To be Vulnerable is to be Strong

Some kinds of vulnerability – the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual suffering that accompanies vulnerability – can make us angry, bitter, resentful, depressed, over-anxious, determined to protect ourselves as much as possible, and thus we can close down our defences, hide behind walls, narrow our vision, see things in a black and white way – and so reduce our learning – we can hold the world at a distance, we see it or other people as a threat, at least, those who are different from us; we can’t relate properly – and if we can’t relate properly – from–our true selves and open to their true selves – then we can’t learn.  We freeze in the headlights of the troubles besetting us – and so lose our freedom to see beyond them and see through to a bigger picture.  We lose our capacity for flexibility, for openness, for receptivity – for participation, experiment, risk-taking – in short, we shut off the channels for learning.

What then can suffering and our vulnerability teach us?  They can teach us about patience, purification, submission; they can teach us about acceptance, humility and perseverance; they can teach us about courage; they can teach us to accept the reality of our mutual interdependence (as compared with the radical autonomy claimed by so many in the world); they can teach us how to let go, how to have a more attentive ear, how to have a more active conscience; they can teach us to have a less proud attitude, how to become more open to advice, more ready to accept help (rather than to expect always to stand on our feet in isolated self-reliance); they can teach us to become more sympathetic to others; they can cut the ground from under our readiness to be judgemental; they can make me more aware of my need, more attuned to the sufferings and needs of others; they can make me more grateful for mercy.  Surely, all this is very much about learning how to become people of faith, people who open the door of our self so that God may enter.

Vulnerability, dependency and the need to receive are central features of the human condition, even though we treasure so highly autonomy, independence and not being reliant on others.  Each of us is limited by inheritance and endowment, so that the repertoire of gifts that is available to us to develop is restricted.  We are also limited by the environment in which we grow up and the influences we are subject to.  Thus, the opportunities available to us vary considerably, from person to person, in ways beyond our control.  We are limited too by our choices, by how we exercise our freedom.  As some doors open, because of the steps we take and the direction in which we move, so other paths remain untaken and we find that they now seem no longer as accessible to us as once they might have been.   In fact, if we reflect on our choices, we can experience internal divisions and incoherence, a constant and seemingly unbridgeable chasm between our ideals and our actions, a feature of humanity described poignantly by St Paul in his Letter to the Romans 7: 15 – 24 where he speaks of not doing what he wants, but the opposite and of encountering conflict between intention and practice.  He also, tellingly, says, when I am weak then I am strong; meaning that his weakness forces him to turn to the Lord; and when he does so, he is relying on what is real, what endures, what is reliable, what matters.

The poet, Sally Read, wrote in an article in The Tablet last year: ‘If we’re unwilling to be wounded we remain encased in our humanity.  With wounds, we’re lit by divinisation.  …  the wounds and blessings sometimes come so tight, we often can’t tell which is which.’  To this I would add: we were never promised safety; this is not the same as salvation.  If we were never lost, we could not be found.  Only by falling does our self-knowledge become real.  Only by losing or falling short can we appreciate more clearly what we need to do.  Only in light of some lack – some distance from what we perceive as good – will we strive towards the light and something more full.  Only with vulnerability can our defences be lowered and our lives be open to enhancement.

Ronald Rolheiser says some wise words in The Restless Heart about vulnerability: ‘To be vulnerable in the true sense does not mean that someone must become a doormat, a weakling, devoid of all pride, going out of his way to let others know all his faults and weaknesses.  Nor is vulnerability to be confused with the idea of “letting-it-all-hang-out”, or any other form of psychological strip-tease.  To be vulnerable is to be strong enough to be able to present ourselves without false props, without an artificial display of our credentials.  In brief, to be vulnerable is to be strong enough to be honest and tender.’

A few years ago, I was called during the night, to the children’s ward at Leeds General Infirmary. A baby had just died. When I walked into the ward the young parents stared at me, and angrily asked, ‘Where is this loving God of yours now?’ I remember mumbling something about the fact that God was probably crying as they were. But what stayed with me so clearly is that, ignoring me then, the father took his wife in his arms and said, ‘You know I love you.’

We have forgotten that God can only love us through the human heart. When the young father clasped his dead baby in one arm and held his weeping wide in the other, what a supreme struggle between life and death went on inside him. Accepting the overwhelming tragedy of the death of his dreams, he could still tenderly whisper tremulous words of life into his distraught wife’s heart. In a hundred lifetimes could there ever be a more searing, intimate glimpse of the human power of God made flesh?


(Last two paras are taken from Already Within p30 and 32)