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On Being Vulnerable

September 30, 2014

Recently I sat in front of a fairly good-sized group (over 50 people) and basically opened my soul to them in a way that I seldom do.  We were studying the gospel of Mark, and as the discussion moved along, a deeply personal moment, a mystical moment of the Risen Christ being revealed, came to mind as a powerful example at an intense point in our discussion.  This is an experience about which I have prayed, written in my journals, wrestled and thought ever since it happened months ago.  And since it happened, I haven’t spoken about it to ANYONE.  Before I knew what I was doing, I was telling this entire group of people about this experience.  Tears came as I spoke, and I had to stop to compose myself.  I felt raw and naked, exposed.  Here was my little pearl of great price, a deeply personal experience, laid bare for all to see.  What was I doing?

Fast forward a couple weeks, and one of my closest friends asked me about the mystical experience I had, having heard that I shared it with the group.  Here is someone who knows me well, from whom few secrets are hid.  There I sat, tongue-tied and nervous to share my experience, to be vulnerable even with this person I know very, very well.  And so it is with revealing ourselves with others.  I muddled my way through, allowing myself to be embarrased and awkward and pushing through to the share the mystical experience.  Once the words were out, even though I still felt off-kilter, everything was ok.  A peace settled over us, and a closeness that is hard to fake or manufacture.  (As a side note, mystical experiences have a way of pushing us and transforming us and revealing us; they are seldom silent but they often bring incredible calm, quiet, peace.)  In the midst of all this, I wondered:  how was it that I spontaneously shared something so private with a large group, and then I was reluctant to share it with someone so close to me?  Is it easier to be open with strangers or acquaintances?

Now, I have a job that puts me in front of people regularly; it’s not something especially bothersome to me.  In fact, it’s a joy to share in worship with others, and no matter the size of the gathering, there’s an intimacy to that time and space that is sacred and sacramental. And it’s probably easier because, while I am in front of folks and sharing a very personal part of faith, it doesn’t necessarily call on me to be vulnerable in a particular way.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m genuine (I don’t know any other way to be), but we all know that one can say a lot of true things about oneself while still being shielded and guarded.  I’m very personable with people while remaining intensely private with all but a few.  And then there are those things which I hold close and rarely share at all.

These days, vulnerability is all the rage.  The good work of Brene Brown has spread the value of vulnerability far and wide, working to transform us all and encourage us to be open and risk being vulnerable with others.  Brown’s work on shame is indeed important; I’m a fan.  When I had the chance to see her a little up close (she received an honorary doctorate at my graduation from seminary), she seemed real and lovely and maybe a little shy.   I wonder about the intersection of her now very public life and her inner world, how she navigates being in the headlines and giving TED talks and hanging out with Oprah.  Is that where being vulnerable leads — fame and wealth and all that stuff?  (Of course, talking about vulnerability and studying it isn’t the same as being vulnerable per se, and I’m not trying to imply anything about Brene Brown!  Don’t get me wrong — I’m happy for her; you go girl!)

Being vulnerable is hard work.  It won’t get most of us published, or applauded, or even noticed.  It might put us in uncomfortable situations, saying or doing things that open us up to misunderstanding or even worse, criticism or ridicule.  That’s why we so often won’t do it, or when we do, we feel unsure and exposed.  Anyone who has lived through junior high knows how cruel people can be to each other.  After all, we learn not to be vulnerable in part from past experiences which have hurt us.  Self-preservation is a strong and primative instinct, deeply inplanted in our survivor brain, and our emotional life knows this on that primeval level.

And yet, our deepest instincts can be wrong.  When we are vulnerable, inch by inch, little by little, we challenge that base sense of self-preservation, that sense which might have worked when we were being hunted by wild animals but doesn’t always serve us well in modern society, filled with subtle emotional cues and complex social relationships.  With each experience of being vulnerable and not meeting with impending doom, we slowing relearn what it means to be human.  These layers of experience in fact allow us not only to relearn; they actually help us grow and become so much more of who God intended.  I have some pretty deep scars, things that once kept me from being known and open (and sometimes still do).  Yet over time, I have learned what it means to trust the process of vulnerability, to trust others.  And even more, I’ve learned that my ability to be known is not and cannot be dependent solely on how others react.  I can only be who I am, and I can choose to reveal as much as or little as I desire.  So it’s important that I wrote of my public sharing, before I knew what I was doing. Over time, my automatic response has shifted from fear and unwillingness to be open and known to a kind of auto-pilot that risks striking out, that listens to the inner rhythm and trusts that it is ok to disclose something deeply personal about myself.  That morning in our bible study, I wasn’t consciously weighing my response; I was acting based on the slow build of trust that is formed with each little interaction of letting someone in.  Trusting my deeper self, where truth lies.

The big surprise is this:  we all want to be known.  Deep down, we yearn for connection — it’s how we are truly created to be.  When I shared my mystical encounter, the experience of sharing it  reinforced my ability to be vulnerable.  But being vulnerable isn’t just about me;  sharing that day also made connections with those who heard and shared the story with me.  And when we risk being known in that way, it invites us all to open ourselves to connection, to one another and the power of our experiences.  When I shared that same experience with someone close to me, the stakes were much higher; he had the potential power to really hurt me by the way he reacted to me.  Because while no one can make me feel anything, when we open ourselves to others, we invite a kind of intimacy that allows for hurt to happen.  We want to be close; we weigh the risk of it with every interaction, every disclosure, every inching into the deep waters of who we really are.

The sacrament of the Present Moment — that is what really happens when we are vulnerable.  We find something sacred in the sharing, and it connects us to each other.  That is where we long to live, where long to live, in the thin space between the Eternal and the Now, where I can own who I am and let you in too — to all that I am:  the good, the bad, the crazy and wild heart that longs to connect.



One Comment
  1. There is great wisdom here, and a glimpse of the kingdom.

Go ahead, say it. Would love to hear your thoughts!

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