We want life to be secure as much as we want our plans and expectations to work out. We want to live happily-ever-after. We want to decide how we want it to be, figure out how to make it happen that way, and then if we get it the way we like it, we want it to stay that way forever. We want life to conform to our wishes, to make us happy, and to protect us from human suffering. In the end, we want life to protect us from itself, and the idea of security offers us that false consolation.
The story of an old lady's preparations for the supposed Y2K computer calamity provides an excellent illustration of the false consolation of security. From what I was told, this crotchety ninety-two-year-old widow named Druria became panicked that Y2K would destroy our planet and that she would freeze and starve to death in her Arizona home. She took all of her life's savings and poured it into electric generators, water pumps for a well she had dug on her property, windmills, a three year supply of grains, dehydrated and canned foods, a wood stove and two years supply of wood, a short-wave radio and solar panels. By the time Y2K arrived, she had died of cancer.
The illusion of security is one of the reasons for the obvious failure of the American dream. The idea being that if you pay off a house (or at least have a solid mortgage), pay off your nice car (or at least have a payment plan), get your kids off to college (hopefully without a student loan), have good health insurance (the price of which is skyrocketing by the year), and have a happy marriage (maybe a twenty-five percent chance if we are going to be generous), then you will be happy once and for all (that is, until you get old, sick, and die).
Security & Happiness: Are They Connected?
Yet, there is clearly very little correlation between that degree of security and happiness. Most people who have all those things aren't genuinely happy, though they may certainly feel a certain freedom from the fear of material insecurity, whereas many of the people who are happy or content do not have security in one or many of these areas. The point is not only that security is not secure -- we all know that seemingly favorable circumstances can change on a dime -- but that security does not provide us with the qualities of satisfaction that we insist upon imagining that it will. It is by coming to terms with this that we actually succeed, for we learn to be secure in something entirely different than what we imagined would provide us with safety.
We want security, among other reasons, because we don't want to die. Death is one of the most common and natural human concerns. Though many people hesitate to dwell upon this fact, human beings are generally terrified of death -- even most of those who insist they aren't. In the back of our minds, we always know that the "I" that we know ourselves to be will be extinguished, "exterminated by God," some might say, and nothing we can do will prevent that.
Trying to Create Something Permanent
Yet, we insist on trying to create something permanent -- seduced by some notion of living forever, of not aging. Our whole culture is based on the preservation of youth, the conquering of natural forces; and the creation of symbols of immortality that will never be achieved in reality
Have you ever noticed how silly it looks when a ninety-year-old woman has her hair died blond and wears too much makeup? Or when all the wrinkles that are supposed to be on her face aren't there because of a sixteenth face-lift? She appears almost as a billboard advertising the rejection of death. Similarly, natural disasters are known for opening people up and creating communion in the short term, but almost immediately afterwards (especially in the Western industrialized countries) such disasters are followed by an indomitable effort to create stronger infrastructures, thicker buildings, better protection, more security and a certain denial.
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Survival is the primary instinct of the human organism and underlies the intensity of our drive for increasing layers of personal security. Countless are the wartime stories in which neighbors steal from one another, disclosing information that will lead to each other's imprisonment or death, and even murder one another when it comes down to a situation of "kill or be killed." The mother's protective survival instinct is common to most mammals, and is as ancient as humanity. And every mother and most fathers know very well the panic they feel, often for the first time in their lives, when they suddenly find a vulnerable, helpless young life in their hands.
Circle of Survival
Our "circle of survival" also extends wider than our own bodies. Thus the apparent acts of generosity or service to those around us may not always be as altruistic as they seem. When counseling clients, I hear story after story of individuals who have been badly manipulated, emotionally, by parents who insisted they were only thinking of the child's best interest (i.e., the mother who smothered, overprotected and over-adored her son).
Our first line of survival may be our own bodies, but quickly after that comes that of our spouses, children, extended families, community, and our state and country. All of these individuals and groups are seen as an extension of ourselves and necessary to fulfill our own needs for security and survival, and thus we have a vested interest in tending to their survival as a roundabout means of insuring our own. Certainly it is natural to want security and well-being for ourselves and our environment, and do everything in our power to ensure it, but security will fail, and when it does it is helpful to know just what is failing and why it may affect us as strongly as it does.
