On Vulnerability

Sometimes I wish that we could put on personalities like tank tops, wear them like tee shirts, throw them in the wash when they started to stink. But even then, mine would be the kind with instructions to launder inside out, cold, gentle cycle. Because I tend to fray at the edges from the criticism of the suds. And sometimes I bleed color from the constructive agitation.

I am weary of being sensitive, of crying easily, of feeling everything. There was a time when I shut it all off, worked like a robot, developed such thick skin that my heartbeat grew muffled beneath it. But I shed those tough, ugly (albeit durable) layers several years ago on the floor of my old office, the one with a door I could shut and a window I couldn't open. Kevlar no longer hangs in my closet.

Now I am vulnerable, wearing my imperfections like stains down the middle, and I wish for resilience even as I whisper gratitude at the return of emotion.

I have been thinking much about this business of being vulnerable, and maybe it is self-serving to say this. But I believe it takes more courage to love without holding back, to feel without hedging, than it does to live in predominant independence with achievement as the primary measure of value. I lived the latter approach for many years, and in doing so, I insulated myself from the most extreme temperatures of joy and pain. A life at room temperature is really no life at all. (And I have a host of mid-19th century poets who will back me on this.)

Now, I'm not saying we should all aspire to being needy, emotional wrecks. But I do think we (okay, maybe just me) should not be ashamed to revolve our entire life around another, to not be able to imagine the next day without him in it. Is that vulnerable? Yes. But is it weak? I don't think so.

And this courage to be vulnerable is not just about love of another, a spouse, a child, or a friend. The same courage sits also at the foundation of goals that are largely out of reach. It is what bolts dreams down, attempts to frame them into reality, into walls and roof and legitimacy. And it is this same courage that makes us appear foolish to others, to ourselves. Take for instance, after 25 years the love of your life cheats on you. Or an investor laughs in your face when she hears your business pitch. Or your extended family ridicules you for leaving corporate America to start a dairy farm. Whether the yield is joy or pain, elation or disappointment, it almost always begins by locking hands with courage on one side, vulnerability on the other. And by stepping out.

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” - Madeleine L'Engle

What do you think? Does it take more courage to be vulnerable? Is it human nature to try to protect ourselves against the deepest love, the truest life, to settle for something less scary, but also less satisfying? Or is it just me?

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