(about vulnerability, exposure, weakness, trash, protecting, willingness, connection, and relationship)
I’ve been thinking about vulnerability ever since the July 10 storm blew down a Siouxland Cottonwood tree on the northeast corner of Goodale Park. As you might have seen, the tree broke off near the base of the trunk and fell across the sidewalk. I’ve seen this happen to one or two other trees in our park, and I’m always stunned. This was a tree with branches full of leaves; it’s not like it had some dark blight festering obviously on the trunk. It didn’t seem vulnerable. Or did it?
I usually think of vulnerability as weakness or fragility. And this made sense when Rick Frantz told me that the Siouxland Cottonwood likely had a fungus in the frangible trunk at the point of the break, weakening the tree. It also had another disease, “rust”, that made the tree more vulnerable to the fungus. The tree was vulnerable, and became fragile. So did the tree seem vulnerable? The interior fungus wasn’t visible, but the tree was obviously out in the open, vulnerable to the wind.
The whole park is open to the wind, which has resulted in the loss of branches and trees over the years. Goodale Park’s openness also makes it vulnerable to being trashed, especially by recalcitrant revelers during major events like Red, White and Boom, and vulnerable to vandalism, as evidenced by (among other things) torn limbs on (typically) Saturday and Sunday mornings. The entire park is a conspicuously open, vulnerable space. Open to fungus, open to wind, open to litter, open to crime.
Openness leads to vulnerability. And what would we do to the park in order to protect it? Build a wall around it? Change it to a “gated community”, accessible only to members? It makes sense that this would come to mind. The park is vulnerable and weak because it’s “exposed”, and we seek similar protection when we feel personally vulnerable, or weak, when we’re “exposed”. Many people choose to protect themselves by living in gated communities, and some hire private security in order to mitigate their vulnerability. Sometimes I feel exposed when I’m meeting a new person, or when I’m with people I don’t trust. I often figuratively build my own wall, or “wear a mask” to protect my true self while exposing only what I selectively choose to reveal.
So being exposed is a bad thing. Or is it? A friend recently suggested that I watch a TED talk with Brené Brown, where Brown talks about a different way to view vulnerability. It’s not a foreign idea to any of us, but one that for me is regularly muted by various types of fear (of injury, of crime, of rejection, of the unknown, of losing control…)
Brené Brown instead presents vulnerability as the idea that in order for connections to happen, we must allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. Vulnerability isn’t comfortable, but it is necessary in order for genuine relationships to develop. This is about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to “give” when there are no guarantees. Instead of “breakable”, this vulnerability is “willing”. Willing to risk. Willing to try. The willingness to walk into vulnerability provides us with the opportunity to be experienced as real and beautiful.
Brown also points out that “…we try to “numb” vulnerability…but [we] cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb those [difficult] feelings without numbing other emotions. When we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” We can’t build a wall around Goodale Park to protect it from some selective bad influences and still experience the same joy there.
At this moment, I’m sitting on a beach in the Outer Banks, and I can see that houses built near the ocean are more vulnerable; they are more susceptible to seasonal weather, they are more susceptible to rare but catastrophic ocean-related events, and they are more susceptible to the effects of erosion and (maybe) impending global climate change. But by being placed in vulnerable, open positions, they also benefit from proximity and access to the beach, to the sounds and smells of the ocean, to all the beautiful aspects of that relationship.
Goodale Park is like this.