As we know all too well from the events in Paris last week, governments around the world are struggling to protect their citizens from terrorists. Computer experts are constantly racing to build firewalls and anti-virus tools to fend off would-be hackers. Schools and parents are increasingly locking their doors and hovering over their children to protect them from shooters and pedophiles. Everywhere we turn we see the need to patch up our weak spots to fend off marauders. This desire to build literal and figurative walls is understandable and admirable and necessary. Except for one thing: it makes us forget the possibilities that can arise when human beings reveal where they are most susceptible.
Being vulnerable is part of being human
As a writer, I know I can’t create a compelling character without knowing and demonstrating his vulnerabilities. Whether I’m describing my hero or my villain, each character must have at least one weakness if I want my reader to accept him. Think about characters you know and love, or the ones you love to hate: Darth Vader, Captain Ahab, Mr. Hyde, Indiana Jones, the Phantom of the Opera, John Coffey, the Wicked Witch of the West. Like each of us, they each have one or more forces–whether internal or external–which they fear the most: water, snakes, the dark, mental illness, and so on–often times things to which we can relate.
David Corbett, in How to Craft Compelling Characters, wrote that “nothing draws us into a character more than her vulnerability. When people appear wounded or in need of…help, we are instantly drawn to them–it’s a basic human reflex.” It’s basic because, as humans, we are all flawed and vulnerable. But all this talk about vulnerabilities isn’t just for writers. Just as characters invite us into their worlds through their fears and weaknesses, we all invite each other deeper into our own lives, and deepen this experience we call living, when we open up ourselves up to one another.
What do I mean by vulnerability?
I mean that spot where you are most susceptible to pain. Do you know where your spot is?
You could start by thinking of Maslow’s hierarchy in trying to identify your vulnerabilities. Some of us are vulnerable to such basic life-sustaining depravities as hunger or homelessness. Some of us are vulnerable to physical harm, whether because we must ride a bus late at night to work or because we have a dangerous job or because we face the terror of domestic violence. For many of us, we feel the greatest agony when we are isolated, rejected, or otherwise feeling like we don’t belong. Or we are tormented by the notion that we’re not valid, or good enough (thin enough/smart enough/rich enough/whatever enough). And then there are those of us who are unhappy because we can’t seem to satisfy what Maslow called the highest of needs, that stage of self-actualization, which I also like to think of as being true to our authentic selves.
What are you vulnerable to? Betrayal, blame, embarrassment? Fear, guilt, humiliation or impotence? Inadequacy? Incompetence? Invalidation? Isolation, neediness, lack of respect? Loss of job/property/status? Rejection? Shame? Unworthiness? If you say none of the above, you might be right. I’m sure I’ve left a lot of possibilities off the list. If you say you aren’t vulnerable, think again, unless you’re a robot.
What are we supposed to do with our vulnerabilities?
Vulnerability expert Brené Brown, who gave a fantastic TED talk on this topic, says that, when we embrace our vulnerabilities, we can discover greater joy, creativity, belongingness, and love.
Unfortunately, we don’t typically do this, according to Brown and other experts. Just as our nations and businesses and schools and families try to shield us from pain and hide our weakest links from the outside, we also tend to numb ourselves to, and/or cover up, our weaknesses. We do this by turning to the obvious vices, like overeating and overdrinking and overworking and so many other obsessions, compulsions, and addictions, but we also resort to behavioral fixes like these:
- We eliminate uncertainty. We think in black and white, convincing ourselves we are right and others are wrong. By defending our thoughts and opinions to the nth degree, we hammer down those feelings of shame or incompetence that try to pop up like the little critters in the Whack-a-Mole game.
- We control others. So long as the people around us do what we want them to do, we are protected from isolation and rejection. We feel liked and respected, like kings or queens surrounded by a bunch of little pawns.
- We hide in the shadow of perfection. We get our weight down and achieve the ideal BMI! We help our kids get into top-rated universities! We maintain a clean house and a tidy yard! We go to churches or temples or mosques! We post pictures on social media of our perfect families! We’ve even got strong credit scores! Adorned in success, no one (our selves included) will be able to detect our hidden guilts and failures and embarrassments.
- We wear custom-fit blinders. We narrow our focus to our personal needs and desires and pretend that what we do and say doesn’t effect, or hurt, other people.
In an interview with Spirituality & Health, Brown said “the overwhelming message in our culture today is that an ordinary life is a meaningless life unless you are grabbing a lot of attention and you have lots of Twitter followers and Facebook fans…No matter how happy and fulfilling [our] small, quiet life is, [we] feel it must not mean very much, because it’s not the way people are measuring success.”
Boy, can I relate to this! As one of a hundred thousand gazillion writers, it’s not easy to make the big time, and I’d much rather be reading or writing than trying to round up Facebook fans and Twitter followers and Amazon reviews. But that’s exactly what I’m told I have to do. And speaking of numbers, every time someone asks me how many books I’ve sold, I cringe, and not only because it feels like an invasive question. The primary reason I cringe is because it forces me to deal with the thought that maybe I’m not good enough. If Brown is right, then living in a world that praises superstar statistics forces many of us to become unduly susceptible to the core vulnerability in our society she calls unworthiness, and, therefore, to an inability to find deep joy.
The opposite of unworthiness is, of course, worthiness, and while I believe most everyone in this world is worthy (except for the most despicable lot), I am also starting to believe that being worthy (in real life, as well as on the character’s page) is not so much about having the highest statistics of success or wielding the most power (or selling the most books) but recognizing, and being willing to outwardly acknowledge, one’s own vulnerabilities, and in so doing being able to build profoundly deep relationships with others. If you read my novel The Damnable Legacy, you saw my protagonist Lynn van Swol grow in this regard. I guess you could say my fictional character taught me a thing or two.
Time to get messy
So what should we do about our vulnerabilities once we honestly and fully identify them? We should embrace them. Own them. And be courageous enough to let the world, or at least those in our inner circles, see them.
Yes, we need to protect ourselves from those who want to hurt us by developing little forcefields around our lives. But when it comes to developing close relationships with others, we need to do the opposite. If, as Brown says, “vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together,” then we all need to strip off our layers of armor and our corresponding fears of one another, start up some fresh conversations, and be willing to start anew.