WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

At Arm's Length

By Karen G. Johnston

“We practice safe six.”
—sign at an eatery’s outdoor dining space during the COVID19 pandemic

During this era of social distancing, to keep each other safe, we keep at least six feet distance between ourselves. One way to approximate this is by arm’s length: you extend your arm, I extend my arm, neither of us quite touch fingertips. Voilà: “safe six.”

What was once a defensive or suspicious expression (“If I were you, I’d keep him at arm’s length…”) has now become a gesture of care, an indication of love and protection.

A baby turtle on a beach, with the ocean and two blurred humans in the background.

Arm’s length. It makes me think of the efforts to save leatherback turtles.

These amazing creatures can live to over one hundred years, some growing to six or seven feet long, eventually weighing a thousand pounds, give or take. Their front flippers can span as much as eight feet, which means that they could practice "safe six," if they had need (which they don’t).

Mama leatherbacks emerge at night during the ocean’s high tide, lumbering onto dry sand, where they use their back flippers to dig a nest in which to lay eggs—sometimes as many as a hundred.

The threat is that there are humans who, under cover of night, poach the buried eggs to sell for private gain (they are eaten as a delicacy and fetch a high price).

On the side of protection, there are humans who gather on those very same nights to tend the mamas. They catch the eggs in a bag with the least amount of disturbance to the mama who, in her birthing reverie, does not notice. The mama covers the hole back up with her flippers, disguises it by disturbing the sand all around, then returns to the deep ocean waters.

The human protectors bring the eggs higher up on the same beach to a guarded enclosure, protected from the poachers. This is where, not with a spade or shovel, but with their arms, these volunteers dig, then deposit the eggs. Here the eggs will safely incubate. Here the turtle babies can safely hatch. It's from here they will return to those same deep ocean waters like the ancient lineage of leatherback turtles before them.

Arm’s length: Why dig with an arm, when a shovel or trowel would be more efficient?

There is a sacred elegance here, one that invokes the deep interconnection among all sentient beings: the length of that hole-digging back flipper of that turtle mama is (you guessed it) about the same length of an adult human arm.


Vast Fractal Universe, Elegant Nature, may my body in all its glory and limits, its fullest shape and truth, be of service, practicing protection and care and fierce devotion in the face of threats to all at risk. May I be the recipient of such care. May I be the giver of such protection. May this be our mutual bond, in this interdependent web of which we are a part.

Editor's Note: If you enjoyed this reflection, check out Rev. Karen's version as a Time for All Ages.

About the Author

Karen G. Johnston

Rev. Karen G. Johnston (she/her/hers) is the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Society Burlington in Vermont. Before becoming a minister, she spent 20+ years as a clinical social worker....


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