When you hear the word vulnerability, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Whether you consider the vulnerability as something positive, negative or neutral. We use the terms like children as vulnerable, or consider certain adults as vulnerable adults. Much of the literature , especially in philosophy, personality development uses vulnerability in a slightly different way. That is also the way I use here.
Brené Brown has a very powerful ted talk titled “The power of vulnerability”. I don’t want to speak about it, may be you can watch it for yourselves and it’s definitley worth it. Another time, I heard this word was in the context of an article written by James Keenan (a very famous moral theologian). The context of the article was the question of sexual abuse. Along with many others, he also feels that “culture of clericalism” has contributed a lot to the scandal of sexual abuse. And the antidote proposed by him, was “culture of vulnerability”. Probably many of us (atleast Christians) have heard how Jesus became vulnerable in becoming human, and definitely his life has a lot of expressions of it.
So what is vulnerability? One of the dictionary defines it as “willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weakness to be seen or known.” I would like to quote a few statements from one of the books of Brené Brown, which will give some ideas of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in. Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
After a lot of research, Brown would say that one of the common characteristics of the whole-hearted individuals are that they embraced vulnerability. They believed that “what made them vulnerable” also made them beautiful. They don’t consider vulnerability as comfortable or painful, but more as necessary.
Probably moving from hi-fi definitions, we can take a few simple examples. I think everybody is okay with a certain level of vulnerability, with a certain group of people. And it becomes more difficult as we grow up; it becomes further difficult as we become richer, older,more powerful etc.
- Let’s see the relationship between a parent and a child. Atleast till the child becomes an adult, parent has more power, makes the decisions etc. A parent really shows and accepts one’s vulnerability when they accept that the child’s intuition/idea about their future, which may not be the best according to the parents. When a conservative religious parent accepts the marriage of their child with a person from another religion/culture, they accepts their vulnerability.
- You can think of your favourite teacher in the school. In most of the cases, they may or may not the brightest/the brilliant teacher, but the one who doesn’t have the answers to all our questions and had the courage to say “I don’t know”. They also had the courage to accept that ideas/methods of students may be better than their own. And they make connections with us.
- I think any relationship, and especially between couples do show this willingness to be vulnerable before the other person. When we are moving to a more equitable maritable relationship (where both partners are equal), it invites men (specially as they were considered the powerful player in many cultures) and woman to become vulnerable in front of the other.
- In the case of leaders, especially political, cultural or religious, this is very important. But interestingly, a few of them have the courage to say “sorry” when they made an error; a few have the courage to display their ignorace along with all their skills. I think one of the most beautiful expressions of showing the vulnerability is done by Pope Francis, when he says openly during and after the synod of Bishops (very important in church decision making) that he doesn’t have the answers to all complex questions. Some of the political leaders like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand do display vulnerability and that courage have helped her to steer the country through difficult times.
Vulnerability is a way of being, a ground of our relationatlity and a mode of social engagement (Linda Hogan)
Another aspect connected to vulnerability appears in our deep sharings. When a person decides to share a part of the life (or the whole of his experiences) with another person, the first person takes a huge risk and accepts to be vulnerable before the other person. Beyond the cadre of friendships/couples, this also happens to some extend in counselling or in the sacrament of reconciliation. Many a times, I share with a person whom I don’t even know. That sharing with an unknown person requires immense courage, and I think this happens often in the context of “sacrament of reconciliation” where many people share deeply with a priest whom they have never seen/known. To this display of courage to embrace his/her vulnerability, there can be many responses from the person who heard the story. Some are,
- I don’t care. I heard it and I left it there. (Sometimes it does happen because I am too overwhelmed by what I heard, and I don’t know what to do. I just don’t want to enter there).
- I break the trust and spoil the name (sadly this does happen).
- An attitude of paternalising. My friend is in trouble, and I will tell him/her what to do, and I will direct their life.
- I may give them some suggestions or share my opinions.
- Can I help the person to enjoy the liberty of life? In a different context, Jesus said that you shall know the truth and truth shall set you free. The person shared a deep truth about his/her life with me. Can I be of any help that “the truth s/he shared” sets him/her free? This is much different from paternalising.
I want to conclude by just looking at Jesus, and may be a few of his encounters with people. Take the example of a woman caught in the act of adultery (man was left free, which is a question in itself), Zachaeus who was a tax collector, a woman who got healed from haemorrhage after touching Jesus’ cloth etc. They ddin’t have any formal sharing/counselling with Jesus. But in their encounters, there is a certain moment in which they embraced their vulnerability. That brings a new power to their encounter with Jesus. And at the end of the encounter, there are entering into a new freedom.