Deliberately Choosing Vulnerability
We have been trained to think of vulnerability as weakness;
But what if we were to think of vulnerability as strength?
What if vulnerability is the ability to open up to everything?
What if vulnerability is the ability to begin to heal everything?
I believe that the keystone of the arch that is the Tao Te Ching is Vulnerability.
Begin – Finding Inner Courage page 251-255 Mark Nepo
“How do I dress the wound in you that is me?”
Few of us intend to be hurtful, but we often perpetrate pain on others in our insistence and passion for how we believe good needs to be done. The truth is that we are frightfully flawed, and it is only our attempts to keep loving our mistakes into pieces of the path that make any difference.
In this regard, we have these choices about how to live. As we have seen, we can remain blunt and unaware and so replay our suffering on others. Or, if blessed to be thrown into open living, we can be drawn into what we need to learn. In time, this may allow us to face ourselves and others in an effort to own our own trespasses. This is liberating and humbling. Believe it or not, the effort NOT to tear each other’s wings can heal the world, if we can stand by our core and love each other until we surface our true nature. This is the work of being VULNERABLE, the word comes from the Latin word VULNUS, which means THE ABILITY TO CARRY A WOUND GRACEFULLY. It is difficult, but crucial, to be vulnerable.
The sufis have a notion that experience and devotion will lead to “polishing the heart into a mirror.: This is another name for the transformative education of being vulnerable, which no one can escape, though we can stall or distract ourselves from all that matters.
Let me tell you about three ways of being vulnerable.
The first involves a quiet man whose life-changing moment is inspiring. He was Wu Feng, a Manchurian diplomat of the 1700s posted with an aboriginal tribe in the outskirts of Taiwan. Wu Feng befriended the aboriginal chief, whose tribe beheaded one of its members every year as a form of sacrifice.
Finally, after living with the tribe for twenty-five years, Wu Feng once more pleaded with the chief to stop this senseless killing. But this time, when the tribe member was called forth, Wu Feng took his place and said, “No, if you will kill this time, it will be me.”
The chief stared long into his friend’s eyes, and having grown to love Wu Feng, he could not kill him. From that day, the practice of beheading stopped.
Of course, Wu Feng could have been killed, but his courage shows us that, at a certain point, how we live inside takes priority. At a certain point for each of us, talk evaporates and words cannot bring love into the open. In the end, it is not enough to THINK what we know. We must LIVE it. Only by living it can love show itself as the greatest principle.
There are many questions and lessons waiting in this story. Key to them all is: What made Wu Feng finally put himself in the middle of the issue? What made watching become intolerable? What ounce of inner courage, starting in what quiet corner of Wu Feng’s soul, moved him to stand before the chief? And what ounce of courage finally opened the chief to change? Where does the Wu Feng in us live? Where the chief? How do we make a practice of moving, like Wu Feng, from watching to standing by our core? And how do we, like the chief, make a practice of softening our adherence to a tradition or old pattern that kills, and so open ourselves to love?
The second story comes from our own time. Richard Luttrell is a Vietnam vet, a gentle soul from the Midwest who thirty-nine years ago found himself as a young man in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Quickly, he fell into hand-to-hand combat with another young man. They didn’t speak the same language though they faced the same terror. Richard wound up killing his counterpart. It was his first kill. As his fellow soldiers were looting the body, Richard pulled a small photograph from the dead man’s wallet. It was the young man and his little girl. “I remember holding the photo and actually squatting and getting close and actually looking in his face and looking at the photo and looking in his face.”
The quiet American soldier kept the photo. Through the years, it called to him and plagued him. He became obsessed with it, as it kept the humanity of the man he had killed alive in his heart. Finally, it depressed him. He tried to get rid of it. When the Vietnam Memorial was built in Washington, D.C., Richard made a pilgrimage and left the small, unlabeled picture at the wall. But it was gathered into a book called OFFERING FROM THE WALL, and through a fellow vet, it made its way back to him.