We also want life to be secure so that we and our loved ones don't have to suffer. Nobody wants to suffer, and there are things we can do to create more apparent security and thus less apparent suffering in our lives. On a physical level we can work hard, make money, buy a nice house, take vacations, for example. Mentally we can learn to think positively or cultivate intelligence that will allow us to make educated choices. Emotionally we can work to create satisfying relationships, or utilize the help of a therapist to feel more whole within ourselves and learn to be kinder to ourselves. Yet none of these approaches is going to save us from the guaranteed but unexpected curveballs that life promises to throw. The couple down the street from me just gave birth to a retarded child. One of my friends was diagnosed with colon cancer. My client's sweet older brother was shot in the gut by the police while robbing someone. And even short of such extremes, daily life circumstances continually bring us disappointment and suffering, continually undermining our sense of surety.
Of course there is a price to pay for creating a life and a world in which we attempt to incur the least amount of suffering possible. Since suffering is part of the natural balance of things, if we create too much manufactured comfort we imbalance the system. We pay for our comfort through a distortion of the naturalness of life, and thus end up with a life or a culture that is indisputably comfortable, but superficial to the point of lacking depth and dimension. Many people cringe at the dirtiness or the poverty or the crowded living conditions in some parts of a country like Mexico or Burma, and yet there is an organic quality of naturalness and humanness in these cultures that is hard to deny. Many Mexican or Burmese people may endure greater physical discomforts on a daily basis, but it is unconvincing to suggest that they as human beings suffer any more than we in the West do in spite of our relative "security."
Why Do We Really Want Security?
Security and its accompanying image of physical, intellectual, and emotional comfort only symbolize freedom from hardship, from struggling, from uneasiness. I say "symbolize" because a symbol is a representation for something else. Outer and imagined security, though real in and of itself, is a symbol for an inner longing to rest in That which is truly deathless, unchanging and ultimately Secure. The inner perception of security we derive based on external experiences and circumstances can be reassuring and comforting, but it is as temporary as the duration of the situation that created it.
We must also ask ourselves what it is that we really suffer about. There is a relative form of suffering that is very real -- heartbreak, poor health, difficult circumstances, hurt feelings. But there is also another kind of suffering going on, which we could call the suffering of our separation from God/Truth, from ourselves, from the fullness of our humanity. We often do backbends in order to create a security to protect us from one kind of suffering and hardship, when what we are truly suffering about has to do with something altogether different.
Insisting upon security can easily lead to an inner deadening as well as great and small degrees of self-compromise and self-abandonment. Such is the circumstance of my cousin the wealthy lawyer. He feels he has missed out on what he really wants to do in life, but can't stand either the thought of having to forgo any aspect of his comfortable lifestyle, or his wife's reaction if he did! He also can't admit to their obviously failed marriage. Both he and his wife are too afraid to risk loneliness or the unknown, and so they remain within the walls of the same house, maintaining security "on paper," but unable to rest in the shelter of real love or communion.
Giving Up Security: What Do You Have to Lose?
Many people value and prioritize security over and against endless other possibilities in life, and they do this on all levels. They keep the bad job, or the unhealthy living situation, or the alcohol or drug addiction, or the neurotic psychology (for even that is secure), or the distant relationship with God/Truth, in favor of risking the possibility of losing what little they have in their pursuit of something greater.
If we give up the bad job, we might be unemployed, or even homeless, or we might starve to death . . . or we might end up with a brilliant work situation and a career totally unforeseen to us previously.
If we give up the drug addiction, we are certainly going to be left with the morass of underworld feelings that we used it to protect, but we might also experience a great depth within ourselves as well as a quality of freedom previously unknown to us as a result of passing through those difficult emotions.
If we give up our neurotic psychology -- and we do have a choice about that -- we may not know who we are and feel tremendously vulnerable and exposed, but we might also find fullness, health and harmony in our lives.
And if we stop fighting God/Truth, we may indeed lose control of our lives (for that is what we are so afraid of), but we chance allowing a life of Truth itself, whatever the consequences may be.
Of course the need to risk our clinging to security should not be confused with ignoring the Sufi proverb "Have faith in God but tie your camels first." To use the failure of security as an excuse for foolish and unnecessary risks is just another psychospiritual excuse for our own lack of responsibility. Then again, sometimes we might have to risk making a dumb mistake just to see what will happen, just for the experience of risking itself.
Security: Freedom from Wanting & Craving?
We further turn to security because it represents the freedom from wanting and craving. The days of our lives are comprised of unfulfilled desires. Whether we want ice cream, more love in our marriage, nicer hair, a better life, a different life, or a cup of coffee, we are always wanting. When we finally have something that is secure, we are temporarily relieved from wanting it. We finally "capture" the man or woman we desired, or secure the job we had been after, or shed the twenty pounds we have spent half of our adult life trying to lose.
