Sacred Vulnerability


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Here’s a quote that I really love:

“Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

That’s from a series of online lectures by Dr. Brené Brown, a well-known researcher, author and speaker from the University of Houston School of Social Work. She defines vulnerability as “exposure, uncertainty, and emotional risk.”

She goes on to say that while embracing our vulnerability is not weakness, neither does it mean we will never have problems or make mistakes or suffer. It is recognizing that we will stumble, and can love ourselves and other people, not in spite of these things, but because of them.

To be alive is to be vulnerable. And yet our cultural norms favor an extreme individualism and self-reliance that can push us to aim for a false sense of invincibility, which can drain our courage for both loving and accepting love. Cultivating this false sense of invincibility can lead to shaming, and rob of us of the belonging and connection that are at the center of what it means to be fully human.

Now, I still struggle with all of this sometimes. Recently I had the pleasure of teaching one of our Sunday morning religious education classes for kindergarten and first grade children. After the lesson it was too cold and rainy to let them go outside and play, so we had to come up with activities that they could do inside.

A few of them got bored and decided they would turn me into an indoor jungle gym. Soon I found myself under siege by a group of five and six-year-olds, all demanding that I play with them by being their climbing, swinging and seesaw apparatus. I was outnumbered, outmaneuvered and outlandishly on the verge of experiencing pure joy—if only I would let myself give in to it. And I resisted.

Dr. Brown calls this resistance “foreboding joy.” It happens when we won’t let ourselves fully experience joyful moments because we start to project what can go wrong. We fear the joy because we know it will end. We start imagining all the sorrow that may come. It’s like we try to ward off the sorrow in our lives by
stifling the joy. Yeah, that’ll work.

So, here are the foreboding and shaming thoughts I was having: Oh my God, I have to keep them on the carpeted area or one of them will get hurt and it’ll all be my fault and the church will get sued and I’ll never get to work within Unitarian Universalism ever again. Also: What will their parents think if they come to pick them up and find that they’ve tackled their Sunday school teacher and taken over the classroom? Not to mention: Good golly man, you have ‘Reverend’ in front of your name now—you can’t be seen acting the fool with a bunch of first graders.

Sometimes my shaming thoughts have a British accent. Luckily for me, the more I resisted, the more the kids upped the ante. Five and six-year olds have a lot more energy and determination than I do. So I discovered that if I gave in and joined in the fun, they would actually more easily accept some parameters like staying on the carpeted area.

And it was pure joy.

Some of the other research I looked at said that for adults to engage in playful activity is one of the most vulnerable things we can do, because in our culture we are often taught a very strong work ethic that shames such activities. To play, we also give up a sense of control and propriety and allow ourselves to lose our sense of time and place. And yet, the research also shows that play is one of the ways we get in touch with our deeper and more authentic selves and risk allowing others to see us more deeply.

In addition to the “foreboding joy” mentioned earlier, Dr. Brown outlines a number of other ways that we avoid vulnerability, which ultimately rob of us of living fully. To name just a few:

Perpetual disappointment: This is the Eeyore view of the world. “Oh well, best not get too excited because something’s gonna go wrong eventually.”

Numbing: We can try to avoid feeling at all, or at least dull our emotions to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Numbing includes the things we normally think of as addictions, such as alcohol and drugs, but also things like excessive television, video games and smart phone use; overeating; working too much; buying too much, etc. After 9/11, we were told to all go shopping, right? Brown notes, “We are the most obese, in debt, addicted and medicated adult cohort in known human history. We numb.”

Perfectionism. She calls this the “20-ton shield” when it comes to avoiding vulnerability. And of course it is a trap because we can never be perfect. Perfectionism can stifle our internal drive to strive for excellence, because even excellent will not be perfect, so why take any real risks at all? For me, perfectionism has sometimes been a way of super-numbing.

I was the oldest child in my family growing up. Now, you may have heard about the oldest sibling syndrome, wherein under stress we can become over-functioning, something very closely related to perfectionism.

Especially in anxious situations, over-functioners tend to try take care of everyone else—and maybe even micromanage a little. We know what is best for everyone, which is usually some level of perfection that’s impossible. My parents divorced when I was twelve and so I got an especially strong case of oldest child syndrome. It is something I still have to watch out for.

The other thing that happened after the divorce is that my grandparents on my mother’s side became like a second set of parents to me. They helped raise us. We spent as much time at their house as at our own. My grandfather became my father figure, and I pretty much idolized them both. They became role models for me.

So when I got the call one day, many years ago now, that my grandfather was in the hospital and it did not look good, I went into sort of an over-functioner’s perfect storm. I didn’t stop to cry or grieve or feel anything. I started making plans to make the drive over to take care of my family. I was going to do this grieving thing perfectly!

When we got to the hospital he was no longer conscious, so I did not even get to say goodbye, but I didn’t cry or grieve. I took care of everyone else.

And when I got the call the next morning that he had died, I didn’t cry. I got up, got dressed and started planning and taking care of things. And even when I gave the eulogy at his funeral, I still didn’t cry. Nor did I at the reception afterwards, nor on the drive back home when it was all done, nor after we got back home. I was too busy “functioning.”

And then, maybe a day later, I couldn’t find my glasses, and so I went out to our car, thinking maybe they had fallen under a seat or something, and started searching for them. I didn’t find them, but I did find a map my grandfather had given me—he was quite a traveler, and big on maps—and he had written his name on it. My grandfather had this habit of writing his name on all his belongings. And suddenly, sitting there alone on the floorboard of the car, with no one left to take care of anymore but me, I ran out of ways to
avoid it. I started crying. And for a while it felt as if I might never stop.

A friend of mine who’s a playwright once had one of his characters, after having just lost her family in a car wreck, say, “I don’t have to cry now. I can cry tomorrow, or next week or next month or next year, because it’s never going to stop. It’s never going to stop hurting.”

I guess that was kind of what I had been doing—trying to put off feeling the hurt. It doesn’t work, but the character was right about one thing. It never really does completely stop hurting. We just learn to carry it with us. And I think maybe that’s as it should be, because for me it is also carrying them with us.

My grandparents are the people who taught me to have a love of nature. To this day, even though they have both been gone more than 15 years now, I will be on a nature hike and see something so beautiful that it fills me with joy, and I will think that I have to call them and tell them about it, and their old phone number will still come into my head. And then I will remember that I can’t call, and it still stings.

The thing is, somehow because of this, the joy of the experience is also deeper, greater, more complex. I call it a joy so full that it is an aching joy, rather than the foreboding joy we talked about earlier.

Writer and poet Kahlil Gibran said it like this: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” And that’s why numbing robs us of living fully. That’s the reason to seek lives of vulnerability and authenticity. If we refuse to allow sorrow to carve into our being, we will also never experience the fullness of aching joy.

I think maybe we need to start by being willing to ask for the space to be vulnerable and by being willing to risk it; to reach out and say, “My son is in the hospital and I could use some help,” or “I just got that promotion I have been wanting at work, and I am thrilled and at the same time terrified over whether I am really capable of it, and I don’t have anywhere else to share it.”

If we can do this, our communities become places where we can practice living authentically. Places where we are allowed to be vulnerable and imperfect and make mistakes and be forgiven for them rather than shamed. Places where we are courageous enough for empathy to thrive. Places where we can play with the spontaneity and abandon of young children. Places where we love and accept love and radiate that love out into our larger world.

I think we can create spaces where life’s hallowed sorrows and aching joys can be sung into the rafters and held by beloved community.

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