The paradox of vulnerability

Opinion: Columns

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

The word that keeps coming to mind, as I think about the state of our democracy and the state of public health, is not fear, though there is plenty of fear around and plenty of things to fear. The word that springs to mind, however, is "vulnerability."

Donald Trump and his assorted asskissers and bootlickers have been conducting a three-year master class on the vulnerabilities of our democratic institutions. That includes the latest installment, which could be titled, "Why it's a bad idea to have a bunch of crazy incompetents in charge of the federal government when a pandemic reaches your shores."

As I wash my hands many more times a day than normal (and I've always washed my hands a lot), I think anew about how vulnerable we all are.

Which led me to a column I wrote some years back (Feb. 4, 2015), "A shameless display of vulnerability," about author Brene Brown, who wrote a book titled, Daring Greatly – How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.

That led to a column from April 13, 2016, "April's cruelty and the vulnerability of living," which contained the following: "Must we learn how to live without hope altogether? Not according to the poet of solace, David Whyte. 'Our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully — or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door. … Will you become a full citizen of vulnerability, loss and disappearance, which you have no choice about?'"

Which led to numerous other columns reflecting the many issues that make us feel vulnerable:

From "The benefit of the doubt," Aug. 20, 2014, about the Catholic pedophilia crisis: "Our very skepticism is hurtful to those who are telling the truth — who were physically overpowered and experienced terrifying vulnerability."

From "Maximum freedom, minimal responsibility," Aug. 1, 2012, about gun rights that require little to no corresponding responsibility: "So here we are, a dozen years into the third millennium, and evidently no one is safe — anywhere. We and our loved ones are completely vulnerable to any deranged individual with a grudge and access to all the guns he wants, who takes it into whatever's left of his mind to make a name for himself by shooting up a herd of docile humanity, collected passively somewhere for his killing pleasure."

From "The liberation of Our Lady," April 24, 2019, about the aftermath of the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris: "Yet this symbol was inert for many — until, in its openness, fragility and vulnerability, Notre-Dame was resurrected."

From "How much do black lives matter?" Jan. 6, 2016, about the Black Lives Matter movement: "As a result, many never answer the more vulnerable question implied within those three words: 'Do our lives matter to you?'"

Vulnerability has been on my mind for a long time, and likely on yours as well. But that is not necessarily a liability. According to Brene Brown, in fact, it is our strength. 

"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage," she says. "Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness. … Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. … If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief. … Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen."

It is an apparent paradox — embracing our vulnerability seems to be the antidote to feeling vulnerable. Unsafe is how many of us feel these days, which leads too many to withdraw into a bunker of prevention, building walls to hide behind, hoping to make themselves invulnerable. It's a waste of time.

Vulnerability from inside outward is our strength. Recognizing our imperfections and the fact that we can't go it alone is how we build relationships, how we build networks, how we build community. Therein lies our strength. But those very interconnections also leave us vulnerable from the outside in. We are susceptible to viruses, misinformation, manipulation, and demagogues like Trump, which we experience as an existential threat. Yet when they afflict us, we need our interconnectedness even more in order to address them. 

We don't want to be reckless, but we also don't want to hold ourselves hostage in some hideout from life. Reasonable precautions like frequent washing of hands, training ourselves not to touch our face, reducing our exposure to large crowds, and not voting for crazy egomaniacs, are worth adopting. But we can't let it tie us up in knots of fear. We have to summon the courage to live with the paradox of vulnerability — at once our strength and our weakness. We can't live life without risk. Our goal is to walk a fine line between the extremes.

We breathe the same air. We share the same risk. It unites us.  Hugs and handshakes have never felt more meaningful. 

When our democracy is endangered (by the aforementioned crazy incompetents), our only recourse is to become more democratic, not less. No one is riding to our rescue. We must ride to our country's rescue. 

Similarly, when pandemics reach our shores, quarantine alone won't solve the problem. Our interconnected system must be mobilized to respond. That means making ourselves vulnerable to the disease in order to conquer it. Or at least tame it.

It's the same principle as vaccination — expose ourselves to just enough of the danger to build up an immunity.

We don't have a vaccination — to either the corona virus or to Trump. At least not yet.

But with any luck, by Nov. 3 we'll have increased our resistance to both.


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