I think we underestimate the dangerous spell of “safe.”
“Safe” is why centuries of humans have relished the tale of Rapunzel, a perfect princess locked in a stone tower with only her golden braid dangling tantalizingly from the window. “Safe” is why we’re enchanted by Ariel and her eagerness to escape her watery dungeon; “safe” is the thing she forgoes when she breaks the ocean surface that her companions have always treated as a sturdy ceiling despite its fluidity. “Safe” is why the Beast’s dying rose stands perched in a sparkling bell jar, as if that layer of glass might prevent its inevitable wilting.
“Safe” is alluring. “Safe” is gorgeousness in view but out of touch, sheltered in a thin glaze of immaculate protection.
“Safe” is why I stopped to admire these tiny fenced-in flowers on an arbitrary Brooklyn street. I was charmed by the bittersweet beauty of the bright red blooms behind barbs, where no one but their owner could smell their sweetness or feel their velveteen petals or see their shimmering freckles of pollen.
I can’t stop thinking about the barbed wires and glass covers and stone walls that we build up around ourselves and the things we love.
When you pursue your dream, you destroy it. Whether or not you get what you want, you ruin the illusion you’ve held tight in your head like a prized vase in a museum case. Out in the open, the dream gets tainted, stained, scraped up, and passed between a million other people’s dirty hands. Its illusory perfection disintegrates. It dies a little bit as it comes to life.
There are all sorts of bell jars we drop delicately over our fantasies, protecting them under unyielding bubbles. We admire potential soulmates from a distance, assuring ourselves that it’s not worth risking the embarrassment of unreciprocated emotional investment. We cite practicality or monetary restrictions when we stay in soul-sucking jobs, instead of chasing ideal careers we’ve dismissed as foolish fancy.
We create our own ceilings like Ariel’s ocean, pretending that the sparkling sheen implies unbreakability.
We avoid acting on our dearest aspirations because we want to keep them precious. We want to continue admiring them where they’re secure and sheltered from potential harm. And so we guard them and we stay guarded, wearing thick skins with certitude that steadfast insensitivity will protect our hearts from unhappiness or, worse, failure.
I’ve been writing since I first learned to hold a pencil. Before I cracked the code of words, I scribbled squiggled lines in small spiral notebooks. Growing up, I wrote at recess; in the lobby of the doctor’s office; at family dinners, under restaurant tablecloths while waiting for my pasta to arrive, and even while eating said pasta and allowing the sauce to splatter onto the edges of the pages. “I am eating pasta and it is so delicious,” I wrote at age eight, like not writing it down meant not living the moment in its entirety.
I can’t tell you how many journals I’ve collected over the years. I can’t count them.
But almost always, that was where my writing stayed: journal-bound. Some diaries used UV ink; some had locks and keys. Others, I merely buried in piles in a chest at the end of my bed or on the tiptoe-level shelves of my closet.
Secure. Secret. Safe.
I loved writing too much to release it. It felt like the sort of thing I wasn’t supposed to share. It was too much mine. When I started the post-college job search, I hardly considered writing positions of any kind. I wanted something serious, something business-like — something I wasn’t scared to ruin.
As I settled into my sensible entry-level position and my supposedly secure adult routine, my world gradually crumbled around me. Every aspect of my life, from my health to my friendships, seemed to collapse.
It’s a long story (with a happy ending), but it sums up to this: I slowly stifled myself in safety. And eventually, when I wouldn’t shatter my personal bell jar, it shattered on its own.
In the process, my previously precious words finally burst through. That’s why I’m sitting here at my laptop with my heart gloriously exposed and my little ego endangered and my dream divulged in digital show-and-tell.
Now that I’ve shirked safety, I don’t ever want it back.
Safety sterilizes everything. A thick skin provides protection from pain, but it also blocks out bliss. Bliss needs air to breathe. It needs interaction. It needs at least a little bit of risk.
A heart that succumbs easily to sadness is the same sort that opens wide to love and gratitude and empathy and ecstasy. The secret is permeability: let it all in, let it all out, and in the middle, let it change you. You can’t do that while you’re sealed in safety.
Keep your skin thin, and shelter your heart with something softer instead. Puppy kisses. Long naps. Tight hugs. That same song you’ve loved since you were a preteen. Pistachio ice cream eaten straight from the carton with your favorite spoon. These are the only sorts of safety we should be seeking: safety in softness. Safety that is flexible, gentle, porous, and pure.
Shatter the shiny bell jar. Cut the sharp-edged fence. Kick down the stone wall. Your precious dream might die a little when reality disintegrates its perfection, but at least it will die in explosions of brilliant bliss, rather than shriveling slowly from idleness and crumbling amidst stale air.
Whatever it is that you love, don’t stifle it in safety. Nothing beautiful belongs behind barbs.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with a friend — someone who needs a reminder of the rewards of risk. In this case, safety in numbers might actually be a very good thing.
Sophie McDonald says
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. I needed this so stinkin’ much. Thank you for writing this and sharing your gift, for risking the cuts from the barbs and letting bliss blow in. And thank you for helping me do the same.
Thank YOU for your kind comment. I’m so glad this resonated with you. Keep cutting down those barbs!