Safety, Adventure, and That Time Ryan Held Me.

Contrary to what we’ve been told, safety is the birth place of adventure.

A few months ago I was kickin’ it with my BFF Ryan. He and some friends took my wife and I rock climbing in the canyons of Colorado. We drove on rolling roads until we wound our way through a tunnel and pulled over on a median in the heart of a canyon. We hiked up a hill, gravel slipping under our feet, until we came to where the mountain side met the canyon wall. I looked down, saw my car a tenth its size, and I lost my breath. If I’d slipped from there I’d go tumbling all the way down.

Ryan clipped into the rockface and started climbing while I belayed. After he reached the top he repelled down and I slipped on my rope and harness. I got a foot off the ground when my legs started shaking like a sewing machine’s needle. Stop it. Stop it. What’s wrong with me? I’ve done this before. Stop it. But of course I can’t. I can no more stop shaking than a little girl can stop crying when she wants her momma.

“Hey man. I don’t know what’s going on. But I think I just need to sit in the harness for a minute.” I said.

“Yeah man. No problem. Take as much time as you need.” Ryan replied, and pulled down on his rope, taking the slack out of my rope. I could feel the harness tight around my butt and waist. It was then that I could feel that he had me. I wasn’t going anywhere.

I stood up, attacked the wall and summited it.

That is what safety does. Safety sets you up to have a safe base from which to explore the world. That safe base, which is really just knowing that someone has your back (#bonding), changes everything. Without a sense of safety people feel like they are going crazy.

Here’s what I didn’t know that someone should have told me about safety.

  1. There are set, innate cues of safety. When someone smiles and the muscles around the eyes move, that’s an innate safety cue. When someone’s voice has a melodic quality it’s an innate safety cue. These are signals which allow us to relate socially to other people, which by default calms our bodies (hence helping us feel safe). Safety allows us to come close and begin bonding. This social safety system is the same system — nerves/muscles/brain system — we use for eating BTWs. Which is why we comfort eat. It’s also why when a baby is distressed you can feed her and she’ll stop crying.
  2. In your brain predictability = safety. This is why neutral faced people (#RBF) sometimes freak us out. They aren’t sending out safety signals. When we don’t have safety in the relationship, neutral is dangerous. My friend’s father gets paranoid when he goes to big cities. He’s from a small town where he knows basically everyone. Of course. In his home town things are predictable. He knows the guy at the diner and he knows the lady at the gas station. In big towns he doesn’t know what’s going on. None of the people are familiar and almost none of them smile back. Of course he’s paranoid.
  3. A lack of danger does not equal a sense of safety. Safety cues equal safety. I remember when I was moving from middle school to high school. My parents took me to visit Loyola-Blakefield, an all boys preparatory school.
(Just so we’re clear I did NOT go to this school. It was just too rich.)

Campus was like a European city with cobblestone walkways and Gothic clock towers. At lunch the student guide took me to the cafeteria. The hallway to the cafeteria was lined with cubbies stacked and double stacked with book-bags. I thought, Wow. This is what it’s like to have money. You don’t have to worry about anyone taking your stuff. That is a safety signal.

How different does that feel than schools with gateways guarded by metal detectors, hallways lined with police officers, holsters hugging guns tight to their hips, and chain linked fences looping the perimeter?

I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t have armed police officers in schools. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a fence around a school. I’m saying if you’re going to have a fence you’d better paint it, because lack of danger does not equal a sense of safety and lack of safety drives us crazy.

Once we have this sense of safety, and it is a felt sense (not a cognitive/ thinking process), we can bond. Once we bond we’re bulletproof. Safety is the birthplace of adventure because safety is the prelude to bonding.

Remember none of this is mine. We’ve known it for 20–30 years. It’s just been locked away in academia.

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