Unfortunately, even when we create something relatively secure (of course we could always lose the man, the job, or regain the weight), if we look at all closely we see that this achievement only gives way to the next set of desires. We got a good job, but now we want more money for it, or to not work in such an emotionally unhealthy environment. We get the man or woman we craved, and suddenly discover many aspects of them that we feel anything but craving for. Or we keep the twenty pounds off, but our attention turns to the kink in our nose, or ten years goes by and that thin body starts to sag and wrinkle.
The imagined security of fulfilling our desires will fail because the nature of desire is that it is self-breeding. It is not that we should quell our desires, for they are forces of tremendous power and creativity, but we can cease to look to them as a source of security, as they will definitely falter in that regard, and instead look toward what else remains when our relationship to both security and desire fails us.
The Fear of the Unknown
We turn to security because we fear the unknown. The unknown -- however we choose to call it -- is what we came from and is our inevitable destiny, but we are afraid of it because by definition it is exactly that! We do not know what the unknown will bring. This is a difficult predicament for human beings. The whole arena of our lives is ultimately insecure, and yet this fact is so disconcerting and unnerving that we do everything in our power to create boxes and segments within the arena of life that will provide some sort of reliability and protection. The problem with favoring security over the unknown is that security limits us. We may in fact find some security within the boxes or walls that we create, but then our experience becomes imprisoned within those confines.
As an example of the boxes we create, I was recently discussing the limitations of certain kinds of psychological work with a therapist and colleague of mine. She immediately became teary and defensive and expounded upon the sacredness of the individual healing process, the spiritual value of psychological work, and on and on. She was offended that I, a colleague in the field, would dare to suggest the limitations of our shared work. Whereas there was nothing inherently wrong with what she said, the box of security that she had created -- in this case one labeled "psychological work is healing and always valuable" -- was so important to her in terms of finding security in her work that she needed to protect it at all costs, including the price of an open-minded consideration of the limitations of her career.
When we open to the unknown, we risk discovering that we were wrong, and perhaps losing face, either to ourselves or to those around whom we have tried to keep up a proud front. We may see that we have been moving for years or decades in a direction that was based on our own fears, or our own misguided beliefs, or even our own prejudices or compromised or limited perspectives. We may be embarrassed or feel humiliated by the smallness of our vision when staring in the face of what was previously unimaginable. In relationship to others, daring to move into the unknown may create friction or even rejection. Many a priest has been excommunicated for expounding upon issues of the spirit in a language unfamiliar to the church, and more than one of us has at least temporarily lost a friend, family member or job through attempting to expand the previous boundaries.
Whereas we all know and intuit that the unknown holds secrets and possibilities foreign to and beyond our present experience, we unconsciously think that if we allowed ourselves to access it, it might overwhelm us, consume us or kill us. And in some sense it will, but we imagine it will mean physical death instead of the destruction of the boxes and walls we have created to protect ourselves. It is true that what was once secure may now become insecure, but of course we must ask ourselves how secure it (whatever "it" may be) was in the first place, and what that security was based on.
When we recognize that our lives are essentially insecure in spite of the relative security that we attempt to create, then we need to decide what to do about that fact. Our options appear to be as follows: 1) we can deny the fact of the failure of security and pretend that everything is going along just fine and will continue to do so; 2) we can tolerate the insecurity; 3) we can turn toward and rest in the insecurity; 4) we can welcome the insecurity.
In terms of the first option, to deny the fact of insecurity, which is a popular option, we are welcome to do this as long as we are able to. If we are lucky (or unlucky, we could equally say) then we can live our relatively happy lives and suffer our inevitable deaths in denial, unaware that we have compromised our lives for something that will in the end turn to dust.
The second option is to tolerate the insecurity. Here we have opened our eyes to see that things are often not as they seem, or at least are unlikely to stay that way, and so we queasily endure our situation. If we are enjoying our circumstance at the moment, we do so with the trepidation of waiting for it to change on a moment's notice, and if we are unsatisfied, we nervously wait to see if it might get better or even a little worse.
Most us relate to insecurity with tolerance. We move along trying not to get swept away in our worries of, "What if this?" "What if that?" We sometimes make choices too hastily that may not be the right ones, in order to avoid having to rest in an unknown option, or cover up our feelings of insecurity with busyness, work, or any other form of distraction. Insecurity can be extremely uncomfortable and so it is understandable that we lack tolerance for it.
