But this desire for a feeling of security doesn’t only lure us into irrationality when it comes to air travel: it lures us into irrationality all the time. We live, we’re constantly being reminded, in highly insecure times; huge swathes of our personal lives and our politics, in response to everything from the eurozone crisis to climate change, are directed by the quest to feel secure. But those responses, all too often, are counterproductive. Afraid of physical dangers, people move to gated communities, thereby undermining community cohesion and increasing the potential for more danger. Climate denial, one might similarly argue, is a way not to feel terrified about the fate of the environment, yet makes things worse – though the same might be said for giving up plastic shopping bags, then imagining you’ve “done your bit”, and need do no more. The quest to feel secure helps explain the political appeal of “austerity” economics: tightening the purse strings can feel like the safe and cautious path.
The essence of life is flux and impermanence, and “if I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life,” he wrote. “Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure… in other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.”
It would be easy to interpret this as appallingly glib. “Embrace insecurity,” after all, sounds like exactly the sort of message that the chancellor of the exchequer might find cynically helpful to inculcate in a society facing ever more precarious circumstances. Were he still around, though, Watts would presumably say that this misses the point. Our woes have their roots in security-chasing to begin with: politicians wanting to feel safe, bankers wanting to feel safe, voters wanting to feel safe. And truly to embrace insecurity wouldn’t mean resignation in the face of social or economic inequity; it would simply entail the recognition that chasing the feeling of security isn’t the way to solve them. Insecurity is the only condition in which any change – the good stuff as well as the bad – can happen. “To put it still more plainly,” wrote Watts, “the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing.” Here’s to a less security-fixated 2013.