The Cost of Safety

We’re dealing with some staffing changes at our preschool, and the dilemma of wanting to hire someone that we think might do a very good job, but who does not have the particular set of credentials that the state says they must have in order to hold the position.  It’s a frustrating but probably common state of affairs.  The interesting part of this situation is that it was the person’s grandmother who started the preschool over 40 years ago. 

I was thinking a bit this week of how much things have changed in those 40 or so years.  I’m sure that the founder(s) of the preschool weren’t licensed or accredited by the State or probably anyone else.  They were part of a church that wanted to start a preschool, and so they did.  Maybe they had some experience in teaching.  Maybe they didn’t.   Regardless, they apparently provided the right mix of skills for the preschool to be successful, and it’s been running ever since.  Had they been incompetent, I doubt the preschool would have made it.  

Some people might argue that things are different these days.  That we need some sort of government intervention to keep us safe, and to ensure us that things are being done properly.  I don’t tend to agree with the first statement, which tends to cast doubt on the second two.  I don’t think people are fundamentally different these days.  I don’t tend to think that people are worse than they used to be.  Yet 40 years ago or so, the responsibility for ensuring that a program was safe was with the parent almost exclusively.  Of course, I’m sure that to some extent, the people who staffed the preschool and the parents who entrusted their children to it were probably meeting together every Sunday for worship.  There was a level of accountability already in place – these people actually knew each other.  Today, none of our preschool parents attend our church.  Nor do our teachers, for that matter. 

The issue of the best way to keep people safe was heightened in the wake of 9/11.  The natural questions of how could this have happened?  and why couldn’t we have stopped this? gave rise to new heights of government involvement and regulation.  In a similar fashion, the sex scandals that the Catholic church has faced in the last decade have permanently altered the way that ministry is done.  People thought these men could be trusted, and that trust was betrayed to awful consequences.  The fallout is that nobody is trusted now.  Not priests, not pastors, certainly not politicians – nobody can be trusted.  Everyone must be vetted in some fashion, vouched for as probably safe, likely harmless, but certainly with enough caveats and clauses in place so that if someone who has been vouched for does something awful, nobody can ultimately be held accountable for having not known, for having not stopped them. 

But this issue of trading off freedom for some relatively arbitrary and vacuous level of improved security goes on in a myriad of ways that we don’t think about often.  For instance, recently it came to light that in Michigan a woman who was watching four neighbor children for an hour each day after school before their parents got  home was being warned by the state to cease and desist or be prosecuted as an unlicensed childcare provider.  The State of Michigan has been mostly criticized for taking this action – action based on a complaint filed by a neighbor. 

It sounds silly, but is it really?  What if something had happened to those children?  What if they had been abused or neglected or abandoned by that mom who was trying to lend a hand?  Who might we have expected to be the first to start clamoring for tighter regulations?  Maybe all parents ought to be fingerprinted and searchable in a national database.  Maybe homeowner associations could start requiring people to submit to background checks as a condition for purchasing a home in their neighborhood.  What level would we dream up next (excuse me, will we dream up next) in an effort to protect ourselves from a dangerous and unpredictable world?

And at what point do we realize that the trade-off isn’t worth it, and that it’s too late to undue all of the damage?

Life is messy and dangerous and it doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to.  People are hurt and damaged in the process.  I have an explanation for why that is, and why no amount of legislation or fingerprinting is going to change that, why no State will ever stamp out atrocities without stamping out people themselves, why people will remain mostly the way they are, regardless of what educational theory and psychological theory and humanism all say to the contrary.  My explanation is that the world and every person in it is fundamentally broken, fundamentally flawed, and that this can’t be remedied with climate control or legislation or databases or education or psychotherapy or whatever other silver bullet our culture can dream up. 

And part of that explanation states that these issues are only compounded when we continue to fragment and scatter as a society, when we end up spending most of our lives among people that we really don’t know very well, when we pay others to do what we ought to be doing ourselves, when we, in short, ask for a system to step in and fix things and prevent things and protect us in ways that no system is capable of, no matter how well-intentioned or funded. 

So where do we draw the line?  Does the State requirement that a preschool director meet an arbitrary set of criteria regarding education or training really guarantee us of some improved level of quality care?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does forbidding individuals from coming to private arrangements with one another – whether for profit or not – ensure that our children are safe?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Regardless, we need to recognize that our world is not safe, and is not getting safer.  We have to come to grips with that personally, and then determine what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to gain some measure of peace of mind in the midst of an uncertain world. 

And hopefully, we take comfort in a Savior that has already suffered a heavy dose of the world’s uncertainty and unsafety and volatility.  A savior that was raised from the dead as proof that such malignancies are not the final word, are not the last stop, and will not go unchecked and unanswered for forever.  This is what I take comfort in when I leave my family each day to go to work, or when I get on the freeway to drive across town.  I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know that whatever it brings, I won’t have to face it alone.  And that’s something that nobody – not even the State – can promise me.

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