If we are lucky we find ourselves willing to rest in insecurity. Sometimes the lack of certainty or security in some significant area of our lives forces us to learn to rest in uncertainty. The worrying may become so exhausting that we are forced to take refuge within the current situation of incertitude. Maybe our husband or wife has been experiencing ambivalence in our marriage for a long time and we have no choice but to find some joy within ourselves and within our lives as they are, in spite of the uncertain outcome of our primary relationship. Or maybe we have a terminal disease and we must find our peace within the knowledge that our lives might be taken from us at any time (which is always true anyway). Even if things are going along relatively fine, there is almost always some element of life that will not allow us to rest at ease unless we make a point of finding respite in spite of circumstance. The act of resting in insecurity involves an internal shift toward the direction of the perceived source of our insecurity so that we are not always attempting to push it away, instead allowing it to take its place among all the other elements of our lives
Lastly, there exists the remote possibility of welcoming insecurity. Whereas in the act of resting in insecurity we allow it to be there, when we welcome it we embrace it fully as an invited guest that has something valuable to offer us. The few who are willing to embrace uncertainty in their lives are those who fully appreciate the fact that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, life as we know it is essentially unstable. They know that the way to live fully is by engaging wholly in relationship with the lack of security that life promises them.
One of the valuable gifts of the lack of security is that it keeps us awake (or at least wakes us up from time to time!) to the reality of the laws of life, death and change. Insecurity is the worldly reminder of the law of change: all things are transitory, and all things will change form and die.
If we are committed to living fully, and willing to ongoingly take the necessary risks to do so, the failure of security serves as a constant and welcome reminder of the reality of our own death and thus the necessity and urgency to live our lives as we are situated today and in this moment. Since we are easily lulled to sleep by what is too comfortable and too safe, the large and small moments when insecurity visits us remind us that indeed we cannot depend on any circumstance, situation, idea or even mental construct to provide us with lasting satisfaction.
The secret of the failure of conventional security is that it has the potential to push, or even force, us to rest in a wholly different domain of security. There are many names for, and degrees of, what we might call a higher security -- God, the True Self, the Universe, Essence -- but whatever we call it, there is one thing that is secure and will not fail us, even if it cannot be captured, held, or even seen. We need to become aware of That, and make that our source of security.
I will make no attempt to define God or Truth here, as to do so would more than likely only confuse or limit the reader. Yet, most people intuit that there is some force at the source of our existence, and I believe that we have the option to trust -- or even to leap with blind faith into -- a confidence that there is an Intelligence to that source that is guiding us toward Itself. To trust doesn't mean that we don't also try our best to do our part in aligning with that source, or that we blindly throw ourselves into risky situations. To trust involves taking some refuge in that force, and in ourselves as an aspect of that force.
When we trust in the universe, or rest in the unknown, and open ourselves to the full insecurity of how that manifests itself on a worldly level, we are saying to the universe that we are willing to allow it to give us what it will. We are placing our security in the unknown rather than in the known. Obviously this is far more easily said than done, and in fact may be entirely impossible to will ourselves to do of our own accord, but we can make noble gestures in that direction.
And, if we cannot or do not wish to trust in the security of God or the Universe, at least we can effort to accept life as it is. Since insecurity is what is real and true about life, we take life on its own terms because we want to experience life as it as and not as we are trying to force it to be. Our security comes from the fact that we are alive, and that in this moment life is just what it is -- neither secure nor insecure on an essential level. Since security has failed, we take what is offered and find our contentment therein.
©2001. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Hohm Press. www.hohmpress.com
The Way of Failure: Winning Through Losing
by Mariana Caplan.
In this straight-talking, inspirational view of failure, Marianna Caplan unmasks it for what it really is: She tells us how to meet failure on its own field, how to learn its twists and turns, its illusions and its realities. Only then, she advises, is one equipped to engage failure as a means of ultimate winning, and in a way that far exceeds our culturally-defined visions of success. This book offers a direct means of using failure for: profound self-understanding; increased compassion for self and others; significant spiritual development. Instead of speaking to where we should be, this book looks to our lives as they are now, realistically -- since everybody has experienced failure in big or small ways at some time or another in life. The book deals with a subject most people consider negative or depressing, but it is actually highly inspirational, giving us permission to find joy and contentment within failure.
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About the Author
MARIANA CAPLAN is the author of five books, including the acclaimed Halfway Up the Mountain, which explores the dangerous nature of premature claims to "enlightenment." She has written for Parabola, Kindred Spirit and Communities Magazine, and teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.
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