I have been thinking, lately, about the absence and presence of safety nets, and about what happens when people feel–or know–that nothing stands between them and ruination.
I think about this: Mark worked for a judge during the law school years, and a capital case landed on the docket. A young man in his early twenties and his friend decided they would rob a crack house. But, in the house, at the time of their robbery, was an assortment of visiting relatives, including a two year old baby and a preteen. The robbers lined up the people assembled there, and they systematically shot them before making off with what didn’t amount to very much cash.
By some miracle, most of those they shot lived, but the baby and the preteen died. It was a horrible, senseless, tragic crime.
There was no doubt of identity. The men were caught; their trials came swiftly, and the verdict of guilty was clear. But then the sentencing hearings began. Ohio is a capital punishment state, so the judge would have to consider the death penalty. People came forward–people from the young man’s life–and they said he’d never had a chance. He’d grown up in poverty and chaos and neglect. They said he should be punished, yes, but you must look, they pleaded, at where he came from. He should be punished; of course he should be punished. But, the people who knew him argued, he should not be killed.
At the same time, in one of those weird confluences, my book club was reading Gregory Williams’ memoir, Life on the Color Line. Williams’ childhood had all the same elements of chaos and neglect and poverty as the young killer’s. Yet Williams went on to get an education, form a family, lead a respected college.
Why did one man become a killer and the other a college president? Their circumstances were eerily similar. Of course, people are different–they bring different DNA, different personal structure, to the business of living–but dire circumstances might produce the same results, regardless. Could it be because, as imperfect as his father was, Williams always knew that the man provided a safety net between him and the pavement? His safety net might have been tattered, flawed, and filthy, but nevertheless–if Williams fell, he knew there was one soul who would try his best to catch him.
The record showed that the other young man didn’t have that. Never had that.
What happens when there’s no net, not even a bad one? Can people survive and thrive when there’s no safe harbor where they can rest easy?
JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, starts his book by writing about memorizing his address as a small child. If he needed help, he could tell a grown-up where he lived. “Still,” he writes, “I always distinguished ‘my address’ from ‘my home.’ My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmother’s house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky.”
Vance’s book details his childhood years, and the fact that, no matter how bad things got, he knew he had a fall-back: he could go to his grandparents in Jackson. There was a safe harbor whenever he needed it. (And, reading the book, it turns out he needed it, that refuge, quite a bit.)
Obviously, Vance succeeded–he went on to enlist in the service and then to attend Ohio State University and to graduate from Yale Law School. He thrives in spite of troubled beginnings.
Others, of course, do not. What makes the difference?
There are times in life (and one of those times, come to think of it, is all of childhood) when we need to know that someone has our backs: that we are taken care of, and that we do not need to worry.
We need to know that there is (and will be) food, and that we have (and will have) clean, appropriate clothes that fit. We need to know, when we use the last translucent square of toilet paper, that there are plenty more rolls in the cabinet. And we need to know, when our teacher tells us we all have to chip in two dollars for the field trip, that the two dollars will come easily to hand.
We need to know that the same important people will be at home at the end of the day; we need to know where home is, and where it will be tomorrow.
We need to know that someone cares, someone watches out, and some one sees if we are hurting. That someone sees the hurt, and that someone knows a way to help.
We need to know, when we are tempted to risk and to dare, that someone will catch us, if needed. We need someone who whispers as we venture, “Don’t worry. Go on ahead. I GOT you.”
This feeling of safe harbor is so important, so fundamental, that we have a burgeoning literature and filmography based on it. There are the stories of children, abandoned and left to their own devices, who find homes and people who care. Think of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden–the story of a dislikable orphan who finds a passion and a purpose and a posse of people who care about her. Think of Anne, another scrawny orphan who finds herself an unlikely but wonderful family at Green Gables.
Safe harbor is the theme of Kathryn Forbes’ Mama’s Bank Account. This mama, a Norwegian immigrant in 1920’s San Francisco, tells her children, when adversity arises, that they COULD go downtown and take out some money of the savings account she keeps at a big bank. But first, she’ll say, let’s see if we can think of some other way to handle this emergency–to handle it and let that stash of money grow a little more. They always come up with ingenious solutions. They send the oldest boy, Nels, to high school by clever scrimping and economizing, without having to access the savings. Mama trades labor and her husband’s carpentry skills for emergency necessities. She gives up her own needs–a warm coat, for example,–and she makes sure the kids have all that is necessary for a life in which they feel secure.
Of course, there is no bank account, but the children, believing there is plenty of money should some REAL catastrophe burst upon them, sleep securely at night. They’re protected. They’re cared for. They know their parents–their wise and giving and resourceful parents–have their backs.
