The Definition of Vulnerability

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I don’t know a person alive who hasn’t been traumatized in this life in some way. So many of us have come from such harsh childhood environments that, in order to survive them, we had to learn to turn off our feelings. Or, completely forget that we even had them in the first place.

We’ve all seen photos of a forest burned to a crisp, all its life reduced to char and ashes. Barren. Forlorn.

Then, miraculously, within just a few months, the most innocent-looking, verdant sprouts have begun to emerge from the earth.

If you travel the road of healing and transformation long enough, those burnt-down places within ourselves start to rejuvenate and new experiences of life emerge that we might not ever have thought possible.

In my family of origin, I wasn’t allowed to freely express any emotion growing up, except for anger. Anger was the family language and we all spoke it fluently.  Vulnerability expressed at any level was met with scorn, mocking, ridicule; or, worst of all: ignored.

The word, “vulnerability” has many shades. It’s not like anger. Everyone knows anger when they see it. But vulnerability is subtle. It demands more. It asks that a person be present to their feelings; that they be willing to sit with them to let them live. And then, maybe, to share them.

Several years back when I was studying acting, many was the time I received feedback about becoming more vulnerable, was told that it’s a strength and how accessing it at a deeper level would only serve to improve my acting skills.

However, you can’t just tell someone who was trained gladiator-level to express anger to just be more vulnerable.

Brene Brown became rather famous, and I suppose, useful, by teaching about how vulnerability is a good thing, how it connects us to other people and lessens our stress. Frankly, though, because of Brene’s poor wardrobe choices and Texas accent, I never got very far with her but I know she’s helped a lot of people.

Turns out, the thesaurus had a lot to say about vulnerability that I found a lot more interesting.

Vulnerable: Defenseless, exposed, unprotected, unguarded, susceptible, unsafe, weak, assailable.

If you grew up in an unsafe home, words like this are your kryptonite.

On the lighter end, I found words such as:

Ready, sensitive, tender, accessible

Okay. That’s nice. The world needs more of this.

Antonyms included guarded, protected, safe, secure, strong, unsusceptible, closed.

MmmHmmm. THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING’ ABOUT!

In order to become vulnerable to other people, one has to first become vulnerable to oneself. Again, this doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of sustained effort, two steps forward/one step back. It has taken me many years to move off the default anger setting; for the most part,  I’m 99 percent free of it.

Several years ago, I found myself in a one-day acting workshop with a fairly well-known actor teaching it.  At the end of it, he pulled me aside. “You have a depth of feeling that few people will ever get close to,” he confided. “That’s a gift.”

Maybe I wasn’t so surprised by his comment as I was that he saw that in me. Most people back then would’ve used the word “guarded” to describe me in nearly all circumstances.

This morning during my swim, I ended up sharing a lane with a 17-year-old lad who was built like a football player (I later found out that he was). I almost got out of the pool because I knew that his size would take up a lot of my side of the lane, and I hate sharing my lane in the first place, let alone with a big guy. But I decided to stay and finish my mile until another lane opened up.

To my surprise, as it turns out, the lad was in the pool to have a swimming lesson!

He was an absolute beginner who was expending tremendous energy working his legs only to get across the pool, which he never did.

I stopped a few times at my end to give him more space and stood watching his high level of difficulty. When he started practicing his front crawl arm movement, using what looked like a foam dumbbell out in front of him, he was working so voraciously, he looked like he was climbing a mountain with a 200-pound pack on his back. Swimming, as my google search just informed me, is harder than football.

When the kid finally made it to my end, I said, “Congratulations! It’s great that you’re learning how to swim. Keep going.”

The lifeguard, whom I’ll call Henry, was giving the swimming lesson, which I found odd because the lifeguard is only supposed to be a lifeguard. What I noticed, though, was what a great instructor he was.

When I got out of the pool, I said to myself, “I’m going to walk over there and tell him what a great teacher he is.”

Although I had seen Henry countless mornings, we had never shared more than a friendly hello.

Walking back over to my towel after rinsing the chlorine off my body that will continue emanating off me all weekend, I saw Henry walking in my direction.

