The content of this post was delivered on March 3, 2017, as a speech to the members of the Ukiah, California, Toastmasters Club.
The painting below, called The Lovers, was created in the early 1900s by Russian artist Marc Chagall. As is true with many fine works of art, this painting is subject to multiple interpretations. To some it may look as if the two lovers have fallen asleep in each other’s arms. For me it represents what Vulnerability feels like. The sad expression on the woman’s face, her bowed head, and her reclining pose give a sense of vulnerability. Her lover embraces her tenderly, sharing her sorrow. Certainly when we fall in love we become vulnerable.
Why is an understanding of our human vulnerability so important? Because an understanding provides a key to loving ourselves more fully and a door to greater happiness.
Vulnerability has often been defined as “weakness.” However, it is NOT weakness:
Vulnerability is the ever-present undercurrent of our natural state. ~ Poet David Whyte
Like fish in water, we live in a sea of vulnerability.
Consider the little bird in the tree that moves its head from side to side, anxiously looking for danger or the deer whose ears stand alert, listening for predators, or the tiny field mouse that scurries to hide itself from the raptor overhead.
Consider, too, how we come into this world as newborn babies, completely reliant on our parents to stay alive or how the elderly find themselves becoming increasingly vulnerable when they begin to lose their hearing or their eyesight, or when their walking gets difficult.
All these are examples of natural vulnerability.
In the middle years of our lives we somehow feel we have escaped this vulnerability, yet it is never far from us.
You get ready for work, hop in your car, and hit the freeway. Then BAM – you have a blowout and you sit –vulnerable– by the side of the road waiting for help.
You are going about your day when you suddenly feel a sharp pain on the right side of your body, a pain that intensifies. You realize you need to go to the doctor immediately. Could it be appendicitis? You feel vulnerable.
You are woken up at night to a siren and firemen calling for evacuation. A blaze is raging in the valley and it is making its way quickly up the mountain where you live. Again, you are vulnerable.
In these moments our minds stop for an instant. There is an opening to contemplate our human vulnerability! None of us is immune!
We may also carry vulnerabilities from childhood into adulthood. Perhaps as a child we were part of a large family and never felt that we got enough love; in our adult life we may compensate by constantly trying to be the center of attention. Or maybe as children we lost a parent or sibling whom we loved very dearly but were too young at the time to understand death or disappearance; in adulthood we may become emotionally distant from others. Or perhaps we came from an abusive family and now find some of our adult behaviors puzzling as we try to make sense of the trauma our bodies carry and our mind wants to forget.
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability. ~ Poet David Whyte
What does “inhabit our vulnerability” mean? Consider a person like Helen Keller. Her fortitude in the face of her serious vulnerabilities is a shining example of inhabiting one’s vulnerabilities well.
Or even among us here at Toastmasters, we are making ourselves vulnerable every time we come up to the podium, but we still do it and gain strength from making the effort.
In 2010, Brené Brown, Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, gave her first TED talk titled The Power of Vulnerability. She described her six-year research study on human connection.
After compiling hundreds of stories and thousands of pieces of data, she discovered the fundamental difference between people who were whole-heartedly connected in a meaningful way and those who were struggling with connection:
The difference lay in their feeling of WORTHINESS.
Those who suffered from lack of connection felt they were intrinsically unworthy of connection and love. They believed they could make themselves worthy only by being successful or beautiful or admired – their worthiness being dependent on future achievements and the opinions of others – and they were constantly on an emotional roller coaster ride, blaming or shaming themselves when they missed the mark. They hid their imperfections and numbed their vulnerability. They regularly passed harsh judgment on themselves and were consequently critical and judgmental of others as well.
Those who felt connected believed they were worthy of love and that they were loveable for who they were. They were unafraid of being imperfect and by recognizing their own imperfections were more tolerant of the imperfections of others – and thus more compassionate. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be and be who they really were. They were authentic. As Shakespeare has wisely said, To thine own self be true. They were true to themselves.
Beauty in imperfection is the concept behind the 15th Century Japanese art form of Kin-tsugi. Imagine a hand potted earthen bowl that has been dropped and is now cracked and in pieces. Instead of throwing it away, the idea of Kin-tsugi directs that the bowl be mended, that the cracks not be covered up or disguised but highlighted with gold, silver, or platinum lacquer, and incorporated as part of the artistic design, making the bowl even more beautiful and interesting.
Similarly, the old Navajo weavers used to intentionally weave one mistake into their carpets. They were saying: The world is beautiful and ordered but not perfect! It is from in and out of imperfection that the Spirit moves.”
Leonard Cohen expresses the same thought in his song, Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering (Perfectionism)
There is a crack, a crack in everything (Vulnerability)
That’s how the light gets in. (Beauty)
Images for this post are courtesy of Creative Commons. Final in-text image by Edward S. Curtis; image above right, Peel Paul, Mother and Child.