So the improbable journey continued, wherein Richard Luttrell found the little girl in the snapshot. She is Lan Trong Ngoan, the daughter of the man he killed so many years ago. Compelled by a yearning to give the photo back, Richard and his wife flew to Vietnam, where he gave the small photo to this forty-year-old woman, who had no picture of her father.
Through an interpreter, Richard introduced himself. “Tell her this is the photo I took from her father’s wallet the day I shot and killed him and that I’m returning it.” With a cracking voice, he then asked for her forgiveness. After an awkward moment, Lan burst into tears and fell into his arms, and there, the two held each other up against our century, sobbing and embracing.
We have so much to learn from Richard Luttrell and Lan Trong Ngoan. What sort of quiet courage kept Richard’s heart open, for all those years, to the pain of what he’d done? What made him listen to that pain and not seal it over? What enabled him to surrender to some journey he couldn’t understand? What led him with Gandhi-like love to seek out Lan and return to Vietnam? And what made Lan want to meet him? What gave her the courage to forgive him? To fall into the arms of the man who killed her father? Like the immense example of South Africa, how do we find the inner steps that allow us to knit our wounds together, so we might put down our allegiances to those wounds like rusty weapons?
The third story comes from my good friend George. He just returned from Bali. Still jet-lagged, his eyes are incredibly clear. And the image he’s carried back, the one he is eager to speak of, is of Hindu women flowing in their sarongs, wearing wide-brimmed hats filled with small bowls woven of palm and banana leaves. Each bowl is filled with a handful of rice and topped with a few petals. Every day, they deliver these throughout the village. One by one, they cup each bowl into place, into every opening they can find, as an offering to the gods that everyone feels but which no one can see. Every day, these kind people leave their little offerings in doorways, in stairwells, on roads, on windowsills, on the black sand that rims the sea. They place the tiny woven bowls so carefully that even the gods have to bow to inhale the gift.
George and I talk about this for quite some time. He is struck by the way these simple quiet people aren’t SAYING they are grateful but are BEING grateful and how these gestures soften the climate. It makes me wonder, what if we teach the children how to bless every opening, how to bow to every threshold? What if we slip it in between when they learn how to tie their shoes and how to count? In a generation’s time, would our fear of each other quiet down? Would we celebrate the unexpected? What if we were to place such a small bowl at each other’s feet? What if we were to treat each other as openings to be blessed every day?
It seems the act of blessing is a lesson we have to earn, and for this reason it is not really hidden but allowed by grace to grow where it is still difficult for us to spoil. And so, somewhere in the midst of four hundred islands that we call Indonesia, thirteen time zones away, on a small island of bland sand, in the north away from the thirsty tourists, the elegant women of Bali quietly place the small bowls of rice and flowers at your door before you wake to bless the opening we call the day. Such a simple secret , one that God has tucked away till we are vulnerable enough to find it.
Finding Inner Courage page 251-255 Mark Nepo – End
The power of vulnerability Brene Brown
So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability — when we’re waiting for the call. It was funny, I sent something out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, “How would you define vulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?” And within an hour and a half, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what’s out there. Having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.
And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — We are the most in-debt … obese … addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.
I don’t want to feel these. And I know that’s knowing laughter. I hack into your lives for a living. God.
You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conversation. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort. We perfect. If there’s anyone who wants their life to look like this, it would be me, but it doesn’t work. Because what we do is we take fat from our butts and put it in our cheeks.
Which just, I hope in 100 years, people will look back and go, “Wow.”
And we perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh.” That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems, I think, that we see today. We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate — whether it’s a bailout, an oil spill … a recall. We pretend like what we’re doing doesn’t have a huge impact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo, people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say … “We’re sorry. We’ll fix it.”
But there’s another way, and I’ll leave you with this. This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”
And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough” … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.
That’s all I have. Thank you.