The first year I worked for a graduate writing program, I read the memoirs of Kim Barnes before she arrived on campus. Barnes’s books affected me deeply by their weight and power and beauty. As I read her story, I found myself moved by what she had been through. And then I realized I would be meeting her.
“What do you say to someone whose deepest secrets you’ve read?” I asked a friend. “‘Hi, Kim. I read about what happened to you. Nice weather we’re having, eh?’” I felt like I knew her, and yet she knew me only as the person who had arranged her hotel stay and airport chaperone.
When she came to campus and talked about her memoirs, she did so with grace and with strength. I was in awe. There was something compelling and settled about her, in spite of the tragic events she revealed in her books. I found the same again and again in writers who shared the painful, nitty-gritty details of their experiences by making stories out of them. By telling their stories, they hadn’t made only art; they had found truth. They had made healing. In some cases, they had found forgiveness. In other cases, they had discovered reconciliation.
This kind of vulnerability did not come naturally to me. My mode of operation in high school was to be perfect. I aspired to perfection in every aspect of my life and felt deep shame and guilt when I failed, whether it was in school or after-school activities or behavior. If my lack of perfection was uncovered, embarrassment silenced me and drove me to tears. I found myself only trying harder to be perfect afterward.
One night during the fall of my freshman year of college, I confessed all kinds of fears and failures I had to a group of adults in a Wednesday night Bible study. That confession cracked open the shell of perfection I’d been building and allowed in mercy and grace. Where I had expected condemnation, I found compassion, and in that moment of vulnerability came freedom and strength as I’d never experienced before.
We have a choice whether to be vulnerable. In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis says,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
In testing this notion, by being my real self with my spouse, with my parents, with my children, and in my work, I risk being “wrung and possibly broken.” But those moments of real vulnerability is where real living takes place, not in the posed and perfectly angled selfies I send to social media, not in the snide remarks about political campaigns or the anonymous retorts in the comments section of someone’s op-ed. Real living happens in the circle of siblings and parents when the CT scan comes back with bad news, and you weep together. Real living happens when you crack open the secrets you’ve kept from your spouse and start mending the hurt. Real living happens when you kneel down next to the child you’ve hurt, ask for forgiveness, and own your weakness.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes,
And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
What we risk in vulnerability is being found out for who we are. Be vulnerable, and suddenly your marriage doesn’t look perfect. Be vulnerable, and suddenly your parenting doesn’t seem perfect. Be vulnerable, and suddenly the mirage of your ability to keep it all together vaporizes into the wisp of smoke it was in the first place. Be vulnerable, and suddenly you release other people from living up to your perceived perfectionism. Be vulnerable, and you become loosed from the necessity to keep up appearances.
Be vulnerable, and you become a real human being.