One of my favorite Norman Rockwell paintings is of a mother and father tucking their two small children into bed. It's a perfectly typical scene, except that when you look closely at the banner headline on the newspaper in the father's hand, you see the words "BOMBINGS" and "HORROR."
I was born 11 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent war which Rockwell is referencing in that headline, but my son was born just a couple of years before the attack on the Twin Towers. In terms of capturing the depths of concern a parent feels for their child's safety, Rockwell's painting could not be more heart-stopping or more eloquent.
Yet it's not just in troubled times - like those we seem to always be living in these days, now that our televisions bring us everything that happens everywhere 24/7 - that we worry about our safety and the safety of our loved ones. If a child is lucky, her parents worry from the moment she is conceived - will she be healthy; will the birth go well; will we be able to afford all that she needs and all that we want to give; will she grow up well; will no tragedy befall her or us... The list of worries is endless, from cradle to grave.
But it won't help our children if they come to know us as endlessly worried, fearful, anxious people. If we model fear, mistrust and suspicion of anything that lies beyond the tight little circle of what we can control, we could grossly limit the sense of possibility and wonder that life on earth can still offer, battered and torn as our planet and its peoples may be.
One of the things I have learned from being a psychotherapist and working with people who have been traumatized in various ways, is how devastating the absence or the loss of the sense of safety can be. Whether this breach of safety occurred early in childhood, through neglect and abuse - in which case the very people the child most needed for safety are the ones who have most endangered and betrayed him ; or whether it has occurred later in life - divorce, loss of employment, unexpected loss of a loved one - safety becomes for a traumatized person something that can feel eternally out of reach.
Helping a traumatized person means helping them feel safe enough to open up, to trust and to feel, so that a healing process can take place, so that hope and desire can be revived. But if things are too safe - if they are not asked to challenge themselves, to learn to open up to new perspectives and new possibilities, then a traumatized person cannot move out of that narrow, crampled circle consisting only of what seems controllable.
Let's face it - control is just an illusion. Some of the wealthiest people I've met live in a constant simmer of fear and distrust. Much of what we call health - confidence and strength - is based on the ability to lightly compartmentalize and maintain a modicum of denial.
Whatever successes we do or don't achieve, however much control of our survival needs we have or don't have, in the end, I believe that being able to love, to love and be loved, is the most essential ingredient in the sense of safety. It's in connection, human and for some divine, it's in learning to trust and to love, that our only real safety lies.
Some weeks after the World Trade Center attack, singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky was riding the subway in Brooklyn, and she took note of the way that people and children were behaving much as they had done before the attack - people just being people, all part of the human community. She ends her song, "Brooklyn Train," with these lines:
Sun hits the train as
It rises over the city again.
Remembering all that
Used to be there.
And only the living
Know what loss means,
Riding together on this
Down below on iron veins,
Rolling waves of subway trains.
Rails of mercy
Cross the lives of men,
Safe in the body of
New York again.
Safe in the body of
New York again."
© Daniel Shaw 2010