I woke up early this morning as I usually do, but I didn’t want to read my book on the “Troubles” in Northern Island called “Say Nothing, A True Story of Murder And Mystery In Northern Ireland“, a powerful non-fiction history of that painful conflict.
The book was too sad for me for Easter Sunday, it is always painful to be reminded what men can do to one another. This day marks rebirth for me, people rising.
Instead, I went to Netflix for something to watch in the dark. I found a talk by sociologist Brene Brown on vulnerability and courage.
Maria woke right up when she heard Brown talking, and we both watched this compelling talk together, since issues of vulnerability, shame and fear have often come up in our lives. On Easter, we both celebrate our rebirth, our courage for life, as Brown puts it.
For her, courage means showing up for life, however fearful or fragile we we sometimes are. It means accepting the struggles of meaning, and knowing the truth about ourselves.
Maria and I were so stirred and moved by Brene’s talk that we made a podcast about vulnerability and courage and posted it this morning. It’s getting a lot of play.
We cultivate love, Brown has written, when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
She wrote something I discovered when I started my blog in 2007. Owning our authentic stories can be difficult but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running away from the truth about myself.
I promised to tell the truth on my blog, the good and the bad, and I believe I have kept that promise. In the process, I was changed, I found my way to my God.
Brown wrote something that Thomas Merton also wrote that touched me deeply. You don’t have to be good to do good, and to be loved. None of us are perfect, being flawed is something all humans share, like dying.
I was imperfect, wired for conflict, anger and resentment, but I was still worthy of love and belonging, and I was still, it turned out, capable of love and belonging.
I once thought this talk kind of wishy-washy, but when you are hanging onto life by your fingernails, light gets through the cracks and the walls. And I found love not because I was perfect, but because I was not.
Maria was the catalyst for showing my vulnerability – something few men are taught in life – because she was the first person I have ever trusted completely to allow me to reveal myself.
Love is always a risk, as is anything of value in life, love may be the greatest risk, which is why so many people can’t find it or won’t risk it.
You really do have to put yourself out there.
What a mess I was, but along with Maria, I think my blog saved me. This is where I put myself out there, this is where I showed up every day no matter how frightened or bewildered or lost I was.
On the blog, I showed my vulnerability every day, and the world not only didn’t come to an end, but all kinds of people supported me and understood me and read my work, and many are reading me still. My blog gets four million hits a year.
This is how I came to understand that no one has a patent on pain and fear and loss. We all have our battles to find, I believe that everyone has it worse than me. That is a way to discover empathy, the most noble of all human feelings or emotions.
I think vulnerability is the cornerstone of good writing. I’ve told my students this for years, but most of them can’t do it or won’t do it. I understand, it is a personal choice. It is not natural. Humans, of all species, know to be careful. Just look at our bloody history with one another.
The blog taught me to be authentic, to face the truth about myself and share the truth. To shed my secrets one by one until there are no more, and I have nothing to hide.
Authenticity is sometimes defined as the choices we make every day. To overcome our fear and limitations. To take the risk of living fully. To show up and do real good in the real world. To be real.
And one of the most important for me, a writer, to let my true self be seen and shared.
John Updike taught the only writing workshop I ever attended, and he was an apt teacher, not least of all because I was in awe of him and his writing. He said vulnerability is at the heart of every great writer, from Steinbeck to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Vulnerability is where creativity and change begin and evolve. Vulnerability connects me to other people who are vulnerable, we are a community. We find one another and understand one another. We learn from each other.
As much of our country sheds empathy for cruelty and neglect, the vulnerable understand empathy is a very particular way, because their very existence depends on it.
Vulnerability requires boundaries, thought and perspective. I don’t mourn on Facebook or share my daily fears and struggles, or discuss them with anyone. I dislike the social media password, “so sorry for your loss,” it is used so often and for so many trivial things that it has lost all meaning and feeling. It is no excuse for words.
Enabling is different from supporting. I show myself to people I know and trust, and to a certain degree.
Vulnerability has taught me that there is nothing worth doing that is not difficult to do, that does not bring pain and failure and disappointment. No one can escape pain and failure and disappointment in life, no matter how rich or successful they become, or how content they seem.
It is the pain and the struggle that make all of us vulnerable, and bind so many of us together.
Daily, the Internet and it’s Frankenstein child, social media, challenge us to be strong, to shield ourselves from the hate and judgement that has turned out public places into digital leech fields, the cesspools of culture and communications, places of hurt and rage.
Vulnerability makes me strong, I choose the people I wish to talk to.
To be vulnerable in a healthy way is to have boundaries, be thoughtful, stay close to people and friendships that nourish, not drain trust and openness. The vulnerable are vulnerable, it is important to learn how to speak up for ourselves and insist that the people around us tell the truth or move away.
I learned that vulnerability is not fear. It is often about fear, and that is a different thing.
Vulnerability is truth and courage.
I’ve learned that only the strung can be vulnerable because people in our world are taught to never show their vulnerability: just look at politics and cable news. In our culture, a politician who shows any kind of vulnerability would be eaten alive by journalists, commentators and opponents.
I had a panic attack the other day, it surprised me it is a rare thing for me now.
I used to hide my fear, I was ashamed of it, as any bed wetter can testify. When Maria came into my office, I turned to her and said “I just had a panic attack.” She sat down and talked me through it, and I went back to work.
I felt strong and powerful. And free and loved. It didn’t matter that I sometimes was panicked by life.
Thomas Merton wrote that our technological society values data over wisdom, truth is no longer valued for its own sake, something we see every day in politics.
Without wisdom, he wrote, truth can never be found, problems never resolved. Everyone can have data, but wisdom falls only to the few.
The first step towards finding a God, said Merton, is to discover the truth about ourselves. The first step to truth is seeing the broken parts of ourselves.
Today, this day honoring resurrection and rebirth, I celebrate the power of vulnerability to transform my life, to shed my worst fears and secrets and to find the courage to lie.
To show up every day, and take the risk. That is true courage.