In that moment, I stood in my living room, meeting the eyes of a man who intended to break into my home. A single sheet of glass separated us. For a freeze-framed fraction of a second, neither of us moved.
The 911 operator would ask me detailed questions mere minutes later about his tools, if he was armed and how. I would shake my head; most of the information I had was about his face, about the split second of his eyes just as they saw me, hardened purpose widening into shock.
He was a person, just a human being, of course. I wasn’t particularly afraid of him in the moment. But I would find myself checking windows and looking over my shoulder in the days that followed, knowing now: knowing any moment that the space of my home might no longer be safe.
It’s not the first time I’ve had that feeling. The thieves that are words once spoken to me, memories that burn, self-loathing, depression, anxiety– they’ve broken into these corners of my life that I deemed sacred and safe, made me nail up steel bars over windows. These defenses obstruct the view, sure. But they also serve as some (flimsy) sense of control.
If you do battle with these kinds of things for long enough, a sinking suspicion might knot up your stomach: maybe nowhere is truly, 100% safe. That suspicion can find us after the death of trust in a relationship, when we finally achieve a dream and yet it feels like just another hollowed-out dead end, when something that used to bring us great joy gets warped and twisted, poisoned by cynicism or failure or doubt. Some of the greatest questions I’ve wrestled with in the past four years are “is there really such a thing as home?” and “is anything ever fully, really, truly good?”
The police officer inspected our doorframe, occasionally asking me questions to add to his report. Still full of restless adrenaline, I shifted from one foot to the other, throwing whatever data points seemed even vaguely relevant at him.
“The thing is, no matter what you add to this door, they could still just throw a rock through the glass,” he explained.
My heart sank. I’d thought of that, but hearing it from someone else affirmed my relative helplessness in the situation.
“But if they do that,” he continued, looking at me sharply suddenly, “you have every right to defend yourself, you understand? However you need to.”
I’m still learning how to live in a world where the grown-up reality is that both exterior tragedy and the shadows I carry under my own skin could break into my peace of mind, my safety, in one sickening instant. Even over a decade of crippling, unpredictable panic attacks hasn’t fully taught me how to accept the reality that control can be taken from us in an instant. How do we live in a world like that? How do we love anything when we know it could be taken or broken or changed at any moment?
I don’t know yet, anymore than I know how to stop the gut-level flight-or-flight response I get any time the wind blows something harmless against that glass door. But I do believe that once you accept that safety is, in some regards, unattainable, you learn to pursue other things instead: growth and steady compassion and courage, things that will stay with you whether the landscape is safe or not. You learn to pin your feelings of security on Truths that don’t change: the love of people who have proved themselves determinedly faithful, the stubborn way beauty forces its way through the cold concrete of the ordinary, and for me, Divine Grace.
Even if the thieving darkness does force its way into our spirits, we have a right my friends to defend ourselves– however we need to. The right defense tactics may look different every day. Sometimes the old ones won’t work, and we’ll need to find new ones. That’s alright. Although this world might have endless methods for throwing stones through all our fragile security, our souls are somehow built to find their ways towards endless methods of fighting back. For me, that’s been coffee cups and songs and roadtrips and books and rainstorms. It’s been going to church and not going to church and running and resting. It’s been conversations and grace-full silences and knowing when I need to lie on the floor in a dark room and just breathe (each breath declaring “you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re still alive”).
It’s probably a little foolish, a little childish holdover from all the fond stories of my childhood, but after the police left I went in my office and hefted some of my favorite swords. I thought about resilience and courage.
I might not be in control. But oh, I am not helpless.