What does it mean when we feel vulnerable? On the one hand, it seems obvious; it means we recognize we can disappear at any moment, die or be hurt. Or that we can lose someone or something we cherish, and feel awful and frightened by that possibility. Vulnerability is a component of nightmares, fear, and anxiety.
On the other hand, the meaning of vulnerability is more complex than it might appear.
When I was young, my Grandmother lived with my parents, brother, and me for half of the year. She was a short woman, suffering from difficult health problems, yet still lively and feisty. We lived in a ranch style house in a suburb of New York City.
One evening, when I was six or seven, the two of us were home alone. Our dog, a Welsh Terrier named Peppy, started barking and my Grandmother and I noticed a man outside the back door to the house. Instead of first calling the police, she went to the closet and got two big umbrellas. She kept one and gave me the other, and we ran to the back door, ready to strike him if he broke in, which he did; he was quite a brazen or stupid thief to try to rob a home when a dog and two people were present. As he came through the door, we started hitting him with the umbrellas. But he was bigger than both of us combined and easily knocked us to the floor.
Peppy, however, was not so easy to brush aside. He had a deeply protective personality. He growled and leaped at the guy, bit him on the thigh and latched on, like he was trying to rip off his leg. The thief screamed and tried to hit Peppy and knock him away, but only succeeded for a second. I recall Peppy pulling off the thief’s pants, but I don’t know if that is an accurate memory. What I know for sure is that the thief turned and ran with Peppy chasing after him. No one ever tried to rob our home again.
However, for years afterwards, when I heard a noise at night, I looked to see if some bad man was outside my window or door.
Recently, I had hip replacement surgery. After returning home from the hospital, I heard unfamiliar creaks and noises when I went to sleep that night. In a dream, the new sounds combined with the pain and my immobility from the surgery to create an image of a face in the window of the back door of my home. I tried to turn on an outdoor dream light, but it wouldn’t work. Then I woke up.
Whenever I feel scared and vulnerable it is easy to attribute the emotions to the memory of the thief in the night, but that is a mistake. Vulnerability is not simply an unfortunate result of a disturbing experience. The incident, and ones like it, did not create my sense of vulnerability, although it took part in how I enhanced or shaped it. A memory can pull emotion to it like iron filings to a magnet and thus expand and distort how it is experienced.
Vulnerability is with us every moment. It can take on an infinite number of forms, but the crucial component is how we interpret it. Vulnerability is both physical and emotional. Obviously, we are mortal and can die at any moment, although I don’t think many of us fully grasp or accept the fact.
But is our mortality a weakness—or a strength? And who, if anyone, do we blame or thank for what happens to us at any time? Ourselves? God? Human psychology?
Vulnerability is the felt sense of impermanence. We are constantly changing. It is not just that each day we are getting older, but each moment our body and mind is slightly different. Change is the clay out of which our bodies, brains, and universe are formed. Without change, we cannot breathe, learn a new skill, travel, eat or speak. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, said: “Reality is flowing. This does not mean that everything moves, changes and becomes… It means that movement, change, becoming is everything that there is. There is nothing else; everything is movement, is change.”
Change can lead us to feel emotionally vulnerable in several ways, one of which is that we never know in advance who will show up as our self in any moment. I remember as a teenager studying personality theory and taking personality tests to try to find key elements, labels, predictors of who I was or would be. Who we are is an unsolvable mystery that becomes a source of great anxiety and fear when we think a self should be permanent and predictable and come with a downloadable explanation of our thoughts and feelings.
Vulnerability might be a component of fear and anxiety, but also of joy, enthusiasm, and love. It is what makes us open to anything, alive versus dead. Simone De Beauvoir, the French novelist and philosopher, said, “Death gives life meaning.” The Japanese Zen poet, Kenko, said, “If man were never to fade away… but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
This is the purpose of vulnerability, if only we can recognize it. We feel vulnerable in order to wake us up to the preciousness of the individual moments of our lives.
We need to learn how to welcome and learn from it. When we try to stop the feeling, or wrap ourselves in layers of protection constructed from stories we tell ourselves, or with money or positions of power, then vulnerability becomes fear, an evil to avoid, a nightmare to run from. Or if we try to bind to our will whomever or whatever attracts our attention or love just to protect ourselves from rejection or loss. But when we allow ourselves to feel the delicacy of a moment, feel the moment as an opportunity to learn, grow, and change, then joy and love become not only possible but also probable.
A Mindfulness Practice:
Sit up comfortably in a relatively quiet place. Close your eyes partly or fully, and simply feel and listen. Maybe put your attention on the area of your belly and feel what happens in your body as you inhale. Notice how, when you breathe in, your belly expands down and out. And when your body reaches a certain point, the in-breath reaches its maximum and seems to stop. Then the stomach, or actually diaphragm, pushes the air up and out.
Notice the moment when the air is pushed out. When most of the air is gone, your body, on its own, wants more, wants to open, to take in more air. Your body is constantly moving at its own rhythm.
Listen—maybe it’s drizzling outside. You hear an occasional drop of rain on the roof or a window, or water in the gutter or drain pipe. Or outside, a car engine starting on the street, or the sweet song of a wren, or chickadee. Each sound or song is there one minute and gone the next; its ability to sing and be heard dependent on the moment it doesn’t sing and isn’t heard. Its power to breathe in and be fully dependent on its power to be empty.
Just sit for a moment feeling and hearing these changes. Your strength and your vulnerability are just two elements of one rhythm, the rhythm of your life.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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