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The Dangers of Safety

In his essay "Faulkner and Desegregation," James Baldwin writes:

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges. All men have gone through this, go through it, each according to his degree, throughout their lives. It is one of the irreducible facts of life.”

I having been sitting with this insight for several months, reflecting on its relevance not only to the continuing struggle for social justice since the time of its original publication in 1956, but on the imperative at its core: that there comes a time when one must forfeit an idea of reality that is no longer useful, no matter how scary that prospect might seem.

I know this to be true. But what’s truer is that I have never been safe. I have believed that I was, and that belief created a structure that I was then afraid to challenge. In this structure I was encased in ideas about what my life would be, and as Baldwin wrote, I was in a state of “not daring to imagine” about what was possible.

Letting go of what it takes to be safe is a risk in and of itself. In place of the initial idea of safety, though, is something else—it’s you, as you are.

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