This topic of vulnerability is not going to go away because I think it is so misunderstood. Just the word alone makes many of us cringe and clench out teeth. That’s because we were born tiny and helpless, and the imprint on our nervous system/memory chip of that vulnerability, which was real and life threatening when we were two weeks old, pops up whenever we feel uncertain, insecure, disapproval, comparison. But vulnerable does not mean helpless or defenseless.
If you didn’t get a chance to go to TED talks and listen to the Brené Brown lecture I posted in my last blog, be reassured that I am going to quote from her many more times. Here is my acknowledgement of her work being a wonderful source of grist for my mill. “I want to separate courage and bravery for you…” she says, and my heart just relaxes. “The original definition of courage came from the Latin word cor, meaning heart (coeur in French). It meant to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
There it is. No mountains to climb. No points to prove. No applause. Being in whole heart is why we want someone to hear us, why we listen to each other, why we dance and sing and write our stories. That is why I wrote “The Woman in the Photograph,” the story of uncovering my mother’s hidden past and in the process changing my understanding of who I am. My mother was wounded. Her childhood in Germany was harsh for a sensitive young girl. Then she lost everything–her parents, her wealth, her identity–though she was fortunate to escape early enough to miss the worst of the Nazi abuses. But between her childhood and her history, she dared not show her vulnerability.
My mother acted tough in front of other people. She pretended to be brave, proud, to not need anyone, to not care what other people thought. That was my role model for how to be safe. My mother never believed she could depend on anyone. But her illusion of independence made her more rigid, in a sense more breakable. The side of her that I saw in the privacy of my childhood home was a woman who collapsed into tears and felt alone and helpless.
So how could I have needs? I too wanted to not count on anyone. I started earning a living at sixteen. I was reluctant to let others know about my anxiety. I tried to choose situations where I felt I had the skills and avoid those where I might be caught unprepared. At least for a while.
Then I had a wonderful daughter. When you have a child, you can no longer pretend that you don’t need others. At the time we were living on the coast of Maine in a remote region. I needed help with everything–getting around on the icy roads, taking care of my baby while I did errands, offering me a cup of tea when I hadn’t gotten any sleep and felt discouraged. At first I could only hope someone would offer. Then I learned to ask. And ask. And ask. And I had to admit when I felt fragile, when I needed a hug, when I didn’t know what to do. And I had to learn to receive, graciously, and learn to accept refusals and disappointments, graciously.
Brown says that being willing to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart goes along with having the courage to be imperfect. She says that people who embraced their vulnerability even believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.
At first glance, that may sound like quite a stretch. But that is exactly what I have found to be the truth. That is where we connect with each other. We are a species that is both strong and fragile. As Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said many decades ago, we are inter-dependent. We rely on each other, sometimes in ways unseen. And we cannot find our sense of self, our sense of worth, without knowing our connection to the whole of life.
My first book “Journey from Anxiety to Freedom” was about learning to cope with anxiety and learn the tools to relieve it. What was once my secret became the door that opened my connection to other people–sometimes people I would never have know, people with different political views, different cultural backgrounds. But once we knew each other in our vulnerability, we could know each other is our strength and our gifts. Here is a what author Geneen Roth said:
“By revealing her own story, Mani Feniger reminds us that our biggest fear can become our most profound teacher.” —Geneen Roth, bestselling author of When Food is Love
Live wholeheartedly. Live with the courage to be imperfect, to be grateful, to be enough, to choose to see yourself as worthy. It is from here that we can meet each other, find our place of belonging, and together create new realities.
I’m going to continue with this subject for a few more weeks and would love to hear from you too.