What makes us feel safe in the world?

Posted by: on May 24th, 2021

I am working with a team of facilitators, committed police chiefs and community stakeholders on a project which focuses on narratives of safety from within police departments and surrounding communities.

As we develop our work, I think about the ways in which safety is a universal need within our human experience. I think about what makes us feel safe or unsafe and the ways in which we construct our sense of safety in a world that rarely is. Could it be that feelings of safety are related to our sense of community? Do we construct a version of reality to help us feel safe even when objectively speaking things could go south most any time?

To begin the project launch process, I share an experience of feeling unsafe from my own life ….

Right after college, I worked at a residential treatment center for youth. Asher (not his real name) was a new arrival to our apartment of about 9 boys. He was older, about 12, small but strong, and he had a fiery energy and an intense desire to engage. He was also excessively charming, neat and attentive to his personal looks and hygiene.

Prior to his arrival, he had been living in a car after fleeing his apartment when his mother was shot to death before his eyes. Now with us, his over-the-top confidence masked any fears he might have brought with him. Shortly after he arrived, he asserted his leadership in the apartment. In fact, he so enthralled the other boys with his stories of living footloose and fancy free, that he convinced the entire apartment to skip school and escape with him to NYC. The police found them later that day, hunkered down in a camper set up in someone’s backyard. (Thank goodness I was off that day.)

Asher had certainly witnessed the dangers of the world firsthand and yet he had constructed an alternative reality in which to operate and feel safe. I watched him as he tried to make friends and then punch the very boy he wanted to impress. Sometimes we knew by a smile that appeared to freeze on his face that he had been triggered and might pop.

But in truth, this story is about what I learned about me from Asher. In short, my experience came to mirror his experience. This is how that happened…

One evening, I found myself in charge of the apartment on my own. Technically, this is not supposed to happen, but it did on occasion. I denied Asher evening privileges because of consequences imposed by another counselor earlier in the day before I arrived. A new shift is always unsettling for counselors because they encounter group dynamics that developed prior to their arrival and things that appear fine on the surface can in fact be very unstable underneath.

After Asher settled in his own area, away from the group, I checked on him and responded to his insistence that the consequences were unfairly pinned on him. Then I turned to walk back into the other room.

Faster than a flick of the light switch, without warning, Asher was on my back, his weight nearly forced me to the ground. In a blur, many things happened. I tried to restrain him on his back (proper procedure at the time) but he flipped and nearly escaped my grip, so I held on with what felt like Herculean strength and I pushed him back down on this stomach, crossed his arms under him and put my knee on his back (not protocol!) One boy ran for help, while others were screaming, cursing or cheering me on.

I remained eerily calm. I could hear my heart pound in my head, my grip on him was firm, he would not escape me. In this flash I terrified myself.

Later, I wondered whether Asher needed to test if I would keep him safe or whether he was simply reacting to his separation from the group. Either way, he never challenged me again. In our fragile trust or truce, we shared a love for Stevie Wonder, Patrice Rushen and in certain moments he expressed a bottomless sea of sadness to me that was very real.

But what stays with me after all these years is the terror I felt because of my own behavior. The protocol I learned for such emergencies failed when he overpowered me. My reaction was to protect myself and control the situation. I knew if he escaped my grip, mayhem would ensue. In that second, control meant safety for the other boys as well.

Every time I review the story, I think another counselor in the apartment might have discouraged the event or at least changed the course of it. I think about how my relationship with the other boys mattered. We were on the edge of chaos, but it did not fully unravel. Why? Somehow the practice of the community held us together, however thin the strands.

No amount of training can alter what we do when a threat of safety arrives so fast we do not have time to think or plan. We can hope a sense of community is present so that we might find ways to mitigate, de-escalate and share the burden of helping everyone feel safe.  

At root, Asher and I both needed to feel safe before we could act in ways to keep the community safe.

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.