Our obsession with protecting ourselves makes us less safe. That’s the message from Eve Ensler, who travels the globe to end violence against women.
I am worried about our single-minded focus on security. I see this word, hear this word, feel this word everywhere. Real security. Security check. Security watch. Security clearance. Why has all this focus on security made me feel so much more insecure? What does anyone mean when they speak of security? Why are we suddenly a nation and a people who strive for security above all else? In fact, security is essentially elusive, impossible. We all die. We all get sick. We all get old. People leave us. People surprise us. People change us. Nothing is secure. And this is the good news. But only if you are not seeking security as the point of your life.
Here’s what happens when security becomes the centre of your life. You can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course. You cling desperately to your identity—you become a strict Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. You are an Indian, an Egyptian, an Italian or an American. You are heterosexual or homosexual or you never have sex. At least that’s what you say when you identify yourself. You become part of an us and, in order to be secure, you must defend against them.
You become your nation, you become your religion, you become whatever it is that will freeze you, numb you and protect you from change or doubt. But all this shuts down your mind. In reality, you are not one drop safer. A meteor could fall from the sky, a tsunami could rise up from the sea, someone could fly a plane through your building. All this striving for security has in fact made you much more insecure. Because you must watch out all the time. There are people who are not like you, people you now call enemies. There are places you cannot go, thoughts you cannot think, worlds you can no longer inhabit. So you spend your days fighting things off, defending your territory and becoming more entrenched in your fundamental thinking. Your days become devoted to protecting yourself. This becomes your mission. This is all you do. You find ways to get as much money as you can and food and oil and everything else you need to be safe. You take these things from other people if you have to and devise new ways to do that. You invent security systems to check pockets and IDs and bags. Every object becomes a potential weapon. I travel a lot and every time I am in an airport there is a new security threat—one week it’s tweezers, the next week it’s rubber bands.
Of course now you can no longer feel what another person feels because that might shatter your heart, confuse your basic thinking, destroy the whole structure. Ideas get shorter—they become sound bites. There are evildoers and saviours. Criminals and victims. Those who are not with us are against us. It gets easier to hurt people because you do not feel what’s inside them. It gets easier to lock them up, humiliate them, occupy them, invade them, kill them. They are merely obstacles to your security.
But all of this offers only a false sense of security. Real security means contemplating death, not pretending it doesn’t exist. It means not running from loss, but feeling it, surrendering to sorrow, entering grief.
Real security is not knowing something when you don’t know it.
Real security cannot be bought or arranged or accomplished with bombs. It is deeper. It is a process. It is the acute awareness that we are all utterly interdependent and that one action by one being in one town has consequences everywhere.
Real security is the ability to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity—indeed hungering for these things.
In my life I have defined myself at one time or another as a Feminist, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Vegetarian, an Anti-Nuclear Activist, a Bisexual, a Playwright. I wanted to be included, to be a part of something, to be approved of. I wanted to locate myself, not be lost, avoid messiness, avoid death. All of these identities have protected me from my shadow, my darkness, my sexist/racist impulses, my meat eater, my violence.
As a part of V-Day, an international movement to end violence against women, I have travelled to more than 40 countries and met women and men who through various circumstances—war, poverty, racism, multiple forms of violence—have never known security or have had the illusion of security forever devastated. I have met women who, under the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, lost the right to work or be educated or even see the sky. I have met women with their faces melted off from acid. I have met college girls drugged and raped in fancy U.S. colleges. These particular people, rather than turning violent themselves, have gone into the heart of the pain, the loss. They have grieved and died into it and allowed and encouraged this poison to become medicine. These warriors now devote their lives to making sure that whatever terrible thing happened to them does not happen to anyone else. Because the transformation of suffering rather than their own security is the goal, they are in fact creating real safety for others.
Something happened when I began to travel. I got lost. I became uprooted in time and space. I became a permanently displaced person. At first it was terrifying, not knowing who I was or where I was. Then I realized that we are all essentially displaced people, all of us are refugees, we came from somewhere—and we are hopefully travelling all the time (even if we never leave our rooms), moving toward a new place. Freedom means I may not be identified as part of any one group, but that I can visit and find myself in every group. Freedom does not mean I don’t have values or beliefs. But it does mean I am not hardened around them. I do not use them as weapons.
Freedom means not being owned, not occupied, not bought.
Freedom means finding the place in me that connects with every person I meet rather than thinking of myself as different, better or on top.
It means opening my heart to my granddaughter’s little perfect fingers, taking in the fragility, the tenderness there, the potential loss.
It means feeling what the suicide bombers must have been feeling at the same moment I am grieving those who died in the bombing.
Believing there is a power determining everything at the same moment I know there is absolutely no one in charge.
Feeling angry at my teenage son for doing the opposite of what I suggested at the same moment I marvel at his independence.
Freedom is not knowing where you are but being deeply there.
Not waiting for someone to save or rescue you or heal your terrible past but doing that for yourself.
Not putting your flag in the ground.
Being willing to get lost.
Living without borders and passports.
Freedom is about being vulnerable to one another, realizing that our ability to connect is more important than feeling secure, in control and alone.
Eve Ensler is an American writer, most well-known for her performance work The Vagina Monologues, V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls, and her upcoming national tour of “The Good Body (www.thegoodbody.org). This text is adapted from a talk she gave at the TED: Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Oxford, England last July.