You might belong in Gryffindor
Where dwell the brave at heart
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry
Set Gryffindors apart
— the Sorting Hat
I’m a Hufflepuff. Or a Ravenclaw. But a Gryffindor I am not. Where dwell the brave at heart? Daring, nerve, and chivalry? What about their vulnerability?
Saturday night I began reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. And it didn’t leave me feeling so great. I set it aside with the same stress and frustration with which you throw that latest bill that just arrived in your mailbox only moments after you emptied your checking account to pay the bill that arrived before it.
It’s the feeling of knowing you’re sick but denying it because you don’t have time to see a doctor or enough spare change to pay for the visit.
And it sucks.
I was paging through the table of contents when I realized there was a reading guide at the back, so I gave it a quick look over…and goodness, this book has homework.
As a teacher, I know the value of homework, but that doesn’t mean I have to love it.
I’m posturing. Forgive me. It’s easy to avoid the things that make us uncomfortable: we are, after all, mostly human, and the drive for self-preservation is primal, ingrained in our brains and beyond the rational control of our frontal lobes and the cerebral.
A tangent: Not all books are meant to be read straight through. Some books are resources intended to be picked at like seeds on the ground. Others are narratives written as they should be read: in a specific order with a specific intent. And others are somewhere in between: this is where I place Brene’s books, for although they are nonfiction resources, they still tell a story, and more so, they invite the reader to join her on the journey she’s gone through herself–the journey that starts when at last we open our eyes and face those very things that make us most uncomfortable about ourselves.
So, that reading guide. This blog. As I make my way through her book, I intend to complete each and every reflection she challenges her readers to consider. It probably won’t be pleasant, but the fact that I intend to share them here forces me to be vulnerable, and I think that mindset is what I need to get the best of this book.
It starts with a preface, a preamble: How do I define vulnerability?
I didn’t realize how deep a question this is until I actually began thinking about it. Sure, I can Google a definition faster than it takes to write this sentence, but that carries with it the same impersonal touch that probably got me into this mess of half-hearted living to begin with. So what do I think about it, what does it mean to me?
First, I think there are different kinds of vulnerability: Emotional vulnerability is a lot different than physical vulnerability, for example, and it’s the emotional vulnerability that I think most people really struggle with–not just before others, but before ourselves. Until I hit publish, these words have an audience of only one, but it’s still difficult to push myself forward to say what I really want to say–to say what needs saying.
Vulnerability is standing naked in the middle of the crowd, feeling their eyes scrutinizing every inch of your body. But it’s also standing naked in the middle of the rain, spreading your arms and throwing your head back to feel every drop of water hitting your face.
Vulnerability is holding your hand before an open flame, knowing if you move any closer you will get burnt, and vulnerability is pushing through the fire regardless.
Vulnerability is driving a knife into your chest and dragging it down until all those things still bottled up inside come pouring out, but vulnerability isn’t just the blood and guts of our bodies, but of our minds, our souls: it’s watching as every ounce of love and self-doubt, longing and belonging, comes tumbling out.
So vulnerability, I see now, isn’t about being harmed, but feeling the threat of harm, feeling afraid of harm. It’s the fear of judgment. The fear of pain. The fear of loss.
Naturally, once I know what vulnerability is, next I need to ask what I believe about it; and this, I think, is an easier question: I know it’s necessary, and I know it’s the biggest barrier between connecting with my truer self and with others around me. But I also know my vocabulary changed there: did you notice it, too? I shifted from “I believe” to “I know,” and knowing isn’t believing, just like believing isn’t knowing.
Maybe it’s not so easy after all. Beliefs are less tangible than facts–after all, it’s the fact they might not be factual that makes them beliefs in the first place. I think, if I press myself, that I believe vulnerability should be avoided: after all, as children, are we not taught never to touch the flames? To stay inside after dark? To lock the door at night?
I think all those lessons about physical vulnerability get mangled with what we’re never taught about emotional vulnerability, so whereas I know now it’s important and necessary, the irrational beliefs that underlie so much of me haven’t caught up yet.
I don’t remember any examples of vulnerability in my youth; I’m sure they were there, but they never got cemented in my memory. I remember how strict my parents were with the games we were allowed the play, the places we were allowed to go, the people we were allowed to go with, the music we listened to, the TV shows we watched. I think a lot of this did, in fact, help keep us safe from physical harm, but I think it also left me feeling very guarded and sheltered growing up, a realization that grows as I grow older and see all the trends that I missed as a child because of my parents’ parenting.
That overdrive instilled a genuine aversion for harm, and yet I’ve still managed to become a risk taker. Of course, I also took a lot of classes (mostly in college) that spoke about creative risk taking, determining appropriate risks to take, and oh my goodness, I am so averse to danger (physical or otherwise) that I literally had to be taught how to take risks. What does that say about me, I wonder? That’s the Ravenclaw inside judging the Hufflepuff I’ve always been but never realized.
The overprotectiveness of my parents while I was growing up certainly protected me from some things, but I also think it shielded me from seeing genuine examples of what it means to be vulnerable, emotionally vulnerable. I don’t blame my parents, of course; they did what they thought was right, and I’m grateful for that. I also think the aversion to vulnerability I’ve acquired isn’t only attributed to them: our entire culture is opposed to vulnerability and uncertainty. It’s why the conservative party is so prolific here: it’s literally the party that wants nothing to change, that is so uncomfortable with the threat of possible harm caused by progression that they fight to keep everything in stasis.
Just like the present fight about the wall: people are so paranoid and unable to accept even an ounce of vulnerability that we spit in the face of compassion and humanity.
I digress. Brene’s last question asks about my present comfort level surrounding vulnerability, and I think I can best answer it by returning to the metaphor of holding my hand before a flame: I’m cautious and concerned, but slowly warming up to it.