Safety: an Obsession

I have a feeling this is only part one of a rant I will continue until I die.

When I was growing up, I was intentionally reared in a bubble of “safety.” Although we lived in East Africa, my parents were definitely raised in America and raised us according to their American values. I was not encouraged to interact with Kenyan children or allowed to attend an actual Kenyan high school, despite my desire, for fear of harassment. We had a night guard, guard dogs, and a compound shrubbery wall 9 feet high to keep burglars out. We were taught to be wary of strangers and were not allowed to walk after dark.

I remember a particular event when I was invited by a family acquaintance to attend a real Kenyan wedding. Over the course of a day I convinced myself it would be both invaluable as a social event and a cultural experience.

“No, you are white; you will attract a lot of attention. You would not be supervised by anyone we trust. We don’t really know this person that well.” No manner of convincing would change my parents’ decision against protecting me from a possible unsafe situation, and I regrettably never experienced a traditional Kenyan wedding.

But it wasn’t really until we announced that we were moving to Egypt that I understood the extent of the American obsession with safety.

“I’m moving to Egypt to study Egyptology,” I told someone. His response: “Be careful. They’re not to be trusted.” Another: “Watch out for bombs.” Another: “You should try to live on campus, so that you are safe.” Not only are these responses racist and untrue, they speak to our national ignorance and concern for safety. I was even given a necklace of an elephant (a symbol of protection) to keep me safe while I live overseas.

Today I had a conversation with an older American woman. She asked me where I live, and I told her. “Is it walk-able?” she asked me. What a funny question – seemingly implying there were places that I could live where I would be raped at my first step out the door.

“Yes, very,” I told her, not wanting to discuss it. Her monologue digressed into the recent revolution and the level of safety in areas surrounding the city we live in. “It was not safe at all! There was looting, and people stealing cars. People were afraid for their homes. They even evacuated the student dorms…!” She spoke with such concern.

As I listened to her whine about the hardships of living in the urban sprawl of New Cairo, my thoughts went to the on-going drought in the horn of Africa, and the millions suffering (and dying) because of it, many of whom have migrated to Kenya to live in a massive refugee camp. I felt like we could be discussing something of more importance than stolen cars.

I interjected that on the topic of safety I think the Western World over-reacts much of the time.

She turned to me in shock. “There were no police!” I swear: there was fear on her face.

When you have no food, I will listen to you complain.

When you have no water, I will listen to you complain.

When your children are dying because there are no medical supplies, I will listen to you complain.

But is your world really so fragile that the absence of policemen where you live would make you tremble or flee the country?

The conversation disturbed me so greatly that I actually cried about it once I was home. I think of when I have heard someone brag: “Where I live it’s so safe I don’t have to lock my house at night,” or “I left my car window rolled down for a day in a busy parking lot and nothing was stolen.” I cannot fathom living my life like a dragon, forsaking the sun to hide in the dark cave of my fear to protect my treasure.

Everything we possess, from our lives to our homes, is temporary and given to us – here for a moment and for a bigger purpose than our personal comfort and security.


3 thoughts on “Safety: an Obsession

  1. I read this in the context of having just today finished reading The Road, as well as watching a glut of tsunami videos from earlier this year in Japan. The immensity of destruction, people fleeing, the fragile quality of our entire social structure… coupling this with Mcarthy’s extended query as to just what we are left with once it all crumbles, it all adds to my heartfelt agreement on your main point. Security, as a concept and framework for one’s life, is an awfully threadbare means of getting peaceably through life. Perhaps you live through it in one piece, but at the same time did you ever truly live to begin with. Corporeal danger exists, but to let that blot out the precious and invaluable spark we have here on earth is a shame!

  2. Yes. Both Indonesia and Pakistan were “dangerous” choices for my parents to live and to take us kids to. They were much less safety conscious than perhaps some other people around. There really was danger and we felt it – there were riots that burned our car after my mom and siblings ran to safety. In Pakistan they hid out in the midst of the riots when Bhutto was shot. In Chicago we lived in the ghetto, and there were murders around the corner, and gangs in our neighborhood.

    In light of all that, I was just absolutely dumbfounded when an older couple at our church mentioned that they bought their first house in a nice neighborhood but had to move after government housing was build nearby and it wasn’t safe anymore.

    Safe??? Safety drives where you live? Isn’t that the absolutely opposite of what our lives are meant to be like? Low income housing being built nearby is a perfect opportunity to engage those people, love them, build relationships….


    Safety is an idol and an illusion.

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