On Vulnerability

With tender and invisible threads, we are inextricably bound to one another. Although we choose to live mainly through shadowy abstractions of the ‘I’ and ‘me’, they only momentarily disguise the indisputable truth: we cannot live without each other.

Of course, there are those who try. They retreat into the mountains, or run away on overseas vacations, desperately seeking to separate themselves from others in the vain hope of avoiding the pain of loss, the agony of betrayal, or the scarring burns of deceit. But, when one retreats from life like this, encasing themselves behind the brick and mortar of fear and insecurity, they not only distance themselves from the pain of separation, they likewise negate the joy of communion. For one simply cannot have one without the other.

‘The more we are able to love another person and to enjoy his company, the greater must be our grief at his death, or in separation’ wrote Alan Watts, in his splendid meditation on the wisdom of insecurity. ‘To the degree that life is found good, death must be proportionately evil’. As Simone De Beauvoir understood well, life places an exceptional burden on us. With playful irony, we have no choice but to be free; free to think, free to feel, and free to believe. But, for some, the freedom to feel becomes too painful, and they try to shut it down. Watts continues,

Something of this kind is often attempted. There is the woman who, having suffered some deep emotional injury in love or marriage, vows never to let another man play on her feelings, assuming the role of the hard and bitter spinster. Almost more common is the sensitive boy who learns in school to encrust himself for life in the shell of the “tough-guy” attitude. As an adult he plays, in self-defence, the role of the Philistine, to whom all intellectual and emotional culture is womanish and “sissy.” Carried to its final extreme, the logical end of this type of reaction to life is suicide. The hard-bitten kind of person is always, as it were, a partial suicide; some of himself is already dead.

Pain, suffering, anxiety, grief and sorrow are integral aspects of the human condition. If we wall them off or cut them out, we are not protecting ourselves from anything, what we are doing is denying our own humanity. It is more difficult to stay with your grief than run from it, but it is also more rewarding.

Opening ourselves to love but also hate, to being embraced but also rejected, is the most difficult yet rewarding part of life. It is what makes a fully human existence possible. It is a skill that can be mindfully practised if we can remind ourselves that it all starts with allowing ourselves to become vulnerable.

When we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, we gain an incredible vitality and zest for life. Because so much of our energy goes into protecting and securing ourselves from grief, sorrow, anxiety and so forth, once we stop this, it can finally be directed to more sublime and transcendent ends. The materials used to construct cold walls of exclusion can be used to build beautiful bridges between us.

If you do not have sight you can never be blinded, but you will never bear witness to the shifting mosaic of a kaleidoscope, or the tranquil beauty of a bee buzzing humbly on a blooming rose. If you do not have ears, you will never have to listen to cruel rumours and gossip, but you will never enjoy the melodic symphonies of Mendelssohn or Brahms. If you do not have an open heart, you will never be hurt again, but you will never be able to experience the bliss of being loved unconditionally and accepted for who you are.

Being vulnerable means exposing yourself to pain, just as much as to pleasure. There is no guarantee that they will come in equal proportions, in commensurate quantities, or even that what is pleasure today will not turn into pain tomorrow. But, being vulnerable affords us the opportunity to truly live and commune with ourselves, with others, and with the universe.

We are so used to thinking about vulnerability in terms of the terrible things that come as a result of it. If we open ourselves up, we allow others to hurt us, trample on our feelings, and push us down. Of course nobody wants this. But, in allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, we open the path for real connection and companionship, and the chance of a really loving and humane relationship. Vulnerability opens ourselves up to the other aspects of our nature we usually keep hidden. It leads us to a fuller and richer reality. What’s more, it can become the bedrock for a new relationship, where we can connect with others on a deeper and more profound level than we have before. We will be able to share our deepest fears, darkest thoughts, and loftiest aspirations, and in doing so, achieve a deeper and more fulfilling emotional connection than we have hitherto had.

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