Vulnerability

Another podcast script, this one from a personal favourite of mine as I feel it captures the essence of a problem many people face, particularly young men and those in a professional subculture which doesn’t tolerate weakness, honesty and the admission of vulnerability. If we would only show our vulnerability, we would realise that we are all fighting the same internal battles, and that makes our triumphs in life all the more meaningful and amazing.

Episode 19. Vulnerability on The Here and Now Podcast originally released 1 April 2020.

Vulnerability, a word that has connotations of weakness and fear, of being exposed and the final step on the path to becoming a victim. The Collins online dictionary describes the word vulnerable as meaning weak and without protection, being easily hurt, physically or emotionally. With this mental association and definition we see vulnerability as a negative quality reserved for the weak and something to be avoided. 

Yet, vulnerability is actually a beautiful quality which goes hand in hand with risk, and reward. Vulnerability is about exposure, faith, honesty and trust. Vulnerability is the shroud of possibility we cloak ourselves with as we step forth into the world and embrace our cosmic insignificance. When we step off the precipice, in relationships, in love, in our hopes and dreams and desires, we open our hearts and our minds to the risk of failure, or exploitation. We knowingly put ourselves in a position where we may be hurt. Our vulnerability is our hope and fear and our trust and with great risk can come great reward, or great failure.

Reframing vulnerability from a place to be avoided to a stepping stone of the journey to fulfilment is essential to living the fullest life. When we conflate our anxiety with vulnerability, and bundle it up with our lack of belief in ourselves and our lack of trust for the world at large, we embody the negative spirit of the word. We must turn that definition and perception on its head, and instead view vulnerability as the sign that we are getting close to the truth, the discovery of who we are and what awaits us in life if only we would have the courage to take that step, that leap of faith. 

In this short episode my goal is to help you see the truth about vulnerability through a few different lenses, the first is through art. 

An artist is perpetually vulnerable. No matter the medium, in paint, in word or in song, the artist bares his soul for all to see. The artist cannot but help to be vulnerable, as if the very process of creating art is itself a risk to his own humanity. And the reality is often times, art goes unnoticed, is criticised, laughed at and discarded as if the artist’s conscience itself is being brushed aside. But in the process of giving up the piece of himself, the artist also introduces to the world possibility and the potential for joy. The artist is unselfish in that moment, as they put themselves at risk in order that others may share in their gift.  

Author Seth Godin writes, 

“Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we’ve made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we’ve given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.” 

The artist embraces vulnerability as an inevitable part of their process, they have learned to live with it and use it to draw out from within themselves their creativity and anticipation of the possibilities that await. If we could only borrow from the artist when thinking of our own interface with the world, and see our vulnerability not as weakness but as offering possibility, then we would diffuse our anxiety and more readily embrace our own potential and its attendant risks and rewards.

Brené Brown is a research professor at Houston University who has spent her working career studying courage, shame, authenticity and vulnerability. She wrote a book on the topic called ‘Daring greatly, how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead’ which I’m going to draw from to help guide us through this episode. She also has a TED talk on the topic with over 43 million views, you can find a link to it in the show notes. Brown dispels several myths about vulnerability, the first is that vulnerability is weakness.

She says,

“Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.”

Vulnerability is necessary to live the fullest life. Why do we think of it as something negative, and to be avoided though? We fear shame, and shame is the fear of losing connection. As social animals we crave connection with others, and we require certain things of those connections. We need to feel respected, appreciated, loved and valued. When we expose ourselves to failure, or embarrassment we risk being ashamed of who we are and losing those connections we have worked so hard to develop. But avoiding vulnerability is not really a place where we can preserve our dignity and save face as we lose authenticity by not being true to ourselves and revealing that to others. By embracing our vulnerability, and like the artist, sharing something of ourselves, we encourage others to do the same and to see who we are, and what we are capable of.

When I talked about psychological capital earlier, I was really talking about authenticity, the ability to be honest in all of your guises. No one expects perfection, you are your own biggest critic, and things are never as bad as they seem. Vulnerability is necessary and natural and is at the heart of our struggle to exist in the world. But we need not fear that it is a weakness, rather it is the access point to who we are, and when we feel vulnerable, we know we are close to the source, close to the truth.

Vulnerability can be manifest in many ways, some seemingly trivial, but they define our lives every day. Exercising in public when we are out of shape, taking responsibility for a failure or mistake, wearing a new item of clothing, trying out a new hairstyle, calling a friend who you know just had a diagnosis of a serious illness, going on your first date after divorce, falling in love, saying no, starting a business, a blog, or a podcast. The list goes on and on. We face many moments when we could back away, take the easy road and not confront life for fear of shame, rejection or embarrassment. Vulnerability is a bridge we must cross to reach honesty, fulfilment and joy.

Brown says many people just don’t do vulnerability, it is not something they need to worry about. I can empathise with that. In my day job I live with responsibility. People are counting on me to get them from place to place in a metal tube hurtling through the atmosphere at magnificent speeds. I need to know what I’m doing and the consequences of getting it wrong are catastrophic. This is a responsibility that all pilots must accept and so we train extensively and must continually demonstrate our proficiency to maintain our qualifications and flight status. There is an expectation that a pilot should be perfect, and have all the skills, and all the answers. Our clients expect that of us and we must fit a certain image that satisfies that belief. But the reality is we are all just people who love what we do and dedicate our lives to it, just like anyone else passionate about their profession. But we do sometimes get it wrong.

