Vulnerability.

Recently, the United States observed the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

I watched parts of the ceremony on Sunday and was moved to find that the 9/11 memorial took the shape of two, massive, square-shaped scars in the ground of the city, where the towers had once been.

Something about these two gaps in the earth reminded me of our country’s great vulnerability on that tragic day.

Some have spoken of this before, so it’s nothing new: but it’s amazing how much our country has spent on trying to protect ourselves from future attacks. We have sacrificed so much of our rights, so much of our time and energy, so much of our financial resources, and so many human lives in wars–all of it done to ward off one thing: vulnerability.

On the day that the 9/11 memorial was opened to public, it was both sad and striking. Here was finally a true, undeniable symbol of our collective pain and sadness.

Most monuments rise up to the sky, or stretch far across the ground, but this one fell deep, and surges with an endless lamenting water. This new memorial exists in a city that is not known for showing off its scars, but for hiding soft interiors behind tough exteriors. This new memorial exists in a city surrounded by skyscrapers that bring to mind every metaphor imaginable for power, strength, and invincibility.

Having these deep scars exposed amid these grand skyscrapers is a bit disorienting, shocking, and surreal. Something seems out-of-place about them–they represent a deep, hard-to-fathom pain that forces us to want to look away.

Maybe it’s because, in witnessing these deep scars, we can see a reflection of our own scars. For not one of us can say we don’t remember that day.

The Curious Nature of Vulnerability

To understand vulnerability we must first know it deeply.

So many of our first encounters with vulnerability started with us getting our hearts broken for the first time in a romantic relationship. It was then that we learned that we must not show how sensitive we truly are.

After this heartbreak, we learned how to build up walls, we elevated skyscrapers of invincibility and carved out glass windows of impenetrability to shield ourselves.

Years of hiding our vulnerability behind thick fortresses of steel seemed to protect us from being stricken from the outside. But there was a side effect to all of this:  this overprotectiveness made it more likely for us to hurt others. We grew cold and insensitive. We lost our ability to be emphatic. We became so unaware of what we were doing that we broke another’s heart without intending to.

After breaking the heart of another, we learned that it was just as dangerous to be too overprotective of ourselves as it was to be too vulnerable. So we returned to opening ourselves up a bit more, so as not to hurt others.

But when we became open again we were once again naked to an attack.

To experience the richness of life, we must be open to being vulnerable. However, being vulnerable also means we are susceptible to the vicious shrapnel of life. So, then, we are forced to come to the conclusion that the extent to which we allow ourselves to be vulnerable must lie somewhere in the middle between “too little” and “too much.”

But, in order to know where this “middle ground of vulnerability” is located, it requires years and years of exploring all the extremes of our vulnerability. In the end, we can only know the true limits and boundaries of our vulnerability until we allow ourselves to be both completely vulnerable and completely “closed-off.”

Unfortunately, on our way to this “middle-ground of vulnerability” we can, and often do, get lost.

No wonder we are so terrified of being vulnerable.

What if We Just Admitted That We Are Vulnerable?

We should avoid, at all costs, pretending that we are not vulnerable at all. That would be dangerous.

Sometimes (and I am guilty of this, too) we will go on the defensive when we are afraid someone is getting too close to a very delicate part of us–a deep place where our past hurts and deep scars lie hidden.

In that moment, we may see everything and everyone as out to attack us. In trying to deny our vulnerability, we might even compromise some of our usual politeness in order to strike down those who we are convinced are trying to do us wrong.

But what if, instead of getting defensive, we just admit that we are afraid? Or sad? Or hurt, or angry, or hopeless, or guilty, or bitter, or lost?

We human beings are such fascinating creatures. For not only will a bad comment make us feel bad or hurt, but even if the comment was not meant to hurt us, as long as we think the comment was meant to be hurtful, we will feel hurt.

This is how sensitive we all are.

And yet instead of admitting our great sensitivity, we will attack, we will spend all of our resources, and we may even compromise our long-held values in order to shield the fact that deep inside–amid all the tough exteriors, in between all the tall skyscrapers that have been built to show off our great “invincibility”–that deep within the great city of our hearts, we still carry deep scars.

A New America, A New World, and A New Definition of Courage

We live in very interesting times. Suddenly, we’ve all a been forced to face our incredible vulnerability. Anything can happen to us. We know that now.

So, what if we simply say to this truth: “Okay, so anything can happen to us… so what?”

We’ve always been vulnerable. And any argument to the contrary was probably just an illusion.

What if we simply admit our great sensitivity and go on being good and morally upright despite our very fragile nature? What if this is the new definition of courage:  admitting our great vulnerability, but continuing to be good and just in spite of it?

For if we are not afraid of our own vulnerability, what else can get to us? Not much.

Maybe we can look at the memorial of 9/11, and admit that it’s time to make sense of the trauma. It’s time we stop denying, and start honoring our past hurts. It’s time we admit that we were good, but then something truly evil arrived that really screwed us up, and continues to affect us a decade later.

It’s time we stop replaying the tragic event on a never-ending loop on TV screens, as if it happened a thousand times over several hundred years–and not just on one day. It’s time to stop revisiting the trauma as if it’s not in our past. As if that one moment defines who we are and will continue to define us. As if we have run out of time to redeem ourselves. As if admitting our vulnerability makes us weak, and not strong. As if healing the wound isn’t just as important as finding justice for what happened.

