Even before the pandemic, "Stay safe" was becoming the new "Goodbye." On the bus and the subway I have overheard many a conversation ending with those two words. I have even received a few correspondences with a “Stay safe” closing, and I’ll admit to using it myself—once.
Millennials seem far more sensitive to personal safety than Generation X that preceded them, and Generation Z seems to be following suit. Maybe the heightened sensitivity to personal safety is a response to the particular types of violence we experienced as a country during the formative years of Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000). The September 11 terrorist attacks, the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook mass shootings and the other shooting sprees that followed, plus natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina did not leave this generation unscathed. The cautiousness that used to be the characteristic of the old is now the characteristic of the young. Millennials rank “personal safety” as a top workplace issue. The American Psychological Association says that Millennials rank safety as a higher stress factor than any other generation has. This fixation on safety was there before the pandemic and the mob violence we are now seeing in our streets, which is only enhancing the emphasis on safety for every age group. Clearly, safety needs to be a big priority, and there are reasons for it; and yet, for me, safety is not first.
In a safety-first culture, as could be predicted, Christians see things differently than our secular neighbors. Making personal safety the number one priority is dangerously close to making me the number one priority. Seems like a markedly unchristian approach to life, doesn’t it? Personal safety is the same thing as self-protection. Survival is, of course, a legitimate human value, and no one would argue otherwise. Self-preservation is a built-in human instinct. It doesn’t have to be learned. It is the means by which we survive.
But to live life in a self-protective mode seems to invite a disposition of keeping myself and my personal interests at the central focal point of my universe. “Safety first” could quickly begin to equal “me first.” It could easily foster the pesky vice of egocentrism, nurture self-reliance and add fuel to fears that would be better handled through renunciation than through disproportionate attention.
A safety-first mentality keeps my focus too fixated upon myself, and not even on my deepest self, but merely my physical self, which is not the most important aspect of my unique identity as a human person. “Safety first” is starting to sound like an article in the creed of a secular gospel, not at all akin to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus realigned the priorities of His disciples. He instructed them not to fear the death of the body but to fear the damnation of the soul. We are afraid and anxious about sickness and death, dangers of all kinds, and awful as the possibilities are, they are but temporary. However, sin and its eternal fruit does not frighten us enough.
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray He taught them to pray that the Kingdom come and that God’s will be done, not that they “stay safe.” You remember, don’t you, what Jesus called Peter when Peter basically told Jesus to “stay safe.” He called him Satan.
What if Perpetua had turned to Felicity and said, “Safety first”? What if Thomas More or Maximillian Kolbe had a “safety-first” mentality? Could Francis of Assisi ever have gone to live with the lepers with a “safety-first” creed? No, he wouldn’t have even wanted to, because if this secular creed was his own he would have never met Christ to begin with. He encountered Jesus when he embraced the leper, not when he crossed the street to avoid him. The apostles, the martyrs and all the saints had a “Jesus-first” mentality. “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” the Scriptures tell us, “and everything else will be added unto you.”
Mother Clare, CFR