Vulnerability may be very hot right now on many bookshelves and for many audiences, but there is at the same time a rather frightful detachment from the most vulnerable people in our and other cultures. The little immigrant children who come to us in pictures and stories of our major newspapers are not causing rebellions in the streets, and pressure for immediate action. These children, and of course their parents and all the others– in many arguments, are not even a major voting point.
My concern is that when we place vulnerability on the surface of our lives it can become a self-absorbing call to tend to our own wellbeing only. It can lose the feature of real empathy, that of caring about people who are mistreated on what we think of as lower echelons—people suffering from violence in crime infested neighborhoods, homelessness, inequality of all levels and sorts.
If I think of vulnerability as daring greatly, as leading me into intimacy, I may stay on the surface of things, as I call it, on the ceilings. Basement vulnerability can be very raw, stark, chaotic, and pretty crazy. We can be disheveled physically and certainly mentally. We have to face our own brokenness; it is not just about being vulnerable but realizing that inside on some level we are all broken, by our early experience, by the disappointments and losses of life. Often there is a broken and shaky quality to vulnerability. Vulnerability has content, and people in the midst of it often do not feel the stability or clarity to move forward with any speed. They are not ready to show the world a complete or organized experience. In moments of vulnerability we move in halted ways. We need to accept that there can be a broken piece to us. We are not whole and therefore somewhat broken.
There is a political feature to vulnerability. It has to do with noticing the broken and left out people among us and to give a shit. I hear many conversations about the American economy being good and I wonder what people are thinking about the one in five who are poor, about the inequities of our prison system, about the many who can’t pay back their loans and can’t afford health insurance.
The people who vote for Trump are also vulnerable. They yearn for the leader who makes them feel strong, whether or not he tells the truth. They also have trouble contacting the vulnerability inside them so they would look for a candidate that does not toy with their fantasies of grandeur and nostalgia, which is often a longing for things that never were to begin with.
If I fear and loathe the chaos and mess inside me, then I am likely to see chaos and poverty and craziness outside of me as a problem of “others”—not as something that concerns me personally.
I am going to walk by tents of homeless people, feeling that it is very sad, but not untenable. And I am going to read about violence in countries far away and think it has nothing to do with me. I am not going to even ponder that many countries in the West, including our own, have had a part in destabilizing countries in Latin America and the Middle East and Africa, and that we owe them restitution, rather than thinking of laws against the refugees who really want to stay in their own countries, should they be safe enough.
I am going to consider myself liberated, mindful, and vulnerable, but the messier parts I will see only in others who are naked in their needs and inability to cope.
When I recognize my own basements and come to terms with having to deal with the bottom levels of my own trauma, my own weakness and fear, I will recognize the same levels of need in others, even if they look different than me. I will have less of a tendency to feel superior or detached.
I used to think of myself as unworthy of empathy for what felt like trauma in my life when I didn’t qualify in terms of the standards of racial difference, severity of poverty, and crimes like rape or murder of a loved one. I didn’t get scared on the way to school by anything close to gun violence, as a kid even if the boy down the block, who would sometimes hit me out of nowhere, scared me a lot. And yes, I was already overcome by weakness, and after all these years I remember his name was Ira.
Now I feel there is no such thing as being unworthy of empathy. Some of us suffer from emptiness and defeat and others from actual physical trauma. Some people are doing pretty well but we all have a history of helplessness. We were all children once and can knock inside at our own doors and feel what that is like—to feel helpless.
This is political because we need to open ourselves to translate caring into voting for people and issues that exude vulnerability and need to be helped to repair the states of inequality that abound. Again we can only begin to care, to dare to care—greatly and less greatly—if we can identify with the neediness both inside us and out.
These are not statements that are wishy-washy, the meanderings of a snowflake. These are offerings about our needing to face our vulnerabilities also so we don’t project our hatred and weakness onto each other, and so that we don’t take polarization for granted. And so we don’t aim for invulnerability, grandiosity and isolation.
#Vulnerability and politics