I’m still struggling with vulnerability not equating to weakness. Intellectually, I can say, “Okay, fine. I get this.” But accepting it, internalizing it, is a whole other matter. I’m trying to understand why I have equated the two words and not thought about them critically. I think I am going to start by blaming Star Trek (The Original Series, ST:TOS).
From ST:TOS “The Enemy Within” airing October 6, 1966. (Okay, so I would have been a few months short of five, so I might not have seen or understood the original broadcast. But, I have seen it multiple times since, of course.)
KIRK: Yes, I’ll make an announcement to the entire crew, tell them what happened. It’s a good crew. They deserve to know.
SPOCK: Captain, no disrespect intended, but you must surely realise you can’t announce the full truth to the crew. You’re the Captain of this ship. You haven’t the right to be vulnerable in the eyes of the crew. You can’t afford the luxury of being anything less than perfect. If you do, they lose faith, and you lose command.
KIRK: Yes, I do know that, Mister Spock. What I don’t know is why I forgot that just now. Mister Spock, if you see me slipping again, your orders, your orders are to tell me.
SPOCK: Understood, Captain.
So, all of us growing up holding Captain James T. Kirk as our masculine model got kind of screwed. Of course, this is not news. Kirk was hardly the best role model. He played fast and loose with the rules, he was cute too often where seriousness was expected, and was always putting himself and the ship at risk by being part of the landing party. WTF? When do ship captains do the dirty work? Why are all the senior officers leaving the damn ship all the time? One of the Jesuits I worked with Saint Louis University would rant about these issues whenever you gave him opening. He had a point. He also had the same gripes about Star Trek: The Next Generation but was generally most irate about ST:TOS. (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 he was happy with.) While there is an argument that a leader should be out in front, setting the example, if you study American military leadership, only the lowest level leaders, Infantry team leaders and occasionally squad leaders are in the lead. Personally, I like the idea of the leader being hands-on and first to danger, but that doesn’t make it the most rational choice.
Anyhow. Some might notice some similarities in behaviour between me and Kirk. All I can say is that it wasn’t intentional. Consider also this from Casablanca:
Rick: I don’t want to shoot you…but I will if you take one more step.
Renault: Under the circumstances, I will sit down.
Rick: Keep your hands on the table.
Renault:I wonder if you realize what this means.
Rick: I do. We’ve got time to discuss that later.
Renault:Call off your watchdogs, you said.
Rick: Just the same, call the airport and let me hear you tell them.
Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.
In both places, “vulnerable” really does seem to mean weakness. One might argue that Captain Renault is saying his heart is not “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm” (see this definition, which lists “weak” as a synonym) but at pointblank range with no body armor, that is demonstrably false. Of course, he’s really saying he is not emotionally vulnerable and therefore not physically vulnerable if his heart is the target. He is quite capable heartlessness as is demonstrated earlier in the movie as he preys on young women in search of exit visas to leave Casablanca. It’s a nice, casual throw-away line to reinforce an image of invulnerability.
But Shakespeare is more clear in “Macbeth”:
“Thou losest labour:
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress as make me bleed:
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield,
To one of woman born.”
I get this. To be vulnerable is to be unprotected. And therein lies the rub, to be unprotected just seems, well, weak. Isn’t that the mythos of the American West and modern open-carry laws? “God didn’t make men equal, Colonel Colt did.” To be armed is to be strong, to be invulnerable, not weak, to replace weakness with a weapon.
Springsteen creates the image of youthful invulnerability in “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.”
I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun
Then dance just like a Casanova
With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could feel it’s heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said “Don’t that man look pretty”
The cripple on the corner cried out “Nickels for your pity”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city
The hell of it is that at I times I still feel this way. I’m too old and ungainly, but I feel it. There are times I am just walking and I feel it. I feel strong, upright and unbent by life, feeling the movement of my body and relishing in its ease and comfort. Especially now as I am lighter and growing more fit again. It’s a powerful feeling. I feel good and these lyrics are too often there I as I walk. I feel good. Strong. Invulnerable.
The exact opposite of what I am trying to accomplish. Sigh.
I keep trying to find a mindset that encompasses vulnerability that also allows me to feel good. I don’t know about the rest of you, but this is a bit of a challenge for me. I don’t particularly like even the idea of feeling vulnerable, let alone being vulnerable.
I found this blog post that is based on the TED talk by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability that I have referenced before. The author has extracted five points from Brown’s talk that make sense: be real; act with no guarantees; ask for help; get rejected; and embrace negative emotions. I’m not very good with any of these. Depending on the context, being real is not always a problem, but in many circumstances, I’m too often playing a role and withholding some part of myself. For work, this is probably generally appropriate. At home and in the community, probably not. Asking for help is not particularly easy, especially since I enjoy problem-solving, but mostly I don’t like admitting I can’t do something, that I don’t know something and can’t find it, or that, worst of all, I actually need help (shudder).
The good thing is that I have found that when I actually ask for help, and then accept it, things actually get better. A big thank you to Laura Gogia who pushed me on this regarding an upcoming chapter being published this spring where she became my incredibly talented co-author. While I have noted improvement and it has gotten easier to ask for help, it is a challenge to change years of behavior. It is also uncomfortable to move away from the comfort of the illusion of invulnerability.
Embracing negative emotions is also a bloody challenge. Actually, embracing emotions at all is my challenge. Ignoring them, granting them only passing acknowledgement, or processing them as anger, has been too much of my life. It’s hard, but I am trying to open myself to the moment and the emotions that are part of each moment. Each day I am trying a little more to let go of invulnerability.