Since the Orville Wright first took to the skies back in 1903 we have learned how not to do it in ever more unique and disastrous ways. Over time, through hard lessons learned at the expense of thousands of lives the aviation industry has become one of the world’s safest modes of transport. The procedure  and redundancy built into the system at all levels are designed to mitigate human fallibility. But have perceptions and expectations changed as a result? Do passengers ask, why does this aeroplane have so many safety features? Shouldn’t my pilot just not make dumb mistakes? On any given flight, a pilot makes many small mistakes, but most are discovered and rectified and they are minor. A switch pressed at the wrong time, the wrong callsign in a radio transmission, a checklist step done out of order, bigger mistakes are caught by a colleague when working as a multi pilot crew, or by air traffic control or the aircraft itself through warning systems. But, all pilots feel the pressure, the pressure to perform to the highest standard, at any time of day or night, in almost any weather, at the beginning of a short flight on a beautiful day to the end of a long flight on a stormy one.

The cliché of bravado, the pilot with the right stuff whose skills transcend human nature is a myth. But society doesn’t see it that way, so pilots must hide their vulnerability. This can lead to deviance and unsafe behaviour, the old saying goes it is better to die then to mess up. Within the aviation industry, great pains have been taken to redefine the pilot culture to be open and upfront about errors and mistakes so we can all learn from them. This means not punishing genuine mistakes. It asks pilots to accept their vulnerability, to embrace it so we can learn from our errors and make safety systems ever safer. But, not all countries and cultures have got on board this way of thinking.

Recently in Kazakhstan for instance, an aircraft went off the end of the runway while landing and crashed into a building killing the pilots and several passengers. The President reported in the aftermath that those found culpable will be severely punished. These words make me cringe because it goes against everything we have worked so hard to change in the industry, to embrace our fallibility and accept that mistakes will happen. This is not to say we should simply accept accidents as inevitable, but it is to understand that an accident occurs at the end of a long causal chain of events preceded by many, small and seemingly minor errors and near misses. If pilots and other stakeholders are not encouraged to report errors and mistakes when they happen for fear of punishment, we lose the opportunity to prevent bigger ones from happening and nip small system failures in the bud. When a crew acts not with prudence for safety, but out of fear of punishment, they compromise safety. They pretend they are not vulnerable and we all suffer as a result.

This may be somewhat of a digression but the relevance is that being vulnerable is having the courage to be imperfect. We need not fear being wrong or making mistakes or letting people down or any of the many other negative stories we tell ourselves. Whether the fears exist because of professional expectations, or personal, the lesson to be learned is that it is through our vulnerability we find authenticity, and that is precisely the thing which will strengthen our connections with others.

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon. He is one of the most famous people to have ever lived. He holds PhD in astrophysics, he was a combat fighter pilot and test pilot. He designed many of the early space walk procedures which are still used today and when you see photos of that infamous first moon landing of Apollo 11 it is not Neil Armstrong you are looking at, it is Buzz, Neil was holding the camera. When The crew of Apollo 11 returned to earth they were global hero’s. They spent months touring the globe on junkets, meeting dignitaries, royalty, people from all walks of life who came to congratulate these men on the remarkable feat they had achieved. But Buzz grew overwhelmed by the attention and feel into a funk. He turned to drink and became more and more depressed as he struggled to come to terms with the expectations and pressures placed on him to live up to the image of the astronaut who had carried the flag for all humankind. Buzz hid his vulnerability and it nearly destroyed him. In a 1980 BBC interview, Buzz describes what he went through during that time and his acceptance of his vulnerability and his admission that he was not perfect, he was human.

[The episode includes a sound bite here].

We trust authentic people, people we see as honest and human. When someone opens up about their vulnerability to us, we are empathetic and respectful, because we know that they are not just talking about themselves, they are talking about all of us. We are encouraged to be more open and accepting of our own fears and insecurities. We don’t see weakness in people who admit their vulnerabilities, we see strength and we are flattered that they would trust us with their fears. We see the strength necessary for that person to embrace the voice inside that is holding them back. Just as it is in our nature to be afraid of life, it is in our nature to be compassionate. Trust that those you care about, and who care about you, will accept you and your vulnerability. But not only will they just accept it, they will be inspired by it.

Vulnerability is necessary and important and we must embrace it. It is a spring of truth and humanity from which our deepest passions and potential can emerge, if only we are brave enough to let it. Great art, great stories, great achievements come from accepting vulnerability as a truthful representation of ourselves. We can try to mask our vulnerability, ignore it through distractions like medications, alcohol and drugs, food or other vices. But when we do so we numb ourselves and fail to listen to that inner voice as we are afraid of what it is saying. And the more we smother it, the more dissonance we create between our inner self and our outer self. Nothing can exist in that no man’s land for ever. When we mask our vulnerability, pretend it doesn’t exist, we fail to live to our potential, we negatively impact our health, both mental and physical, and we lose our authenticity. And through this negative cycle we impact the connections and relationships which we are so fearful of losing by exposing our vulnerability!

But greater than this, when we supress our vulnerability we supress with it our ability to find true joy. At the start of this episode I said, in the process of giving up a piece of himself, the artist introduces to the world possibility, and the potential for joy. We are all that artist, and we must all introduce ourselves to the world through our vulnerability so that we might realise our potential and experience happiness, fulfilment, and joy.

I’d like to finish with a wonderful piece by the poet David Whyte. David has composed many amazing essays and poems which describe life in moving and compelling language. His delivery is what makes these works truly special, but I’m not sure if I can play it here. I will read it myself though, but I encourage you to visit the link in the show notes to listen to his reading of it. It is a beautiful piece. Here is Vulnerability, by David Whyte.

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, 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.

Image credit https://www.reddit.com/r/SadDads/comments/aim1tf/sad_dad_at_sunset/

References

Brené Brown – The power of vulnerability

Daring Greatly – Brené Brown

Buzz Aldrin BBC interview 1980

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words – David Whyte

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