Safe Friends

Safety meetings are held frequently in this house. Some would say that is the case for all parents. Others would say that is the case for an over-protective, teensy tinsy bit control-freakish parent. Specifically, we’ve been discussing safety in the context of relationships as they start playing more independently in friend groups, on playgrounds, and soon go off to school. We want them to recognize unsafe behaviors and be courageous to stand up for themselves and talk to us if someone behaves poorly towards them. We want them to choose safe friends. While we aren’t aspiring to raise kids who live in a bubble lined with cashmere, I think all parents could agree that in relationships, safety is vital, no matter how daring and adventurous ones antics may be.   When talking about safe families, friends, and people around us, we usually hit on these points: • safe people speak the truth and avoid lying or gossip. • Safe people respect and care about our hearts and bodies and don’t want us to get hurt, on the outside or on the inside. • Safe people make us laugh and feel happy, but don’t laugh at us or make us feel embarrassed. • When someone makes us feel unsafe, we can respectfully step back from the relationship, but we do not have the right to be unsafe back. • We should carefully choose people who make us feel safe to be our closest friends. (We have more things we discuss in the context of safety from perpetrators, but I’m sticking to everyday encounters here.) And this is maybe the most crucial element of the conversation: • We are all the unsafe one sometimes. We’ve lied, laughed rudely, said words that hurt, or talked when we should be listening. There is no one getting it all right. No, not one. And the person who says something that makes you feel unsafe, but comes later and says, “I shouldn’t have said it, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I care about your feelings. I want to use better words.” And then you see them caring, trying their best at making more respectful choices? Those people? Those people are brave. And they just might end up to be the safest friends of all.

  As is often the case, I find myself wrapping up these sermons and stepping down from my parental pulpit deeply stirred by my own message. (Certainly more moved than my audience.) These child-level conversations start replaying in my head, in adult contexts. I need safety; I want it in my marriage, my friendships, my society. And I am painfully aware that I have been the unsafe person so many times; reactive, quick to judge, angry, defensive, and gossiping. I need the courage to step up and apologize, to listen and learn and use better words.

  What if we made it our global mission to be a safe person? Beyond our close circles, what if we intently set our hearts towards being brave, being kind, being safe, to every human brother and sister we met? To assume that everyone, whatever color or language or class or issue or attitude they presented, was carrying a heavy burden? To assume that everyone could benefit from love? What if we stopped with the judgments and the labels, the assumptions and the indifferences? What if, as white people, and even more so as Christians, we owned our abysmal track record, and said it’s time to turn the tides? We’ve been indifferent and inattentive to our brothers and sisters for too long, but no more.

  What if we committed to the safe friend rules? I think these can apply to every relationship we have. I know I need to put more of them to use in my marriage, towards my girls, in some of my friendships, and to certain individuals in society that I am frankly not too keen on. It all sounds good until we think of that one person, huh? The one Wal-Mart clerk. The one rush hour driver. The one classmate with a unique lifestyle choice. The one west-side apartment complex. But here’s what I know I want people to do for me, and in turn, I owe to others: 1. Discuss someone else’s life with that individual, not to others. It doesn’t feel good to discover you’re the topic of conversation, even if the content wasn’t mean. Gossip doesn’t have to be nasty to be unsafe. 2. Refuse to laugh, respond, or repost jokes and comments that target someone or some group. That someone is some mother’s precious child. That group is someone’s identity they are living every day. I don’t care if they are doing their best or doing their worst at life; criticism, judgment, and mockery are nowhere in our human job description (unless there’s a revised version I haven’t received). 3. Less talking, more listening. If someone has been hurt by a system, a slur, a societal bias, or whatever their source of pain, our job isn’t to explain, correct, or point out their flaws. A safe friend is simply present in the pain. 4. Less talking is good. Silence is not. Speaking from my own, simple story, I have been hurt by gossip and words, but I have been hurt by silence more. On a bigger scale, consider how our silence translates to a populous of people aching under days upon years of complex disadvantages, discriminations, and living on the under belly of white privilege. Our voice may be stuck on silent simply because we’re unsure or removed from a situation. I know mine has been. But inactive silence translates to the wounded as passivity, indifference, and even compliance. It does not rescue the abused, bind up wounds, light up the darkness, or bring good news. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” We don’t have to come up with answers or solutions. Start with “Tell me your story. I want to understand. I care about your pain. How can I be a better friend?”

5. If you have small people under your watch, teach them that differences in humans exist, equip them with respectful terms for our differences, and impress on their minds that differences are beautiful, identities are tender, and jokes and rude terms make insides bleed. Labels, stereotypes, an “us and them” mentality, are all taught. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela


You guys, can you imagine what could happen if we started living like this? If we shut up on gossip and spoke up on behalf of love? If we turned off the assumptions and theories and instead put our ear to the ground, even amidst riots and media outbursts and attitudes that went against our grain, to listen for the pain pounding in every human heart, and simply said, “your story is safe here”? I can imagine it. I think it could change the world.


What do you think? Tell me about your experiences in having or being a safe friend, or share what you've learned from an unsafe relationship.