We’re in the midst of a household move right now (from ORD to DSM), which means I’m peeking into those types of deep storage boxes that haven’t been opened since the last time we moved, pondering whether to purge them or carry their contents onward.
In one box, I found an old plastic bag contained four truly ratty, soiled and tattered stuffed animals that my mother must have sent to me at some point when she herself was moving: my childhood “friends” Sister, Rabbit, Bear and Clown. Sister was a hairless kitten (now with only one eye, and originally furry), and you can probably guess what Rabbit, Bear and Clown were. (I guess my creativity with names came later in my childhood development than they did). The fact that I still have those stuffed animals (compounded with the fact that I put them back in the box, carefully) is a powerful, lasting testament to the simple, yet profound, role they played as childhood comfort objects, providing me with a sense of security at a time in my development when I had absolutely no real idea as to all of things there were in life that could cause me harm.
English psychologist Donald Woods Winnicott explored and wrote about the ways in which most children develop security bonds with what he labeled “transitional objects,” which help ease a child as it loses the perceived “subjective omnipotence” of a mother-to-child bond and develops a relationship with an objective reality where the mother, and the child, and objects in the world around them are not a unity. Winnicott further theorized that transitional objects enable children to experience a fantasized bond with their mothers when the latter are apart from them for increasingly long periods of time, and that the Binkies, the Teddies, and all of the other much loved surrogates serve as keys to alleviating anxiety at the very time when children first begin to encounter the complexity and scariness of the real world around them.
Oh, to imagine if security was that simple for us all today as adults! By definition, security is “freedom from, or resilience against, potential harm (or other unwanted coercive change) caused by others,” and the various realms of security that we all contend with or read about regularly — communications security, data security, airport security, food security, home security, national security, homeland security, environmental security, transportation security, to name but a few — make it screamingly clear as to just how many things, people, concepts, and forces out there are either willfully committed to or passively engaged in trying to cause us harm, collectively and individually. We take so many steps, at such great cost, to create warnings, to protect ourselves, and to deter others, where once a good snuggle sufficed to get the job done — at least in our heads, anyway.
But then, on some level, security really is all about what goes on in our heads, given that humans’ abilities to accurately discern, react and respond to risks are notably, provably wonky. We fear sharks, lightning strikes, and plane crashes more than we fear bathtubs, cars, and the things in our medicine cabinets, though more of us are killed by the latter list each year than by the former. Given this fact, there’s an argument to be made that the vast majority of the security steps that we take aren’t actually much different than our childhood transitional objects: we chain and padlock doors at night and feel better doing so, when a rock through a window is a still a perfectly easy ingress approach for anyone seriously committed to harming us or our property. We go through all sorts of security rituals throughout the course of the day, and they comfort us, but does anybody really, truly believe that taking our shoes off at the airport makes our flight experiences any safer? Or is that ritual just a big imaginary virtual teddy bear designed primarily to soothe transportation patrons and providers alike?
That element of “first, assuage concern” is deeply embedded in the very etymological history of the word “security,” which entered the English language in the 16th Century via the Latin “securus,” combining precursor words for “freedom” (se: without) and “anxiety” (cura: care). That’s kind of daunting to consider, especially for a person (like me) wrestles regularly with anxiety as a constant part of my basic biochemical and psychological composition. If security really means nothing more than “freedom from anxiety,” then ipso facto, I’m almost never secure, or at least not when I’m awake! (And as bad of a sleeper as I am, probably not when I am asleep either).
As I ponder that conundrum, I have to note that the very act of being in the middle of a household move provides strong fuel for feeling less than fully secure: most of our belongings — all the grown-up comfort items with which we surround ourselves — were picked up and taken away on a truck two days ago, and I won’t see them again until next week, hopefully all together still, hopefully intact. Then there’s that transitional period of time of sorting things, placing things, hanging things, moving things, figuring out what goes where, and why, and when, that comes with any move, as we rebuild nests, often hoping to create something that’s at least structurally similar to the nests we’ve left behind. Where will I sit to work at the computer? Where will I eat? Where will we watch TV together? Which cabinet did I put the Ziplock Bags in? (Note: I always feel better knowing where the Ziplocks are . . . they are up there with Duct Tape, WD-40 and Windex when it comes to knowing you’ve got the right tools for whatever jobs need to be done, right now).
