Posted by: minnow | July 15, 2009


What does a safe community look like?  Are you part of a safe community?  Is your community safe for everyone in it?  What does it even mean to be safe? 
A game my family plays every once in a while at our dinner table is to give each person at the table a chance to throw out a topic for discussion and then give each person a chance to say something about the topics which have been thrown out.  In a recent version of this game our topics ran the gambit from a young lady’s name  to the questions  with which I started this post.  The reaction to the name received a little elbow nudging from siblings, a smile from the father and raised eyebrows and several additional questions from the mother (me).  The question  on the other hand was discussed a little more thoroughly by everyone.  Even my daughter’s answer of “bubble wrap” while funny was taken seriously.
As I have been contemplating this question, and asking it of others, I am beginning to realize that “safe community” does not look the same to everyone.  In face what feels most “safe” to one person may feel completely unsafe to another.  For example, one person may need a lot of guidelines and a strong leader who directs traffic and defines people’s roles.  For this individual safety may have a lot to do with feeling protected.  Another person, however, could feel unsafe with so much control placed over him.  For this individual safe may be more closely associated with freedom.
Trying to find a definition that works for everyone has caused me to ask another question: Is safe and healthy the same thing?  Can what makes us feel safe actually be unhealthy?  And, how do we know?  What gives us the right to define healthy or safe for other people?  A perfect example of the differences is the way I tease when I say, “I need chocolate–for my mental  health.”  I acknowledge that too much chocolate is probably not good for my physical health which seems to be the focus of most health-type discussions but I bring up the idea that I can define health differently in order to get away with eating chocolate.  Obviously, with this example at least, I can eventually eat so much chocolate that it would become bad for my mental health as well as my physical.  I might crash after a sugar rush and then start to feel mentally depressed.  I could eat so much that I gain a lot of weight and then begin to berate myself for being fat.  In other words, I could begin to beat myself up mentally.  Does this mean the definition for healthy is universal?  when we use broad strokes I think the answer is yes. 
I also believe, if defined loosely enough, we can find a universal definition for safe, especially as it relates to community.  The problem is we often equate safety with comfort.  Yet, discomfort does not always mean we are unsafe.  Maybe this example will help: I want to go out on a lake in a boat.  I put on a life jacket.  It feels awkward and uncomfortable because I am not used to it but still I decide to wear it.  The boat capsizes.  I am kept afloat (safe) because I have on a life jacket.  Now even though it still might feel uncomfortable physically I have a deeper understanding of how the life jacket keeps me safe and I am much less reluctant to wear it the next time I go boating.  When talking about community or relationship some might say being like minded makes one safe.  But while being like minded might make one feel comfortable (we know what to expect when people think and act the same way we do), the truth is it does not necessarily make one safe.  Judgmental attitudes, slow growth, low creativity, and the forming of cliques can all accompany (or be off shoots of) like mindedness.  None of those aspects of like mindedness are safe.  In fact they can be both destructive and limiting.  Yet the pressure to preserve group think  thinking in order to perpetuate our comfort level is often extremely strong.  And, the tendency to hide our differences especially when those differences come in the form of imperfections, struggles, problems, or S. I. N. can make actually addressing those issues in our lives impossible.
Thus in order to discover the universal elements of safety I think we need to first quit equating it with comfort.  But, if comfort is not an indicator what is?  As strange as it may sound, the ability to take risks is, for me, a strong indicator of whether or not a community is safe.  I am not talking about risks like bungee jumping but rather the more difficult intellectual and emotional risk taking that includes asking tough questions, sharing the difficulties in our lives, and acknowledging our imperfections.  When a commitment to grace, forgiveness, and mutual submission is the foundational value of a community the atmosphere for risk taking is fostered within the group.  As important as some of our other values and tenets may seem they must not be allowed to replace or overshadow the core commitment to authentic relationship if we want to build a safe community.  Just like wearing a life jacket, with time we may get used to the discomfort that can be part of being safe.

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