“How was my teaching?” he smiled.

“Funny you should ask,” I said. “I was just going to come over and tell you what a great teacher you are.”

And then, somehow, someway, out of left field, the reason for this divine intersection became clear.  Within a matter of a couple minutes, Henry told me that his boss had asked of him (told him) to teach that young man how to swim so that he could take a lifeguard exam in two weeks. One of the requirements of that test is swimming 500 yards. That’s 20 lengths of the pool.

“There’s no way that kid is going to pass that test,” I said. “He can’t even swim at all. Why are you wasting your time?”

“Because Helen (his pseudonymed boss with whom I have a nice rapport) told me to work with him.”

If there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s when people are being exploited. “If Helen wants you to work with him, she can pay you for the swim lesson. That’s 14 bucks. Otherwise, she’s taking advantage of you.”

“She’s always taken advantage of me,” he revealed. “People have taken advantage of me my whole life because I’m handicapped.”

In that exact moment, my heart started leaking through my bathing suit.

“I don’t know if that’s true, Henry. And I don’t know if you know that’s true, either. It could just be a story you made up or maybe it is true, but let’s allow for the possibility that it’s not.”

Henry’s eyes were filling with water.

“I’ve never been able to stand up for myself,” he said.

“Okay, well today’s the day that stops, my friend. You’re ready to step out into a bigger, more powerful version of yourself. If you weren’t, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

Something in Henry knew this was true.

“What time do you finish work today?” I asked.

“Two o’clock,” he said.

“Okay, so at 2:00, you’re going to go talk to Helen and tell her what’s on your mind.”

“I’m afraid of Helen,” he confessed. “I’ve always been afraid of Helen.”

If you want to know the truth, it was hard for me to keep my composure. I took his hands in mine. “Well, today’s the day you stop being afraid of Helen. You’re going to walk in there with your fear, holding hands with it, and you’re going to be surprised at how quickly it disappears once you start standing up for yourself.”

“Can you go over to her office right now and tell her that you want to talk to her when you finish at 2:00?” The answer was no because he was the lifeguard and the number one tenet of the Lifeguard’s Creed is that you never, ever leave the pool.

“Okay. How about if I go to Helen’s office and tell her that you need to speak to her? When she comes out to the pool to talk to you, you’ll tell her that you want to meet with her at 2:00 when you finish working. How does that sound?”

He looked hesitant but open.

“Now what are you going to say when Helen comes in here?”

“I’m going to say, ‘I want to speak with you at 2:00’.”

I placed my hand on Henry’s shoulder. “Beautiful, Henry! Beautiful. I’m going to be thinking of you at 2:00, seeing you speaking up for yourself and saying what you need. And I’m going to be with you. Today is the day you step into a new life.”

When I got home, I set my alarm for 1:45. When it went off, I sat down on the couch and called upon Henry’s guardian angels, spirit guides and any ascended master that happened to be available at 2:00 to surround Henry and give him strength and courage.

I visualized Henry filled with the knowing of his true power, standing there talking with Helen, chest high, chin up, speaking up for himself – maybe for the first time in his life. That was a happy happy happy visualization.

None of this would have happened if Henry hadn’t shown his vulnerability by expressing his fear and trepidation with me. He was beyond ready to put an end to a lifetime of feeling small.

But Henry wouldn’t have come to me to share that vulnerability if he hadn’t felt a kindred spirit.

There are so many people walking this earth profoundly disempowered, unable to ask for the simplest things or to speak up for themselves in any way. For whatever their unique reason, they feel unworthy of basic consideration and respect.

I grew up with a gladiator for a mother and four brothers who never protected me; I had to learn to protect myself – from them.  I can’t even remotely relate to the profound level of disempowerment so many of our brothers and sisters suffer with – sometimes for their entire lifetimes.

Henry reminded me today that there truly is Absolute Power in vulnerability. By sharing his “weakness”, he allowed me to share my strength.

I finally understand the equation:

Vulnerability = Strength.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been doing alright with it. Slow and steady wins the race.

And, Henry showed me today that I’ve got some catching up to do.

Penultimate

Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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