Can we hold our own hearts sacred and keep our own fire burning? That, I find more challenging.

“Where are the strong and who are the trusted?” These are my favorite words from the song “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” penned by British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. Are you willing to be that safe haven and lighthouse for those in your life? Are you able to allow them to be that for you?


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