Thursday, April 2, 2009

Making myself vulnerable

It's been a tough week for me. In a meeting with my supervisor at my part-time internship, I was given some tough critiques. As he went on, I began feeling insecure, a bit humiliated and quite vulnerable, like a child being disciplined by his father.

This kind of vulnerability can be a very physical experience for me. My pulse quickens, and sometimes I tremble or get cold. In some cases, my eyes water up. And at these moments, I lose the guards I've put up to efficiently tackle the mad crowds of New York and the search for success. Of course, that loss feels awful.

But I also believe that vulnerability is something God wants for us. I used to go to a Wednesday night service at Manhattan's Riverside Church, a Gospel-style service called "Space for Grace," with gospel hymns and clapping, frequent cries to God, and tons of "YES, JESUS!" shouts and "MM-HMMs!" coming from the Harlem audience.

On several Wednesdays, I would come in tired and irritable. I would read the program and sit there watching, usually impatient for the sermon.

Usually, though, I arrived when the ministers were passing mikes out to the crowd for them to offer praises and prayers to God. Sometimes a member gave praise for a marriage or a graduation, but more often it was a prayer for the sick, the dead, or the mistreated. I would get irritated after hearing a few of these, perhaps with the thought that the ministers were letting the crowd take over the show: when were we going to get back on schedule? But usually the ministers went on until every raised hand had been given a mike.

Now I had nowhere I had to be after the service was over. What was really happening was a resistance to being vulnerable to these people's experiences, especially to their pain. I came in wanting learning and inspiration, but not wanting to be vulnerable.

And yet I don't think we can get too far in our maturation without allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and I believe God treasures vulnerability. I believe vulnerability is divine.

In fact, that is for me the height of sexual intimacy: the moments where you and your partner are completely vulnerable to each other, literally naked and staring each other in the face, with no place to hide. And hopefully no reason to either.

Last night, I was reading one of my current self-help books, Taming Your Gremlin, by Rick Carson. In it, he has a 15-minute meditation where I was supposed to sit silently and imagine a person I loved deeply and a conversation we would have about our opinions of each other.

As I began, my mind was off in other places, and part of me was thinking the exercise a waste. Carson's book was asking me to be vulnerable, to open myself up to possible pain. And the part of me that's learned to protect myself from feeling weak and vulnerable was trying to blow him off.

However, I managed to do it: I imagined a conversation with my father in which we talked about how we really felt about each other deep down. It made me sad and grateful and ultimately very at peace. Afterwards, I saw my Dad had called me and on my call back, I told him about the exercise. He laughed and we had a great chat. None of that would have happened if I hadn't let myself be vulnerable.

We're taught that only the strong survive, but to me, true growth in life demands we learn to be vulnerable. I don't even like the word "weak" here: to me, it takes strength to put your guard down and be open. Our daily lives can feel like a boxing match, where we face an opponent and have to dance around danger and keep our fists up in order to succeed.

But to thrive as children of God demands a different approach at times. Though it may seem foolhardy or dangerous, we've got to learn how to stop dancing, take off our gear and be open to punches. After all, as they say in the fitness world, "No gain."

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