The Authenticity of Vulnerability

The Authenticity of Vulnerability

It’s hard to have a conversation about vulnerability these days without mentioning Brene Brown and her work.   She deserves a lot of the credit for bringing the discussion about vulnerability into the forefront of the American consciousness with her popular TED talks and books on the subject. For people like me, who are trying to live as a more authentic version of themselves, vulnerability lies at the core of what we’re attempting to do.

In my journey to live my life more authentically it was inevitable that I would stumble upon vulnerability.  And boy did I stumble, much like Brene Brown herself did. Even when the obvious truth presented that living my life from an authentic place demanded that I show up in vulnerability, I still fought it. The realization that tipped me onto the other side of my struggle with vulnerability was that people don’t share their souls with those who project perfection and those who seem to be untouched by the struggles of life.  And their soul was what I was looking for: I wanted to touch that depth of realness in a person.  I wanted to hear what inspired them, the turning points in their lives, the beliefs that shaped them and who was meaningful in their life.  I also wanted to hear their substance, their struggles.  I realized that if I wanted to hear those stories from other people, I had to share my own stories like that, and many times I had to go first.  But to go first is to risk rejection and to risk someone looking at you like they can’t believe you just said what you said.  The sensitive introvert in me would much rather let the other person reach out to me first, to put themselves in the vulnerable position, because at that point I can choose to say yes to their offer, while already knowing that they want to connect with me.

Many of us struggle with vulnerability as it can go against the very core of some of our strongly held beliefs, namely that vulnerability is weakness.  I know that I oscillate between wanting to share my vulnerability with others and not sharing it because it’s scary.  Sometimes it feels like being vulnerable is the exact opposite of what we feel we should be doing- we should be bolstering ourselves up, looking more powerful, more perfect, more invincible.  That’s how we impress people, get more friends, clients, connections, whatever it is we’re looking for, right?  But I’ve found the exact opposite to be true.  It’s very difficult to connect with people in any sort of meaningful fashion unless you’re willing to risk vulnerability.  What if in our vulnerability we really are more beautiful?  What if in that flash of uncertainty, flow of emotion, or struggle, we are more human and more whole, and more connected to others?  What does that mean for our lives?

Here’s what I do know about vulnerability, from personal experience.   When we show up as our vulnerable selves, and are honest about our struggles and our imperfections, we inspire others to do the same.  Public speaking is not a comfortable arena for me, but I recently signed up for a public speaking workshop.  At the end of the day we were invited up to speak in front of the group: we could tell some basic generic facts about our lives or we could tell a story.  I was one of the first to speak.  I opened with the revelation that I generally only speak from a script, but I’d decided to “wing it” and tell a bit of the story of my journey of losing myself and then finding myself again.  It was raw and vulnerable for me, both the subject matter and the unscriptedness of it.  When each subsequent person got up, they also told a raw and vulnerable personal story.  The experience was very powerful and we were all transfixed. The feedback that I got from another speaker was that because I had gotten up and shared in such a personal way, it had given her the courage to do it as well.

So what is it to show up and be vulnerable, to risk connection and rejection, to truly see someone and be seen?  We don’t just wake up one day and decide to be vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a moment to moment choice.  It takes practice.   There is a paradox to be held here, and that is to be strong in ourselves we can be vulnerable.  I think about the people that I really admire.  And it’s those who choose to show up fully, to share themselves.  Those who share their truth, even when it’s not pretty, or popular.  And it’s a truth shared not for attention, not for pity, but for the sheer beauty of showing up and living a whole, authentic life and inspiring others to do the same.

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sky where roof used to be

Sky where roof used to be
where everything you’ve lost is found
air full of past
burn destructed and then reborn

belonging in harm’s way
courting gratitude
for memories held that don’t
wisp away like smoke
embers fall from grace

ledges of life
roughly reassembled
out of synchronicity
papery images of past

going home
I drive by
burned roof open to moving sky

This poem was inspired by actual events (I guess all poems are, in one way or another).

