V is for vulnerable

images (41)Today, my friends, we are spinning, spinning, spinning the alphabet wheel. Can you hear it whinny and whir through its multiple rotations of 26 choices? And after the occasional stutter and stumble, it eventually settles and makes its home on the venerable “V.”

Ah … “V”; it’s a letter that we know well. “V” trumpets vanquish, vessel, victory, volume and today’s word of choice: vulnerability.

Vulnerable is derived the Latin and translates into “able to be wounded.” Think of all those Roman gladiators without their armor; they would be vulnerable to attack. And attack, be it physical, emotional or energetic, is generally what we think of in response to being vulnerable.

Over the last few months, I have worked therapeutically with three young women, and they all share one overriding aspect. All three young women have raised their moats, so to speak. Their castles are impregnable. No one gets in. They all have chosen unequivocally to be invulnerable.

They remind me of the mythological three-headed dog, Cerberus. Each young woman shows her face, both literal and metaphoric, in different ways. Yet, each young woman believes that is really not a good idea for anyone to see, much less know, their particular weaknesses or soft spots. Given their chaotic, aggressive and demeaning backgrounds, they have spent their respective years keeping everything at bay.

I can relate. I feel that I spent the first half of my life creating walls to protect myself and the last half tearing them down. It is hard to be vulnerable, especially if you have been on the receiving end of flying physical mortar or verbal missiles. Needless to say, when the stuff starts raining down you, you first instinct is to either to run, hide and protect yourself or to become paralyzed with fear and wish you were dead so you wouldn’t have to live through the onslaught.

This reminds me of another example of the power of vulnerability:

Decades ago, I was working with a young mother who allowed that her home life as kid was less than ideal. I asked if she had a safe space or a hiding place at home; she answered the roof the house. Her bedroom was on the second floor, and she could creep out the window and be hidden from view. Yet, she was afraid to go the roof because if she was discovered, she felt she would never, ever have a safe space at home again. So, she chose to make herself into a tight ball, be as still as possible and try to be invisible in her small closet. She was often discovered, but she felt oddly protected by holding on to the thought of her roof as her final frontier of safety.

Clearly, there is much to be said for being protected and invulnerable from attack. Whether the war comes from within or without, who wants to live in a war-torn house and constantly be under siege? It is no way to live, and it makes good sense to build walls and protect yourself. Physical safety is, or, at least, it should be, a primary, baseline requisite for all human beings.

But there is more to consider:

Physical vulnerability leads to emotional vulnerability. When our physical selves are under attack — either from the inside or outside — our emotional selves tag along as well. In other words, if I am living amidst war in Iraq, widowhood in Canada or recovering from a hospital stay in New York, my emotional self responds as well. I might become depressed, weepy, angry or, even, numb.

And, conversely, if I find myself all stressed about something, I might throw out my back, get headaches or find a rash on my arms. In fact, I have watched time and again as a majority of new employees get a cold within the first three weeks of the new job. Emotional vulnerability leads to physical vulnerability. When our emotional selves are under siege, our bodies respond with sickness, “dis-ease,” rashes, breaks and all kinds of physical communiqués. After all, we are holistic beings; mind, body and spirit do work in tandem.

Some people, like my three young women, think that if they are emotionally invulnerable they are safe in all ways. They feel in control and empowered. They have bricked up the openings and no one can get in … and no one can get out as well. They have made themselves rigid. Their feeling states are placed on hold. In their protection, they miss the sweet juiciness of life; there is no real intimacy, much less authenticity.

Then, there are those who follow a very regimented lifestyle. They eat very clean foods in sparse, adjusted amounts; exercise regularly and seriously and devote themselves to their physical bests. Madonna with her food and exercise routine for the 18 months preceding her Sticky and Sweet Tour is a good example. The press reported that her strict training placed emotional stress on her marriage.

Whether true or false, the point is that we are multi-dimensional beings, and we need give and take in all areas of our lives. It would stand to reason that whatever we hold as rigid, fixed and strong has a counterpoint that is flexible, impermanent and weak. This is how life works; where there is yin, there is also yang.

I think of a woman I work with who has been felled with severe disabilities and chronic illnesses. Her body is weak; her spirit is strong.

Vulnerability is part of being human. As tiny babies or those who are sick, hugely stressed, burdened with worries or just trying to survive, we are all open to some kind of wounding. Vulnerability can come as a surprise in a hurricane, the betrayal of a loved one or the ill advisement of a mortgage banker. It takes many shapes and forms. It fits all ages.

To me, vulnerabilities are like balsamic vinegar — sweet-sour, mineral-rich, fermented wine that has settled into the bottom of the cask. Our vulnerabilities may sting, but they also open and expand us. It is through our very humanness and these self-same vulnerabilities that we connect with one another. One of the reasons that comedy resonates with so many of us is that it is built on this very sharing of vulnerabilities.

In their highest form, vulnerabilities serve as measures of acceptance. Can we accept our soft, squishy, scabby, shadowy selves? If so, that acceptance becomes a prelude to healing.

And for those of us on the spiritual path, acceptance of our vulnerabilities is the first step of surrender to the divine.

Plutarch said, “What we achieve inwardly, will change outer reality.” I agree and would add the converse, “What we achieve outwardly, will change inner reality.” It all goes hand-in-hand. Everything is connected.

So, then, wouldn’t you agree that choosing to be consciously vulnerable with your self can also be a great act of strength?

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One Response to V is for vulnerable

  1. Na'ama Yehuda August 12, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Read this and thought of poor Robin Williams, now gone from this world, and how his own vulnerability–or worry of–may have played a part in his longtime struggle with depression and substance abuse. Substance abuse being mostly depressants … paradoxically … and by that only making the escapism worse when reality did return, and making his body less able to regulate even when he was ‘clean’ and sorrowful and yet no longer able to get so numb.
    Vulnerability is no weakness, yet it is so often perceived as such and taught to be such–by those who put down children for not being good enough or crying or needing reassurance or just because they themselves are frustrated and unhappy and need someone smaller than themselves to dump it on.
    But it is no weakness.
    It is human. It is humane.
    It is through vulnerability that we connect, that we feel empathy, that we can see another through the eyes of our heart.

    Maybe like every concept, vulnerability comes is dose-sensitive–too little of it bars us from living connected, too much of it bars us from keeping our legs under us and managing life’s strife and disappointments without seeing it all as crippling victimization.

    Am so very sad for Robin William’s compass for life being so broken into despair that he could not see the gift he was and the meaning of love and connection as a lifeline to traction. His vulnerability may have been simultaneously too narrow and too deep, too limited and too limiting, too wounded and too lost.
    May he rest in peace, and may his loved ones find solace in each other, and in the gift he had been.