Vulnerability: Cost-Benefit Analysis

The foibles of human nature and the desire for perfection

This is my first post in Compass Star Wordsmith, and it is a repost of a piece I had originally posted behind the firewall. I read something today on Linked-In that moved me to repost this.

I will be traveling out-of-town this weekend on a somber occasion. Please check in on the veterans in your life. They are extremely vulnerable right now, and the least equipped to express it before it is too late.

Pick a worth cause that supports veterans.

Thanks - Ric

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I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few. Brene Brown

What am I leaning into? This project, that’s for sure. Vulnerability? Not as much. Or so I thought. This whole project is an exercise in vulnerability.  The following excerpt is from an article written by Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.

Vulnerability

Vulnerability is constitutive of our finite existing.

Posted May 27, 2015

I have characterized shame and its variants as an experience of being exposed as flawed and defective (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201310/th...). It is pervasive in our cultural meaning-making to equate vulnerability--whether physical, emotional, or existential--with something shameful, an abhorrent weakness to be kept hidden and evaded, or counteracted through some form of reactive aggression and destructiveness. Vulnerability, in other words, is regarded as an aberration, a contemptible anomaly to be expunged from our experiential world.

Existential philosophy, by contrast, teaches us that the various forms of vulnerability are constitutive of our very existence as finite beings. Because we are limited, finite, mortal beings, vulnerability to trauma is a necessary and universal feature of our human condition (Stolorow, 2011; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201412/no...). Suffering, injury, illness, death, heartbreak, loss--these are possibilities that define our existence and loom as constant threats. To be human is to be excruciatingly vulnerable.

Poet David Whyte (2015) captures this existential truth compellingly:

"VULNERABILITY is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to be something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

"To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is one of the privileges and the prime conceits of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath. The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door."

A relational context, such as that exemplified by Whyte, in which our inescapable existential vulnerabilities can be accepted and shared, held and integrated, would make less necessary the destructive evasions of them that have been so lamentably characteristic of human history (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201110/th...).

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The concept for this post has been floating around in my head for quite some time. Two data points (really? data points?) provided the push I needed. One was the quote from Brene Brown that began this dispatch. The other is something a student wrote in the Bible Study lesson answer booklet I reviewed as part of the mentoring program I am involved with.

During this extended lockdown, the 16th of March being the one-year anniversary of being sent home, I have worked on becoming a better person. Part of that process is reaching out to acquaintances in the hopes of strengthening relationships, whether we are old friends distanced by time and space or former colleagues turned new pals.

One such connection has been very rewarding. An associate of mine from the event biz, we are both now out of that biz! Over the course of a few lengthy phone conversations, we discovered we had much in common: members of Gen X, fathers of daughters, husbands of independent wives. A love of woodworking and writing. Similar vulnerabilities.

During one call, he shared with me that he thought my writing expressed a great deal of personal vulnerability. The Wife just calls it my dirty laundry! When I started this subscription-based content, I wracked my brain to dream-think what on earth I could write that readers, paying money for words, would find interesting, much less valuable.

I hit upon Letters from the Prison Box series, but I didn’t want the paid content to be one-dimensional. This in an attempt to move away from a prompt-based essay with a pretty heavy topic and towards themes with a lighter note and maybe more universal in nature. After reading the two passages that started this article, the thought began to gel. Then I read what my student wrote.

The lessons are in order for students, starting with a basic Bible lesson, and a series of questions the student answers to help mentors gauge where the student is on the Bible knowledge spectrum. One of the early questions is

“What, in your mind, was the point in your life when you turned from God?”

I was completely and totally unprepared for his answer.

“The day I turned from God was the day I discovered my kid’s mom was dead, and the kids were crawling on her.”

He wrote it just like that. No other details. I froze. I turned cold and clammy. My heart stated beating faster. My mind was reeling, both from the images I was imagining and the questions storming my brain. I asked God “What the hell happened here?” It was everything and nothing, all at once.

Vulnerability and identity are intertwined within and without the human experience, as poet David Whyte so exquisitely elucidates. My friend behind the wall had so elegantly, and almost innocently, exposed the wholeness of his vulnerability and identity, all at once, in a simple statement of fact. The question was not what happened to your kids? Or wife? Or what went wrong?

Put yourself in his shoes. What would your answer be? Would it be as simple and honest as his? Could you express, and simultaneously expose, yourself so deeply and fully?  Read Ms. Brown’s quote again in this context.


It is now a few days after I wrote all the words above this line. I have been struggling with what exactly is the point of this epistle. How can this topic be lighter in nature than letters from prison? I think I have an answer.

We spend so much more time on hiding our vulnerabilities than we do on incorporating them into our lives. It seems like hiding is more universal than the thing itself. Most of the time, we do not even know the name of the thing. We just know that it is wrong, shameful and bad. So hide it. Hide it all.

My writing makes me confront uncomfortable truths about myself. And I actively choose to share it with all of you. Why would I do this? To make a buck? Hardly. I do it out of selfish reasons. This is helping me.

My writing style has changed in the two months or so since I began this endeavor. I used to write and post as I live, fast and hurried. I am addicted to instantaneous action and response. I am the cause to your effect. It is part of the vulnerability thing. I am the one writing, posting, working, talking, instructing, directing, supervising, managing, controlling. That power is self-intoxicating. And self-destructive.

Time for a couple of definitions to refresh your memory:

Vulnerable

(adjective)

1.     susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.

control

(noun);

1.     the power to influence or direct people's behavior or the course of events.

The very act of control dominates vulnerability. I write about identity, especially as it relates to Gen X, here. David Whyte’s essay speaks to that dynamic,

More seriously, refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

Our refusal to even acknowledge vulnerability, much less celebrate it in our lives, stunts our emotional growth, i.e. identity. And more insidious, it prevents one from seeking help. That is a huge part of my cultural identity. I spent my time controlling life situations instead of sharing vulnerabilities with my loved ones.

The survival skills and immortal delusions of youth linger on into adulthood, and infect the lives of everyone in the orbit of that person. What one thinks and truly believes about themselves, their identity and their place in the world is predicated upon the identity forged, or stunted, in adolescence.

And it becomes a life pattern. Until it stops working. Usually during a crisis. Then identity shatters. But there is good news here.

Sometimes, that realization comes on one’s death bed. I guess it would be a relief to experience that epiphany before one dies. But from here, it looks like too little, too late. I want to effect an alternative outcome. Now. (There I go again!)

I think to write. I write to feel. I feel to change. I change to elevate. I elevate to experience. Vulnerability is always there. One can embrace it. Or hide it. And hide from it.

The analysis is complete. There is more benefit to vulnerability than cost.

Go be vulnerable and live your best life today.

Ric

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