One morning, driving to school, we noticed that a house on a street near the school had partially burned. My youngest daughter remained fascinated by the sight of it for weeks, as did I. We wondered what the story was: who lived there, were they OK, and what caused the fire?

Then the story appeared in our local paper. A woman had lived in the house with her cat, she had Alzheimer’s. Her son lived next door. Early one morning she was sitting out on her front porch when a neighbor (not her son) noticed the fire and helped get her off the porch and save her cat. She may have left the burner on, heating water for tea, she can’t remember. No one was hurt in the fire and everyone is grateful. It was her dream house, it will be rebuilt.

A few days later, driving by the remains of the house I was struck by the phrase, “sky where roof used to be” as through the jagged hole in the damaged roof you could see the juxtaposed blue sky and the clouds moving through it. I was inspired to construct a poem based on that phrase and the story of the woman, and wanted to have a photo of the damaged roof with the sky. I kept meaning to stop and take the photo. One evening, driving home from back to school night, I remembered again that I needed to take that photo. I kept driving as I felt the pull to get home as I’d been gone for several hours. Then something inside compelled me to turn back and actually get the photo taken.

The next morning I drove by the house again and the roof remains had been demolished to make way for the rebuild.

I finished this poem a few days later.

What did I do today? (and confusing the Davids)

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When I have the time, I spend my day like a gatherer, a gatherer of information-some of which will hopefully ferment with enough experience to become actual wisdom.  Since I can not totally neglect my mother, homeowner, wife, volunteer and paid work duties for too long, my knowledge gathering days are also interspersed with other more (immediately) practical task days as well.  I find that at the end of either of these types of days, I can’t really list of what I have done in detail.  It all becomes part of some vague balancing of doing and being that is my life, but to try to retell it makes it seem dull and meaningless.  To me, that is far from the truth of it.  It’s kind of like why I feel like I am not a good story-teller or joke teller.  I can usually remember the beginning and the end/punchline/lesson, but the details in between get lost, and those are generally the meat, the buildup, of the story or joke.

I’ve talked to other mothers about the peculiar insignificance of our daily tasks.  Many days are primarily composed of what approximates 40, five-minute tasks.   Each task, while requiring completion, in and of itself is insignificant and should not be committed to memory.  None of the tasks requires rocket-science brain power,  just time.  But the math is clear, 200 minutes (5X40), or 3.3 hours of stuff that can only be described as… stuff.  Stuff:  put a few dishes in dishwasher, pick dirty socks up off couch, make a pediatrician appt., follow-up on school book fair info, pay club fees for soccer season, follow-up on confusing email about trip to the museum that I’m chaperoning, look for recipe for dinner tonight, send work related email, confirm carpool arrangements for tomorrow… you get the gist.  These are interspersed with a few other more time-consuming and significant tasks (that sometimes come from a hastily scratched, ever running, daily to-do list), and the bulk of my “kids are at school” hours are filled.

Looking at the “task days” as compared to my “information gathering days,” some ironic similarities and discrepancies surface.  Info gathering generally starts out with a specific purpose, something I have happened upon or thought about prior, that I want to follow-up or do more research on.  Today as an example.  Recently I listened to a “This American Life”  episode on NPR with Ira Glass.  While I’ve probably listened to the show before, it hadn’t really been notable to me until this recent listen.  Now of course I can’t remember what that specific episode was about (here’s the part where I’ve forgotten some relevant details which would make my story a good one), but it led me to look up the show online and listen to many of the excerpts from past shows that were played during the 500th show review highlights.  As part of that, I happened upon one of Ira’s highlights, which was an episode about Americans living in Paris and included Ira touring around with David Sedaris.  Except for some reason, as I was starting the episode, I got it into my head that it was David Foster Wallace that Ira was talking with.  And this led to a huge “does not compute” warning in my brain.  I have read works from both DS and DFW and liked them for entirely different reasons, combine this with having listened to DFW’s Kenyon College commencement speech a few years back, and I was thoroughly and utterly confused.  Here’s what’s running through my head… “DFW’s voice is much higher than I remember it and he’s much gayer than I would have thought…he’s much more odd too…his persona does not match his writing at all, I would have expected more of a quieter, intellectual type person.”   And then I had to go to bed, as it was too late for me to be up anyway.