I have moved enough over the years (27 times, I think) to know that at some point a few weeks or months in, some little switch in the brain pops from one position to the other, and the new nest acquires that crucial sense of place where I feel that it’s right, and it’s comfortable, and it’s home — with all of the ancillary feelings of security that come along with that distinction to follow. There’s still plenty of things to worry and be anxious about, of course, but at least I’ll know where the sofa and the blankets are so I can bundle up and ponder them comfortably without concern for the very physical infrastructure associated with my housing and possessions. And, of course, Marcia and I will be both there in the new nest most of the time (that’s why we’re moving, after three years of frequent separations), and there’s truly no stronger anchor for security than close, regular proximity to those who love and care for us the most. Honestly, at this stage in my life, my favorite part of most days is getting in bed together and holding hands and talking about whatever and saying “I love you” before we go to sleep. That ritual feels wholly secure no matter where it happens (we travel a lot, so we sleep in a lot of different beds), and that’s the deepest core of my sense of safety and comfort and stability as an adult, regardless of what the next day brings.
Which, of course, it always does. While the new home paradigm will be an improvement, I’ll be working remotely three out of four weeks, and that’s a new situation that will take some time to adapt to, and to develop or learn new security rituals. My physical office has its own sense of place for me, too, as does being with my staff in person, and not just via phone or video conference. The organization itself is and will remain secure in the ways that such things are judged, but my place within it is changing, which is cause for some anxiety, which leads to some feelings of insecurity about how things are going to work for me, and around me. I’m not sure, exactly, what sort of virtual stuffed animal will be required in this case, but I know it’s out there, in some form or another. I’ll know it when I hug it, hopefully.
Then the circle spins outward from home and work, in some cases toward the comforting, in some cases toward the scary. We’re financially secure as a family, thankfully, and we have good health care coverage, and are generally healthy for our ages, so those things don’t trouble or worry too much, and I know what I need to do if they do ever move to the front burner of security concerns. Having spent my life with the name “John Smith” and all of the confusion that can cause (e.g. after September 11th, I was routinely escorted away from my family by armed airport personnel for “secondary screening,” since apparently terrorists are also not very creative when it comes to fabricating fake identities), I’ve always been close to paranoid when it comes to computer and information and personal ID security, so I actually probably feel better about that stuff than most people do, since I so assiduously work to protect myself in that regard, having already learned those lessons many years ago. My rituals may be nothing more than rituals, but they push away the “cura” and that’s all I ask for or expect, most of the time.
Having a possibly senile sociopath at the head of our Federal government certainly doesn’t provide me with any good sense of comfort when it comes to national security, and I’ve chosen to largely withdraw from the constant bombardment of reminders of that fact that’s become part and parcel of the modern social media experience. I don’t wish to spend my time being yelled at, even when I agree with people, and that’s the lion’s share of virtual discourse in the public sector at this point, so I reject that, depending instead on a small, carefully curated list of trusted sources who can amicably share discomforting facts with me in a measured fashion that helps to sort things that are legitimate threads to our collective well-being from those that are just hateful noise. The Economist and Electoral Vote are good security blankets from that standpoint: proven, dependable, honest, and familiar. Always happy to curl up with them.
I’m just about finished with a book that discusses at graphic length what’s likely to be the greatest existential threat to me, mine, and ours in the decades (hopefully) that remain in my life: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. I heartily commend it to you, and hope that it might be widely read, and eventually be as widely influential as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which clearly laid out in terse prose what was obvious in front of us at the time, but which we did not wish to address — until we did. Virtually every other form and facet of physical, philosophical, emotional, and structural security surrounding us today has the potential to be irrevocably altered and destabilized in the years ahead by the myriad challenges that a rapidly changing planet is going to place before us, as individuals, as nations, as a species, and as one of many potentially fragile life-forms clinging desperately to the only ball of dirt, rock and water we have and know.
There’s no security blanket, ritual, or teddy bear large enough to hug away the highly tangible security threats that could come from environmental change, and yet their very enormity means that the vast majority of us don’t feel any real, palpable anxiety about them, because they are almost beyond our capabilities to comprehend in any meaningful fashion — never mind having ability to negate or control them. Ironically, if there’s a terminal fallacy embodied in the etymological definition of security as “freedom from anxiety,” that’s probably it: the correlation between that which should cause us anxiety and that which does cause us anxiety is nowhere near as strong as it should be if we are, as individuals and collectively, are to actually create meaningful security barriers from that which can credibly do us harm. We’re not anxious enough when we should be, and we’re too anxious when we don’t need to be, and so our comforting rituals and objects are ultimately just props to support our subjective views of an objective world with no shortage of killer threats swirling around us, literally and figuratively.
Maybe that’s what makes us weirdly, beautifully, stupidly human though, as we create art, and fall in love, and build homes, and work jobs, and write poetry, and look at stars, and continue to find meaning, comfort and joy in the face of the unrelenting entropic forces constantly working to grind us up onto our constituent chemical elements. Oddly enough, despite my innate anxious disposition, I actually do take deep comfort from the idea that no matter what barriers and borders I build around myself, ultimately I’m a small part of a big thing beyond my comprehending, and the best I can do within it is to chase those moments of beauty, and to find those fear-free spaces, however fleeting they might be, and to love and appreciate what I have, when I have it, with others who love and appreciate me. I don’t, and can’t, always practice what I preach in that regard, but I do try, and it feels good to do so, as perhaps the simplest expression of selfish hedonism available to me.