Healing can only begin when we have the courage to admit that we were hurt and were deeply affected by it.

So let us join together, after ten years, to admit our great vulnerability and allow this act to make us truly, and finally, invincible.

much love,

Ollin

What’s your history with vulnerability? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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13 comments on “Vulnerability.

  1. Christina says:

    I think the 9/11 memorial is a beautiful tribute to the people who lost their lives in the tragedy and to the rescue teams who selflessly sacrificed to save others. The symbolism of constantly-flowing water (a purifying, life-giving metaphor) combined with surrounding trees (new life, new hope, but still a memorial to the fallen) bridges loss and life. Water leads to trees, the way we all need to wash off the pain of what happened in order to keep living, yet you can’t have new hope and a better life without remembering what came before. Without remembering those who came before.

    Which in a way is exactly the cycle of vulnerability that you so beautifully described. Remember the past, but don’t let past scars also destroy the beauty of the future. Especially in relationships. Why should our next lover/partner/friend pay the price the previous one never bothered to acknowledge before leaving us?

    • Ollin says:

      I love your interpretation. And in a way, aren’t our tears a cleansing ritual, that purifies? Maybe if we embraced our pain we might see that, right?

  2. Liza Kane says:

    I’m not a weepy or emotional person, but I remember openly sobbing for weeks and weeks after 9/11. Even watching older movies that showed the skyline made me cry. It was a rather emotionally volatile time for everyone. At the time, whenever you saw another person randomly crying in public, you just knew why. There was a shared camaraderie in the grief and despair.

    To this day, I can’t see any tributes to 9/11…it’s still too fresh, like it *just* happened. But, at least I recognize in myself why I avoid thinking about 9/11 too deeply. I don’t ever want to be to the point that I’m “used” to it…I don’t ever want to be to the point of “what’s the big deal?” That my biggest fear is that I will grow cynical and jaded about 9/11.

    Even now, I’m crying, and instead of being ashamed and embarrassed, I’m proud that 9/11 still means so much to me. It makes me remember a shared moment of human-ness, when I didn’t need to be so strong or distant or above it all. That I could feel and share this grief/burden/tragedy with my compatriots. This feeling is what I’ve been shoring up inside me, embracing it, and keeping it close.

    I’m still not ready to let it go. At the very least, it reminds me to continue to LIVE a full and abundant life, one that others *should* be able to live, but can’t.

    Thank you for sharing

    • Ollin says:

      I watched some of the videos on Time.com of the survivors and first responders, etc. It was clear that they were still very shocked and numb to the event. I think we all still are. It’s still very recent in our memories.

  3. Thank you for your moving post. Scars are representatives of hurts, but scars are often the toughest part of us. When my appendix ruptured years ago it left a huge, ugly scar. That scar represents the fact that God brought me through a very painful time. I don’t dwell on it, but I’ll always have it as part of me. A couple of weeks ago I had surgery to remove skin cancer from my forehead and now I am sporting a very large and quite ugly scar. I’ll cover it up with make-up, but it’s there as a reminder again. Now when I go out I am very vulnerable as people still stare, but it will fade. Most people kindly just ask about it. It took several decades, but I’ve come to accept scars in myself, others and my country.

  4. inkspeare says:

    I think that I will never be able to forget that day, for as long as I live … as Liza says, ” it is still too fresh,” even after ten years. My reaction was similar to hers – I remember driving my car to work, weeks after, and starting to cry uncontrollable, as if there was a button that someone just pressed, without any warning. I agree with Liza, it reminds me how precious each and every day is, and how grateful I am for today. That day was imprinted in our minds, hearts, and souls. I guess if vulnerability can somehow be transformed into gratefulness, then we can heal our souls faster.

  5. […] Friday I spoke extensively on the topic of vulnerability. As a follow-up, I want to share this transformative video about the power of human vulnerability […]

  6. Hi Ollin,
    I love, love, love this post! I’m curious to know if you have watched any of the videos of Brene Brown on TED? She is a vulnerability researcher and much of what you are suggesting is echoed in her research.
    The truth is that we are all vulnerable, though we live in a culture that sees vulnerability as weakness. I’ve been intending to write about this myself.
    The research shows however, that vulnerability is the key to connection which is what we most need to live fulfilled lives.
    I have discovered through my adventure in writing that showing vulnerability is the best way to connect. I’m not all that great at it in my day to day life… though getting better, but when I write I cannot hide the “true me”. The result has been overwhelming support proving that vulnerability is not weakness and does not leave you necessarily open to attack. I think that it may very well be the key to seeing all others as just as human as us making it more difficult for us to attack… This would be a great goal to strive for!

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Jenny. You might want to look right above this post.😉

      I love that talk by Brown and have shared it as a postscript to this post. I think much of what I share in this post are my own conclusions about vulnerability, but I do think that Brown goes much more into detail about the issue and I think gives a better argument than I do for it. But that’s what makes her an expert on the topic! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jenny. A pleasure as always.

  7. Hi Ollin,
    I just had to insert my own “duh” in there.
    I was on lunch and planning to read the next post on my break. LOL. I should have waited to comment.

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