Over several days I kept trying to reconcile the gap between who I thought DFW was, and who he seemed to be in this interview.  Today I vowed to look into it, as something just wasn’t right.  And sure enough, after a few google searches, the mystery was solved. I’d had the wrong David in my head.  This process then rekindled my admiration of all things DFW, and I watched several interviews that were done with him before his untimely death in 2008.  Somehow in that process (again, not sure of the details here) I ended up on a tangent of reading things about and from Leo Tolstoy, quotes from his “Calendar of Wisdom,” and vowed to myself that once I finish slogging through his “The Kingdom of God is Within You”  (and it is a slog, while there are some gems in the text, you have to get through a lot of other less interesting, more preachy stuff, to find them), I will read his “War and Peace” once and for all.  (I’m not sure how I got through high school and college without ever having that book as required reading.)   Which then somehow led me to looking at some excerpts from Susan Sontag’s published diaries “As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh.”

Through some mystical process, much of this fabulous knowledge then somehow osmosisly (not a real word) disperses into what is already in my consciousness and congeals itself into my broad philosophies of life.  However, to go back and try to pick out individual quotes, philosophies, beliefs to share with others is next to impossible.  It’s there, but just not as a separate, identifiable entity.  I could not tell you specific sources for individual threads of knowledge and belief, rather I could (only in writing) give you the bibliography of all that’s contributed to my philosophy of life.   However, this bibliography does not actually exist, so perhaps I should add to to my running to do list, to be completed on a task day.

Which then would actually bring this blog post full circle.

There’s a reason it’s called a living room

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These objects
are not yet ours
in our home
new and lovely, smelling of pleasant stores
visually appeasing
my sense of ownership
and borrowed space.

Too beautiful to be not functional
but the tempered balanced arrangement
scares my use until later
maybe I will light that candle.

For now I wrap myself in a throw
and then will attempt to arrange it
back like it was
rumpled yet beautiful,
actionless, yet foretelling diagonal movement.

Patterns and blues intermix
to break my matching rules,
yet it works better than matching
it complements
for matching creates precise limits
and I want to embrace it all instead
yet have a unifying sense
of belonging
together.

Just enough, not too many
singular pieces to be traded in and out in the future
perhaps repurposed in another room
or life
new with old, never completely starting over
bringing in pieces from the past.

In a room of living that I once said was dead, redundant space.

step out of your life

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I had the good fortune of being on a seven-day family vacation last week. It was a trip that was earned by my husband through his job.   His company planned the location and dates, and set up events and activities, while also allowing for plenty of rest and relaxation. It was lovely, and I am so grateful for having gone. Being away in a tropical place (lacking a kitchen, school, children’s regular activities, home to maintain and car to drive) truly allowed me to “step out of my life.” What I mean by “my life” is my day-to-day regular routine and way of viewing myself, others and my surroundings.

I believe that we all need a break sometimes. No matter how wonderful and beautiful we know our lives to be, we can easily lose sight of that. We can get stuck in focusing on the negative aspects of our lives. Or we can just live our lives unconsciously and have no recognition of what in our life is serving us well or not. We can get caught up in “busyness” and not allow our bodies to rest and our souls to bloom. We can lose our sense of wonder and awe for our world and the people in it. I was able to rediscover these things during our week away, and I am intentionally trying to maintain them now that I’ve stepped back into my regular routine.

Last week I was surrounded by a natural beauty much different from the environment of our home state. Coming home, I learned to rediscover the natural beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis, as it all looks new again. During an unseasonably warm evening a few nights ago, my youngest daughter and I took a leisurely exploration around our surrounding neighborhood. We noticed lots of things. The winter air was light with the promise of spring. The sunset was deep blue and orange. The trees waved happily in the light breeze. We took it all in hungrily.

