Layers of Caution

No doubt about it. Our disabled ward Missy is always the coolest person in the room.

Even when the thermometer outside says 93.

“I’m cold,” Missy declared as she stood near the door ready to go out with an orange sweater jacket fastened over her shirt. And a fuzzy pink heart jacket zipped up over that one. Which would in turn have had a leopard-print jacket zipped up over it, if it weren’t already lying in the car from the last trip we took.

“Missy …” I said with a chuckle as I started to peel down the layers. “It’ll be all right out there.”

That earned me a disdainful look, and an attempt to grab another jacket from the closet. After all, what could mere family understand about the Truly Cool?

The thing is, when it comes to life inside the house, Missy has a point. Chez Rochat is a pretty cool place. My wife Heather has a low tolerance for heat because of her multiple sclerosis, so the air conditioning is often a little bit lower than it would normally be. And since Missy tends to view even a 70 degree spring day as “cold,” a little indoor bundling isn’t bad for her.

The mismatch comes when she tries to take the same precautions before an August walk in the park. Or a softball game in July. Or before heading to bed, where a sizeable comforter awaits.

Once you change the context, sensible steps can become anything but. Actions meant to help simply get in the way.

And doesn’t that sound familiar?

As a species, we’re good at anticipating danger. And there are plenty of times when that caution can be a lifesaver, whether it’s as involved as making plans in case of a possible disaster, or as simple as remembering that some mushrooms can only be eaten once.

But that alertness and wariness can be taken too far.

Without a sense of proportion, it can mean that all threats seem equally likely, or that the threat assessment is based on who screams the loudest or what produces the most shocking images. It’s why we react so vividly to the danger  of being killed by a terrorist attack (1 in 20 million) or dying in a plane crash (1 in 200,000), but can be almost blase’ about the risk of a fatal car accident (1 in 100).

Without a sense of reasoning and empathy, it can mean that instead of reaching out, we pull back. Any difference becomes cause for suspicion, any disagreement becomes a cause for condemnation. Instead of welcoming neighbors, we slam doors and draw lines, so insistent on watching for enemies that we create new ones where we don’t need to.

Without the judgment that should accompany caution, life becomes an exhausting and isolating state of siege.

Life has too many possibilities to be lived with hunched shoulders.

I’m not advocating that we treat the world as harmless, any more than I would jog into a blizzard in swim trunks. But in a world of speedy communications, we can’t jump on every fresh rumor as a credible threat. In a world that needs us to work together, we can’t let fear and distrust divide us and drive out our compassion.

When the heat is on, we need to stay cool.

Which reminds me. I’ve got a few jackets to hang up.

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