On one hand, I know that the more I focus on those little things, the less I’m doing to respond to those big things, and that’s perhaps a bad trade-off if I take a long-term, macro, evolutionary view of things. (Though on that front, I’ve already spawned and am medically no longer capable of doing so, so from an evolutionary standpoint, I’m already surplus to the Great God DNA’s purposes at this point anyway). But on the other hand, I know that freedom from anxiety feels like a worthy pursuit, and if more of us experienced such freedom, more often, we’d likely be kinder and gentler and more apt to cooperate and collaborate on the structural issues that shape human experience today, including the big scary beast of global climate change and all of its attendant horrors.
“Think Globally, Act Locally” the bumper stickers exhort us, and maybe that’s a good rubric, even though it only works if everyone follows it, and we know that the vast majority of the rapidly developing world’s citizens, flush with the first fruits of middle class consumer experience, are not going to collectively deny themselves the pleasures that we have already experienced, just because they came to them later. On a macro basis, global security in all of its myriad facets is going to get far worse, for a long, long time, in ways we can’t even conceive of today, before it even begins to get better — if it ever can do so, without us first being wiped from the lithosphere like mold from a grapefruit. No matter what the bumper stickers say, there’s nothing I, myself, can do to change that. Nor can you. Nor can even a Democratic U.S. Federal administration fully committed to the most ambitious Green New Deal imaginable, because China, India, Brazil, Russia and countless other nations will not be practicing parties to it, no matter what their leaders’ signatures say on various international accords. It’s an all-or-nothing game ultimately, and the vast majority of players will perish on its board before we actually figure out the rules.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to play that game. We should. We must. If for no other reason than to give ourselves the big security blanket that makes us collectively feel that we are in control of uncontrollable forces. It’s collective madness for us not to, and when we become mad collectively, we foment madness individually, with anomie and ennui and atrophy and atomization dissolving the bonds that tie us and shredding the structures that secure us, tenuously, in the nests of our own making. Recycling our plastic bottles and riding our bikes may not make any more real difference to anything than taking our shoes off as we pass through airport security, but the rituals are important in their own rights, and the security, however ill-founded, they provide to us as individuals is deeply meaningful to our experience as feeling, knowing human animals. Maybe, just maybe, if our brains are less filled with the little security anxieties, we might adapt our perceptions of the objective world a bit, so that we may begin to more accurately gauge and respond to those big security threats.
Ultimately, in our time, that “se cura” model of a life without anxiety has to be a myth, an idealized form of heaven on earth, where soon we will be done with the troubles of the world, even as we still live in that world. My brain may be therapeutically broken in the ways that it processes anxiety, but I don’t believe that even the healthiest brains can truly build such elaborate security measures around them to completely preclude them from anxiety either, except perhaps when they are in a state of complete obliteration from chemical or other depressives. Anxiety might even be a form of psychological friction, endemic to the very act of objects/concepts interacting with other objects/concepts and creating heat and energy, without which work cannot be done, physically speaking. Better to harness that heat and deploy it in positive pursuits, rather than denying its very existence, or denigrating those who experience and express it.
Our security rituals and transitional objects might be more meaningful and impactful if they were rooted less in a “se cura” model and more in a “cum minima cura” — with a little anxiety, so we remain mindful, but not paralyzed, attuned, but not hyper-aware, engaged, but not overcome. “Cuminamacurity” isn’t as elegant a word as “Security” in English, but it might be more meaningful one, and a more realistic one for our collective psyches, as we prepare as a species to face challenges and risks that might be collectively greater than any yet put before us.
The little moments remain precious, the little touches remain important, the little objects remain iconic, the little steps remain productive, and on a personal basis, I will pursue and appreciate them as I always have, and they will anchor me, daily, in their comfortable familiarity and emotional warmth. That said, they should not, must not, render me numb to the realities of the world around me, and the real — not imaginary — threats to me and mine, and you and yours, that await there. We must feel at least “cum minima cura” about those realities, to create the friction and heat needed to prepare us to do more than hug fantasias when we’re required to do so by events beyond our individual control. Perhaps that collective sense of edge and unease will serve as the fulcrum upon which change is finally levered, and perhaps that’s the greatest little step than any of can truly take toward building a more secure world for the maximum number of its residents, human or otherwise.
As good as it feels to hug our transitional objects, and as often I’m going to continue to do so, I think I’m also going to try to hug my own anxieties every now and again, if for no other reason than to look at them, understand them a bit better, and maybe decide that they might actually be trying to tell me something that I shouldn’t be hugging away at all.
Note: This is part one of a planned twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this third article complete, I roll the dice again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Nine: “Absurdity.”