I’ve been ruminating on vulnerability lately. I’m not sure if it’s because of my ruminations that I’ve been more aware of the ways I see people making themselves vulnerable, or if there is something in the water, but it seems that vulnerability is going around.
A few weeks ago, I read Jason Alexander’s apology for making a joke about cricket being a “gay” sport. Alexander’s vulnerability in acknowledging his privilege as a straight, white man took a lot of courage.
Then, Saturday I watched a TED talk of Research Professor Brene Brown speaking about vulnerability, and then her follow-up video about shame (both are right at twenty minutes long, and are well worth the time).
Then on Sunday, I heard a sermon on resilience, and embracing change (which can be found here, and is super-good reading), which references Dr. Brown’s second video, the one on shame, and how essential it is to overcome the fear of failure and shame associated with failure if we are to reach out and take risks. I actually watched the TED talk after having a conversation with my pastor, Carla, in which she told me she’d listened to it in preparation for the sermon. (I acknowledge that the two lectures are really tied together in one event, but I’m trying to make the point that I’ve had vulnerability on the brain – and to share Brene Brown with whoever may not know of her – she’s awesome, and she’s from Texas, which makes her double-awesome.)
Then, today, I came across this article, in which Anderson Cooper came out. For many of us, this was no big surprise – as rusty as some rumor mills may be, Cooper’s sexual orientation is not big news. However, his statement is really compelling, courageous, and totally heartfelt. The last paragraph is so good I’m just gonna share it all here:
In my opinion, the ability to love another person is one of God’s greatest gifts, and I thank God every day for enabling me to give and share love with the people in my life. I appreciate your [Andrew Sullivan, who wrote the post] asking me to weigh in on this [story about the trend of public figures coming out], and I would be happy for you to share my thoughts with your readers. I still consider myself a reserved person, and I hope this doesn’t mean an end to a small amount of personal space. But I do think visibility is important, more important than preserving my reporter’s shield of privacy.
It was that last sentence that got me, that reminded me that part of what Anderson Cooper tries to do is present an unbiased account of what’s going on in the world (I realize some of you may debate my use of unbiased there, but let’s save that for another time). I also realized that Cooper does a lot of work in countries where being gay is still punishable by death. He is taking a risk – putting his neck out there, as well as those of the crew who work with him, because he has reached a point where he feels it is more important to be visible as a gay man, who knows he is loved, and is unashamed of who he is, than it is for him to remain behind his “reporter’s shield of privacy.” I respect him for that courage.
In Brown’s first lecture, the one embedded above, she talks about the necessity of connection, and how shame is underpinned by this “excruciating vulnerability” which tells us that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. The thing that keeps us out of connection is, quite simply, the fear that we are not worthy of it – not worthy of being loved; of being known; of being seen. To be vulnerable is…well, it’s scary – it’s unnerving, it’s…vulnerable! It’s to put yourself out there without the certainty of a soft place to land – it’s to open yourself up to being known without the assurance that others will want to know you back. It’s to be exposed, without the assurance that you will be protected in that exposure.
After watching Dr. Brown’s lectures, I found myself saying something along the lines of: “That’s all well and good, and I see her point – I agree that it is essential that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.” But, I kept asking – How do we function in a way that allows us to be vulnerable in a world that does not treat that kind of behavior kindly? I mean, being vulnerable with those I’m closest to is one thing – they are invested in the relationship as much as I am, equally striving to know and let themselves be known. But, come on – doesn’t it seem just a bit risky, even reckless, to model that behavior everywhere? I kind of mockingly asked myself if we’re just supposed to model that behavior, to just jump out there, warts and all, and wait for that to be reciprocated…
I fully believe that when we allow ourselves to be open to one another, to really know and be known by another, we gain an understanding of God’s love for us. I would even venture to say that it is only when we risk some amount of vulnerability that we can begin to understand God’s love for us. When I am able to share a vulnerable space with someone, I begin to see more of who they really are; I begin to love them in a way that wasn’t possible before – I have a hunch that this teaches us something about God’s love. But, I still don’t know how to do that without at least a little expectation (that I’ll be acknowledged, or respected, or loved in return). Often, those expectations get tangled in with the fear of rejection; and, well, then I just feel kind of scared and anxious.
So, back to my question – Do we model it, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and do so with the hope that in opening up the space to be fully ourselves (and in being intentional about inviting others to do the same), we might begin to trust the space we share with one another?
Short answer: Hell yes, we do – that’s exactly what we do.
However, we do so remembering that we are not alone; and that, as the challenge of being vulnerable with those we are closest to eases, the risk of opening ourselves up more to those who may not be so kind begins to feel less risky. I’m not saying that I’m going to walk up to a complete stranger and start sharing all of my vulnerabilities with them. But, maybe I’ll start by telling my friends that I’m insecure about ________________, or scared of ___________, or even that I really love _______________, and see how that goes – see if I can risk being known. In that process, might we all begin to learn that we are worthy of love – and so are all of those around us. It becomes a lot easier to put your neck out on the line if you know you’ve got someone holding the rest of you up.
Vulnerability is the glue that makes connection possible – it is the fiber that gives our relationships strength. It is scary as all get-out, but it is essential, it is fundamental, and it is really nice to know that you are not the only one who has to carry yourself around. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – we’re all in this together, my friends, and it is vital that we tell our stories, that we let ourselves be known, if anything is going to change.