I recently visited a new casino in Atlantic City with a friend, and we passed a large, imposing door labeled “Security.”
I told my friend I wanted to go in.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, see that attractive woman sitting by herself? I would love to ask her to have a drink with me, but I’m feeling a little insecure. So I wonder if the people in the security office could help me!”
I really would’ve loved to have done it, just to see the expression on their faces. I didn’t because, well, I was feeling a bit insecure, remember?
“Security” has become the holy grail of our times. In our quest, we seek both the kind of security offered by the security office – protection from external threats – and the kind of security I really wanted – protection from internal anxiety.
Our pursuit of external security began well before 9/11. In Behind the Gates, environmental psychologist Setha Low says that over the last 20 years, gated communities have become the fastest-growing housing type in the nation.
But gated communities are only a small part of our pursuit of security. We have just created a massive bureaucracy in Washington dedicated exclusively to homeland security. The Patriot Act is about security. So are burglar alarms and most gun purchases. So is insurance. For my security, I carry homeowner’s insurance, car insurance, malpractice insurance, health insurance, and can get a guaranteed life insurance anytime, though I’m saving that for a little later in life. I even have umbrella insurance, which insures me in case my insurance doesn’t insure me enough!
Think of what we do for and to our children in the name of their future security – security from poverty, from violence, from worry. We make great sacrifices to live in the right communities with the right schools to enable them to get into the right colleges so that they can be secure.
Since the ’50s and white flight to the suburbs, many home purchases have been influenced by this quest for security. Now, even our choice of cars is driven by security. Think about all of the enormous vehicles on the road whose owners say: “I know it’s a gas-guzzler, but I just feel more secure in my SUV.”
Security is like happiness. The more fervently we pursue it, the more elusive it becomes.
Parents are pursuing the right schools, and children are pursuing that same dream, yet we are feeling less secure than ever. Depression is up in the suburbs, substance abuse has not diminished, we are buying more guns, building more walls, and becoming more isolated – all symptoms of insecurity.
As Setha Low discovered in her research, the vigilance it takes to maintain security in gated communities actually heightens residents’ anxiety and insecurity. Why, despite this great investment of time and money, is our insecurity getting worse?
Now, before you start drafting your angry e-mail about my softheaded naivete, I understand there are real threats in our world and that we have to do everything we can within reason to protect ourselves. There are people who are desperate or impaired or so blinded by dogma or desperation that they could do us great harm. I also understand it is our evolutionary imperative to care for the well-being of our children.
Often, we pursue security on the outside when what we really want is security on the inside.
It is our nature as human beings to seek safety. Babies who don’t have a safe and secure environment in their early years often grow up to have psychological and physical problems.
As we grow, the pursuit of security continues. It is fairly typical for adolescents to feel insecure. They begin to realize that they are not quite like their parents, or like their friends. Their bodies are changing, as is their thinking.
For adolescents, insecurity is almost inevitable. The critical question is how they cope with it. Some talk about their feelings, some use the insecurity for motivation, and some use drugs and sex to cope with those feelings.
Like our teens, we, too, are insecure. So how do we cope? First, we must understand that insecurity can never be eliminated. And sometimes insecurity can lead to good things. Whenever a person looks another in the eye and says “I am frightened” or “I feel insecure,” tension seems to evaporate.
The kind of security I playfully talked about in the casino is the kind of security we feel when we are comfortable inside our skin. When we feel we are with people who understand and care about us. The kind of security we want frequently comes from human contact. But our efforts to eliminate our insecurity don’t work because they increasingly isolate us. Isolation leads to anxiety, not safety.
I’m not suggesting we drive unsafe cars or cancel our insurance policies or cast our fate to the winds. But like it or not, insecurity can never be eliminated. Insecurity is an emotion that feels intolerable. If we look behind the walls, guns, burglar alarms and SUVs, we might discover insecurity is one of the things we all have in common.