“Look at me man, I’m in danger…”
— David Bowie, “Lazarus”
It starts with just a flicker.
You’re in your warm house; you’re sipping your coffee, listening to music, chatting with a friend on your phone.
Then there’s a flicker. The lights blink off, then on, just the barest of moments. You’re not even sure that it happened, really, so you just keep going...
Then again. The lights. The refrigerator. The computer. Another flicker, another momentary recovery...
And then an awful silence descends.
Back in November, after I had returned to Germany from Serbia, I posted a musing to Facebook. Why, I wondered, was I now reacting so much more strongly to the news of suffering around the world than I had in previous years? After all, we’ve lived through some pretty heinous times, and witnessed terrible events, from Vietnam and Cambodia through Bangladesh and Biafra and …well, the list goes on.
And a friend stated the obvious: “You are finally the one in danger.”
Vulnerability—the possibility that one can be hurt—is a difficult condition to accept. We have strong internal mechanisms that drive us to seek comfort, shelter and security. We build complex physical and psychological systems to protect ourselves, so that we don’t spend all our time and energy in worry. But as the recent winter storms showed us, sometimes even the most robust systems can fail, or be overwhelmed. Our defenses can be penetrated, whether by storms—or shooters—or passenger jets—or microbes—or toxic ideas—or the powerful and unscrupulous
Confronted with our vulnerabilities, we may be tempted to fortify as much as possible, to withdraw into ourselves, to hunker down behind walls and borders and slogans and minefields. We may become enamored of strongmen, demagogues and authoritarians, who rise to power by promising us an impossible level of protection.
We may even come, like the folks who recently came to a church in Newfoundland, PA to have their assault rifles blessed, to worship the very tools of violence.
Moments like these storms, though, that strip away our illusions and remind us of our vulnerable realties, can also provide valuable opportunities, if we can accept and embrace them. They can prompt us to develop resilience instead, as individuals, neighborhoods and communities—to pull together the resources and plans we need to know that whatever happens to us, we will be better able to recover. They can help us achieve greater levels of empathy and understanding, and greater awareness of the sufferings of others.
Vulnerability is frequently confused with weakness, but in fact the opposite can be the case. Not only does it take courage and strength to admit vulnerability, but vulnerability can itself become a source of strength. This was one of the things learned by those in the Civil Rights movement, and it is something that is being learned again here in the Age of Trump.
For me, now, at this moment of my life, vulnerability means being as open and honest as possible about where I am and how I feel—about my mistakes and accomplishments, my successes and failures—with myself as well as with others. Maybe this is true for you too.
“Community,” says M. Scott Peck, “requires the confession of brokenness.” It requires vulnerability, at every level of our lives.
All I can say is: I will try.