A Confusion about Words

David Vetter, 8 years old. Baylor College of Medicine Archives.
David Vetter, 8 years old. Baylor College of Medicine Archives.

Years ago, my therapist said something about my beginning to feel safe at some point in the mystical future. I suppose she was hopeful and thought this would make some kind of difference or being important to me in some way.

I didn’t really believe her, and it didn’t seem like a realistic or important goal.

I am still very aware of the dangers in my life. I’m not sure that will ever go away. It’s like I looked over the edge of the cliff at some point, and I now know how far the drop is. But it doesn’t really stop me. It may slow me down sometimes, I’m not sure. But generally, the risks seem mainly acceptable–acceptable enough that I’ve chosen to keep on adding more.

I didn’t know what she meant.

It’s begun to occur to me that “safe” doesn’t really mean an absence of danger. Our lives will always be dangerous to a greater or lesser degree. None of us can keep ourselves packed in cotton forever, and we could live like the boy in the bubble did, but I don’t think he would have recommended it to us. We all know that’s no way to live.

Safe doesn’t mean no one and nothing will ever hurt you. There is always something that can, and from time to time it will.

But there is this other thing, that might be what she meant and that is simply having the support you need to get you through life. It is having enough warmth and affection, enough good intentions, and enough advice from people older and wiser who know better than you. Those things aren’t safety in a literal sense, but it is safety in a felt sense.

There is another word I think I’ve been confused about and that is worth. My therapist has mentioned that as well in the same kind of wishful way–“when you feel more worthy…”

But when you’ve raised to think about worth in terms of economics, as only being about a measure of utility, and the idea of “deserving” as being about something earned, then worth isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t even a desirable thing. Being worth more only means more people have more reasons to harm you.

There is this other thing that has to do with just being a person.

We saw one of these. It was cool.
We saw one of these. It was cool.

I was out with a friend the other day. We went to a museum. She’s a science-y person, and I have very few science-y friends. So this was a rare opportunity for me to go and look at something science-y with someone else.

We spent most of the day looking at bones. It was fun.

I often have the sense when I’m around other people that whatever I say should have some merit. There should be some special reason someone else should listen to it: it should either be something the listener doesn’t know or hasn’t thought of yet, or it should be witty and funny and entertaining. In other words, it should not just be whatever garbage falls off my brain and out through my mouth.

There’s something to be said for holding yourself to that kind of standard. In a committee meeting for example, that kind of thinking is priceless. If everyone did that, meetings would never last more than an hour–no matter how complex the topic. We would all get the work done lickety-split and get to go home. Sadly, I found very people do.

Nonetheless, if you’re out with a friend looking at bones, a little garbage might be okay. In fact, it might make someone feel more connected to me. They will think they know more about me, and also be comforted by the fact that what falls off of my brain and out of mymouth is no more sparkling and brilliant than what falls off of their brains.

So I lowered my filtered. I said trivial things. I said boring things. I said whatever came to mind.

And my friend listened politely, even with interest.

That is worth.

Photo credit: Pfinge
Photo credit: Pfinge

It was given out not because I was so fascinating or brilliant or charming, but because I’m a person, and she’s a person. And basically people like other people. And it also helped that we both enjoy looking at bones and wondering things like whether walruses spit out the clam shells they’re eating or poop them out or what. It helped as well that I care about other people and I have some moral standards, because that’s the kind of person she is and who she prefers to be around.

And I am just going to stop there. Because I want to think about that last statement. I want to think about it for a good long time.