We have film parents building this safe sensibility in more perilous situations than Mama’s 1920’s poverty. In the Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner, Sr., makes sure Chris, Jr., feels safe, and is physically cared for, even when they are homeless. Chris, Sr., battles his way into an exclusive financial course that will help him launch a career and turn their lives around; he does this while living in shelters. And in Life is Beautiful, Guido Orefice, a Jewish-Italian book shop owner, goes to a concentration camp with his son, Giosue’, and for the whole of their stay, makes sure the boy feels safe… believing that their camp sojourn is an elaborate game with complex rules and rewards for following them.
Imagine building a safe harbor in that kind of excruciating circumstance.
Safe harbors have components.
There is the feeling of financial safety–knowing that the bills will be paid, and the lights will stay on. That this house will be home all of this year, and probably next. There is money (or insurance) to pay the doctor, the dentist.
There is the feeling of substantial safety–that someone looks after the substance of life. There is soup in the pantry and bread in the bread box and dinner on the table. The toothpaste doesn’t run out, and, in the morning, the drawer is full of clean, neatly folded clothes. Linens are washed and floors are swept, and someone has breakfast foods on hand for us. Days have order and predictability punctuated by exciting times of breaks and holidays.
There is the feeling of emotional safety–a guarantee that the safe person will be there at the end of the day, unchanging in their love and care.
I remember visiting the home of a woman–call her Eva–who wanted to learn English many years ago. I was working, in a small industrial city, for a literacy organization, and Eva wanted a language tutor. Eva’s home was in a troubled section of that town; there were houses falling down and trash cans rolling and slouched and shabbily dressed people moving slowly up the sidewalks. But in Eva’s house, there was cleanliness, quiet, and calm.
When we visited, she offered, with a kind of quiet dignity, glasses of ice water, which we sipped at her kitchen table. The room was spare. The furniture was limited. There was, as far as I could see, no television. But on the kitchen wall hung three brand new dish towels emblazoned with teddy bears.
I admired the towels, and Eva said, “For the children.” She showed me their pictures, three solemn-eyed boys, the youngest three, the oldest six. She made me understand that her learning English was for the boys, too.
She was creating an oasis for those boys, Eva was, amidst the chaos and risks of the new life and the uncertain neighborhood. She was creating a haven, a place of strength. The feeling of safety was palpable. Eva was determined her boys would have a safe harbor.
Many lucky children have all of these things: financial safety, the assurance of necessities being on hand, the knowledge that someone is there, always, to help them sort out their feelings and fears. Some are missing one of those components, but, with their families, they muddle through.
Some don’t have any of the safe harbor components, and those floundering children struggle.
Some find safe places.
School can be that place for some–sadly, not for all,– for those who are bullied and abused, spurned and ignored.
I knew a teacher many, many years ago whose student had hygiene issues because of a tough home life. That student had behavior issues, too, and life in the classroom was not fun. The teacher, working with her administrator, had the student come in early, provided soap and shampoo, towels and clean clothes, and sent the child into the locker room to shower. The teacher stood watch outside the door. There was enough for the student to deal with, she felt, without being mocked and scorned for things she couldn’t control.
That teacher provided one pillar of a safe harbor for a troubled, struggling kid.
There are wonderful programs that provide after-school tutoring and hot meals (sometimes cooked by the kids themselves) and kind and caring mentors and safety from the streets.
Many people flock to the public library. Homeless folks find refuge there, and people with mental illness find quiet places to sit unmolested and read or visit. People without Internet access find computers to use. Children find programs that encourage a love of literature and provide creative outlets and join groups where, even if they are on the fringes in other forums, they can fit in and belong.
There are therapists and counselors to help those with disabilities and emotional illness.
There are street gangs that guarantee a sense of family and protection.
There are drugs and drinks that help untethered young persons forget their nervousness and fear.
Not all harbors are safe for long.
The United States is a country that teaches that anyone–any child, given the good chance of a solid education and the right mentors, given opportunities and discernment and direction,–that ANY child can, and should, grow up to be a success.
But do we make sure the safe harbors are there for those–children, teens, adults at risk–who need them? I don’t think we do; at least, I don’t think we provide that all the time.
I know this is simplistic. I have more questions than answers. I fear that burgeoning bureaucracy makes it hard for one person to help another, especially a person entrenched in the system. There are lines and borders, and there are walls, short and tall.
But there are consequences for allowing people to exist without fallbacks, with no safety nets. A person sputters and fails. They are lonely. They are disengaged, disenfranchised. Sometimes, crime and violence, addiction and illness result.
So I ask myself, What can I do? And this is a real question, not merely a hypothetical one. Where are answers found? What has worked?
How, in a world increasingly partitioned, can we provide safe harbors for those that need them?
I would love to hear your thoughts.