Thoughts on Vulnerability

SCULPTURE & ART (1)“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”

At least according to professional pseudoscientist Sigmund Freud, who is maybe not the best person to turn to for proverbial wisdom.

Freud, I call bullshit.

Just as I call bullshit on your theory of hysteria and your theory of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a scientific case study, though the whole field of modern psychology is more or less behind me on those.

On this one, I feel like I stand more alone.

We work hard to transform vulnerability into a virtue. Knowing your feelings. Being open. Letting others know the real you. Having honest, two-way relationships with people who know you and care about you.

That’s one thing, but it’s not the kind of vulnerability I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the vulnerability of sitting alone at your kitchen table late on a Sunday night, wondering whether you should take a shower or let yourself have a 45-minute cry, because both of those things need to get done before you go to sleep.

It’s not a question of “if,” but “which first.”

This openness wins you no friends. It gains you no applause in therapy or treatment programs. Dr. Phil does not celebrate sitting alone in your bedroom admitting to yourself that the reason you still haven’t done your dinner dishes yet is that the thought of standing up and turning on the sink just makes you crushingly sad.

I mean, true, if Dr. Phil celebrates something, that’s one of the best reasons in the world you can find for doing exactly the opposite. But I digress.

Sitting with this openness to feeling, I do not sense strength.

Out of my vulnerability comes fear.

The kind of fear takes one misstep and magnifies it into a colossal moral failing.

That looks at a week’s worth of thoughts and actions and reactions and levels a stringent, damning judgment.

That transforms a bag of candy corn purchased at the grocery store into Original Sin itself.

That spends the day dreaming about returning to bed, because at least the world cannot point out my failures from beneath the covers.

Sitting with my feelings means I ruminate about the worst events of the day — not Greek tragedies by any stretch of the imagination, but in this state, too much. I sit and reminisce about a botched customer service phone call, a terse rejection letter, catching someone talking about me behind my back. I mix these memories well, shake them into a highball glass, and nurse a sharp cocktail of self-doubt until morning.

I write in metaphors because that is easier than writing the honest truth.

Playing with words is easier than admitting the dull pressure-pain over my ribs is not because I am getting over a cold. It is because I am afraid of never being a better person than I am tonight, and spending the day being disappointed in the person I am.

That kind of vulnerability does not feel strong. It feels like saying that of course there are happy people in the world, this is the kind of world that requires happiness, but I will never be one of those people.

I can tell myself hundreds of times that I don’t believe this.

I’m not always sure that I don’t believe it.

Some nights, I cannot believe anything else.

Do I feel stronger, having admitted my vulnerability? Honestly, no. But sometimes pouring the words onto the screen gets them out of my head. I can look at them, move commas around, delete passive construction, dissect them under a microscope until they present the distilled version of the pain in my chest.

Like a scientist examining a virus, I may not know the cure, but I know the arrangement of the proteins, the reproductive strategies.

(Do viruses have proteins? A question from your friendly neighborhood English major.)

And like a scientist, I cling to whatever knowledge I grasp, hoping someday to find a use for it.

Maybe from vulnerability comes knowledge. And knowledge is strength, or so a slightly twisted proverb tells me.

As far as proverbs go, I will take what I can get.

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