— 21 April 2007 —

Safety Is A Byproduct, Not Something To Be Sought

Note: I started writing this a week ago and just finished it today. I needed some time for things to sink in. In the end, this post is part eulogy, part to-do list. Hopefully reading everything after this sentence will make the preceding sentence make sense.


There are only three things I need to be in life and safe isn’t one of them. Well, not directly at least.

Maslow aside, for the moment, my base actions (those that drive all interactions in life) need to be informed only by strength, confidence, and wisdom. If I have those things lined up, everything else just falls into place. Don’t believe me?

This anecdote is for parents and children, and contains wild generalizations. Chances are you fall into one of those categories and as such will be able to identify. No bonus points for belonging to both categories. Sorry.

Every parent, assuming they are not deranged, wants their child to be safe. But when pressed, most parents will have other aspirations for the wee ones. They want you to be successful (whatever that means in any given moment). They want you to be kind. They may even want you to be president (of something). But in order to be successful and kind and president you need to be strong and have confidence (in yourself and others) and wisdom. Whether it’s inherited, learned, or borrowed you need wisdom most of all.

Strength will give you a measure of success. Physical, mental, sexual — it’s all based on strength. It’s what gets you out of bed when you need to.

Confidence is what keeps you going — keeps you out of bed when all you want to do is sleep. Yeah, you’d think that’d be strength but its confidence that gets you believing you can keep going even if it is just a little bit further.

Wisdom (yeah you see this one coming) — it helps you climb back into bed because you know it’s time to build that strength back up.

Once you get these things up and running, even at half power, safety comes naturally. Strength to fight for what you need. Confidence to know you’ll get it or give it. Wisdom to know when you’ve done enough.

As a parent, I’ve spent the better part of the last six years making sure Sagan grows up in a safe environment. And I am beginning to think I’ve done her a disservice.

I can cloth her, shelter her, and feed her (welcome back Maslow) but that just keeps her alive. While there is an amount of safety provided, she doesn’t need me to give that to her. She needs me to show her what strength can mean. That it can mean taking and, if you have enough strength, it can mean giving. I need to let her explore; to help her build confidence in her self, for herself, and in others. I need to allow her inherent wisdom, for she has oodles, the room to work. What other wisdom she needs in the world will come to her when she needs it.

She doesn’t really need safety. Seeking safety in of itself is generally fueled by fear. Fear that diminishes strength, cowers confidence, and makes you oblivious to your own wisdom.

Safety Doesn’t Bring the Love

I sat by my mother for many hours during the four days I was in Alaska last week. There was no doubt she was dying, though I was willing to be proved wrong on that point. As it turned out, she died three days after I left.

While I was there, she seemed to stabilize into a relatively comfortable sleep. She’d open her eyes now and again. She’d respond to questions sometimes from my dad, her brother, the hospice nurses, and her friends who shifted their lives (someone was with her essentially 24 hours a day for the final week of her life) in order to share their strength with her.

But she didn’t seem to respond to me.

For the first few hours after I arrived, I was afraid she didn’t know I was there. But I realized she had enough going on and my need for recognition was just that: my need. I realized that need was being driven by fear, so I let it go.

I let her do what she needed to do. Sleep, cough, and be taken care of by family and friends. I was there only to make sure she had the opportunity to find the strength to allow her body the comfort it needed. I had to give her the opportunity to find confidence to accept help from others who expected nothing in return. However, I didn’t know if I could, or even if it was my place, to give her the wisdom to let go. But thinking about it made me understand that it is my place to offer that wisdom. But I know, and say here without trite, that my mom was already wise enough to know when to let go.

The Most Important Gift and The Blue Plate Special

It’s still my responsibility to see that Sagan eats when she is hungry and drinks when she is dry, as it were. But that’s just the busy work of being a parent. The real job is giving her what she needs to succeed and thrive. And I need to do it before I am lying in an adjustable bed, relying on people to turn me so as I don’t get too sore.

I am not, at all, saying that my mom waited until this past week to teach me anything. She and my dad taught me many things since 1971. Sometimes I wonder though why I am not further along in the realm of thriving. Why am I so continuously focused on finding safety? Apparently, what’s actually happened is that I’ve spent the last 35+ years in bed with Maslow (and yes, he spoons). Part of the responsibility for that does rest with my parents (as it will for me with Sagan), but the responsibility also rests with me.

I’m lucky though. I wrote last week that at every step of this trip to Alaska I wanted someone to tell me it was okay to just stay home. I am glad I didn’t. Had I stayed home, I would have missed my mom’s final gift to me.

She gave me the opportunity to wake up just enough to be curious about what she was saying while she lay there asleep. Get out of bed. Thrive. Sleep when you need it. There’s no reason to act like you are dying when you aren’t. There’s no reason your child should see you sleeping so much and come, inevitably, to the conclusion that life must be so.

I suspect that with the aforementioned 35+ years of practice it will take me a while to wipe all the sleep from my eyes. For so long, it’s felt like those people who’ve cared about and for me have been waiting. I suspect they’ve been waiting for me to get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, eat and drink when I need it, and join them in the Waking.

It will be difficult. Difficult as things get when you’re not completely awake. You forget so easily what you are supposed to be doing. Sleep, after all, is pure safety.

But as my mom lay in that bed, sleeping, mostly not moving, she was still strong enough to give me just the right amount of kick or shake to get me curious about what’s been going on all around me. You know… life. A life of wonderful wife and daughter. A life of Web 2.0 startups before the web was ready for 2.0. A life of speaking engagements. A life of writing about usability and design once in a while. A life of climbing, kayaking, roasting, and motorcycles. A life of taking and of giving.

So. If life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving, let me ask you, Matthew: would you rather put forth a small amount of effort (for everything in life begins with a small amount of effort) and fill your plate, or do you want to be a poor sucker?

Yeah… me too. Thanks, Mom.

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