There are times in our lives when we don’t have the opportunity to fully step out of our lives and take a true vacation. However, this does not have to prevent us from looking at our lives, our surroundings and our habits with a new lens. We can step away from certain habits and try something new, in order to ascertain whether our current habits are serving our lives well and whether they are aligned with our fundamental values and priorities.  We can look at the things around us with a renewed sense of appreciation and awe.

It’s easy to look back and remember how good things were, as in retrospect we tend to focus more on the positive. It’s harder, but much more rewarding, to truly see the good that exists in our lives today, right now, before it is gone. These are the thoughts that help us to be satisfied now and to sustain us in the future.

Aloneness and perspective

This morning I was cherishing being alone in our house. I actually like to be alone. I like the quiet, the stillness, the time to think and just be. With three school age children, a husband, a part-time job and the all the other normal aspects of a busy life, my life does not always offer times for me to be alone. So I was enjoying having time to myself and not having anyone there to make any demands of me or my time. But I started thinking about what if I were truly alone. What if I didn’t have the backdrop that three children would come home to me this afternoon, that my husband would return from his business trip this evening, that I could call a friend if I had been in need of company? Under a different set of circumstances, the exact same situation-the one the I was cherishing- could actually have been a situation of sadness and emptiness for me. So, in some sense, how we feel about an event or a situation is relative.

How many other events in our life can this sentiment pertain to? Think of how our mindset, our expectations and our circumstances can invoke different feelings for the exact same event. Parenting provides some obvious examples of this for me. When we are not rushed to be somewhere and not feeling pulled to be doing something else, we too can delight in the unplanned moments of wonder and discovery that occur with our children on a regular basis. But if we’re running late or have something else that we feel we really need to be doing, those stalled moments, where the task at hand falls by the wayside, can be frustrating and troublesome.

For me, sometimes I need to realize that things don’t always present themselves in my life at the most opportune or convenient time; to be open to their occurrence and be able to find the connection, or the joy or the lesson for me in that moment is my work. And in those rare moments where a desired situation does arise at an opportune time, I will continue to celebrate!

Risk and regret

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my risk aversion and what it has meant in my life, and on the flip side, about others who have no qualms with risk and what it has meant for how they live their lives. I’ve realized that security is important to me- physical security, financial security, secure relationships, etc. These are all important aspects of living a fulfilling life, as long as they are not taken to the extreme. In the Christian faith, we ask forgiveness for both the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone. This can be applied to the things we’ve done or haven’t done to/for others, as well as ourselves. Things left undone has been the much bigger issue for me than things done. And honestly, until recently, I’ve always thought that it was a better place to be, because rarely had I intentionally hurt someone else or myself. But perhaps this is not a better place. If you want to live a full and intentional life, you have to take some risks, and you can’t easily default to “no, I won’t do _____ because I am not sure how it will turn out” or “no, I can’t do _______ because don’t want to make a mistake (or fail)”. Sometimes, this is where my risk aversion has left me, with fine opportunities that I could have seized upon and didn’t. Part of my risk aversion has come from not listening to or trusting my inner voice, which would have included looking closely at how I felt about something, rather than just weighing the hard fact pros and cons (which generally led me down the road to over-analyzation). While I wasn’t comfortable with the notion of having to regret something that I had done, I downplayed the feelings that could come from regretting something that I hadn’t done.

This is not to say that every opportunity that comes our way should be taken. Evaluating these opportunities requires discernment. And for my friends who err on the side of not considering risk enough, there may be a different lesson for you here; to consider using the more logical aspects of decision making and not just follow your feeling impulse in any moment. In addition, to realize that actions can have unintended consequences and require trade-offs in our lives that we perhaps wouldn’t be willing to make if we’d thought through those.

As with so many aspects of our lives, we’re left with trying to find balance; balancing the knowledge of who we are and what our default tendencies are, as well as balancing the two sides of the risk spectrum.