The Safe Side: Managing the Fear-based Life

My mother has created iron-clad rules to fend off her fears. While we her children are familiar with many of these fears and their ameliorating rules, there are probably more that she keeps secret. For example, we didn’t know until she was in her sixties that she had fear-inspired rules against elevators and escalators. She managed to avoid taking us anywhere that would force her to use either type of conveyance throughout our entire childhoods. Well, she managed to avoid taking us almost anywhere period.

The rules that we do know well include those for her notions of food safety and the essential life-preserving protection of constant refrigeration and early disposal. She loves food, but ironically food is a source of imminent danger with jackrabbit reflexes that can be controlled only through a ruthless vigilance. My mother’s food rules focus especially on the threat represented by comestibles that should be chilled but that have been recklessly left out of the refrigerator for more than a few minutes – risky but delicious items such as mayonnaise or god forbid a volatile tuna fish sandwich.

Sometimes she calls to get my confirmation on the wisdom of throwing away food, and not just food that the label commands be refrigerated after opening. Food age in general is also a life-threatening condition, and printed expiration dates are to be regarded as a provocation that teeters between an irresponsibly liberal suggestion and a bold dare.

I usually don’t think disposal is necessary no matter what challenging circumstances she presents, but she isn’t interested in my opinion. Any food she asks about is already tagged as seething with rapidly reproducing lethal bacteria and destined for the trashcan. She calls me because she needs someone to listen to her puzzle as an intermediate step between the emergence of her worry and the execution of her solution. She has never had food poisoning, but is certain this escape from peril has occurred only because of her hyper-alert security system.

Her children roll their eyes over the rules and her obsession with what she has defined as “the safe side.” There’s no point in trying to reason with her on the rules. She isn’t going to harm herself with over-boiled eggs or go hungry because she threw out perfectly good food when it has violated one of her safety rules.

Her rules never put her in danger; they keep her in an inflexible cocoon of excessive caution that limits her life experience along with calming her worries and reducing her perception of risk to herself.

Where her fear-first policy really does diminish her life is not when it revolves around suspect expiration dates or unrefrigerated mayonnaise or sinister elevators. It’s when she doesn’t travel, doesn’t meet new people, doesn’t try different things, doesn’t experiment, doesn’t open her heart. Not only has she missed so many wonderful experiences, she has robbed herself of sharing these experiences with people she should care about.

She robbed us too. I see other kids’ out-of-town grandparents at their graduations, their awards ceremonies, their plays, their big games or just at a restaurant and feel bad for her that she doesn’t want that involvement for herself or for her family. I feel bad for my kids that they don’t have that relationship with their grandmother. Surely life is more than safety, self-indulgence and fending off stress, but often that seems to be all that matters to my mother.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

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