“be safe out there”

Has anyone ever said that to you? Someone, probably many people, probably your parents, has expressed their love and care and concern by wishing for you to “be safe out there.”
Isn’t that a common sentiment of mothers to their children? (whether expressed in exactly those words or not) It’s a wish for protection that the proclaimer cannot provide, an acknowledgement of the uncertainty outside the walls of the home, a desire for the hearer to be surrounded by the blessing of safety.
When I recently heard this sentiment expressed by a fellowship breakfast regular (that is to say, the mostly-homeless crew of 10 or 40 who gather for breakfast Monday through Friday at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham) to another attendee, I was stopped cold.
It was the tail end of breakfast service, most people were getting up and leaving, or already had, and this man is one who usually helps to clean up by stacking chairs, wiping down tables and vacuuming.
He said, “Be safe out there” to a woman who held an infant. Some mornings when I’m running with my dog, I see her going to breakfast, pushing her stroller.
Throughout the day, I see a lot of the people with whom I share breakfast, waiting for buses, walking Ninth Street. “Out there” is the street, is downtown. Outside, in cold and heat and rain.
Friends of mine have recently had babies, and visiting them in their homes, I’m accosted with anti-bacterial gels before I cross the threshold. We talk in hushed tones, babies are changed into new outfits several times a day.
The mother and infant I know from breakfast have very different concerns. “Be safe out there” isn’t just “I love you”–which is what a patent might mean when speaking to offspring, or “don’t do anything stupid on your way home” –which is what one college student might mean, talking to another at the end of the night. “Be safe out there” is talking about much bigger, much more basic things here. If we have no sensible reason–because of where we live, how much food is in our cupboards, how easily we can bathe ourselves and our children, our access to electric warmth and coolness–to fear for our mortal safety, but our sister and her baby must face those questions daily, what luxury are we invoking when we wish each other “safety”?

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