Quick survey: name one guy who doesn't think Braveheart is one of, if not the greatest movies ever made. Nope. You can't do it. I sat down and watched the movie again the other day, and thinking of it right now makes me want to call off work and re-watch it. We identify with the courage of William Wallace. We see his willingness to risk everything on the pursuit of freedom. We even see his romantic side. Yet there's one huge aspect of William Wallace that goes unnoticed: his vulnerability.
I've been thinking a lot about vulnerability over the last few months. But I'm also realizing how little I really know about the topic. Vulnerability has some incredible benefits, including deeper love, greater connection and real freedom. But we also open ourselves up to some powerful and painful consequences like rejection, failure, and grief. So, the question we face is this: why should we be vulnerable? And is the risk worth it?
What Is Vulnerability
Vulnerability refers to the inability (of a system or a unit) to withstand the effects of a hostile environment. In computer security, a vulnerability is a weakness which allows an attacker to reduce a system's information assurance. Vulnerability is the intersection of three elements: a system susceptibility or flaw, attacker access to the flaw, and attacker capability to exploit the flaw. To exploit a vulnerability, an attacker must have at least one applicable tool or technique that can connect to a system weakness. In this frame, vulnerability is also known as the attack surface.
Vulnerability is the state of being open to injury, or appearing as if you are. It might be emotional, like admitting that you're in love with someone who might only like you as a friend, or it can be literal, like the vulnerability of a soccer goal that's unprotected by any defensive players.
1. Capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon: a vulnerable part of the body.
2. Open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.: an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.
3. (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend.
These all sound terrible! No wonder our culture places minimal value on the word.
Based on these definitions, vulnerability is a word we fear. It can be summarized by the word, “weakness,” and we should run from it.
A Life Without Vulnerability Is Not Life
But these definitions are incomplete. Vulnerability is not simply an outcome. It’s a tool. It's a lifestyle. Like William Wallace, it's a pathway towards freedom.
I recently finished reading a book called, Rising Strong by Brene Brown. The premise is that while many people talk about learning from failure, few describe the process of getting up off the ground, wiping the dirt off your face, and finding the vulnerability to risk again. Reading her work on vulnerability and shame has made a tremendous impact on my life over the last several months.
In one of her famous TED videos, she emphasizes that "vulnerability is not weakness." She simply defines the term in Rising Strong as: "...simply the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome." She also says that "vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. It involves emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty." It is "fuel" for daily life. "Vulnerability is the birth place for innovation, creativity, and change."
We can easily slip into the mindset that vulnerability is simply sharing things we struggle with or things we’ve worked through in the past. But it’s so much more than that. It's about putting ourselves out there, making ourself available, and not having any control over the outcome. It could be good, it could be bad. It might be applying for a promotion and risking failure and rejection. Or it could be taking ownership over a mistake or failed project instead of blaming someone else or making an excuse. It's not about the outcome, it's about the process.
Many discussions about vulnerability end here. They remain academic and distant. While searching the internet for definitions, I also stumbled across a few blogs about vulnerability. Some of them even had similar content to what I put above. It only takes 30 seconds to google “define vulnerability” and copy it onto a blog post. I can share a youtube video of someone rebuilding the engine to a vintage Camaro. It doesn’t mean you’d hand me a wrench to work on your car.
Stories offer the best definition. We have to live it. I have to live it.
Talking About Vulnerability Requires Vulnerability
Several months ago, I was introduced to a really special man through my work. For years he was a part of one of our ongoing support groups for those who have lost a spouse. Now his home is in an assisted living facility. He is 95 and has no children or grandchildren. I know that getting close with him is inviting future heartbreak. So why do it? Because he is just as deserving of love and human connection as you and I. But I also do it because I enjoy our interactions. I love hearing the story about his first job making $.75 an hour. I treasure the stories he shares of his wife. You can feel the love he had for her as he talks about taking care of her and providing for her. We've also share some emotional moments while talking about not having kids. He's been one of my biggest cheerleaders about returning to school and he gets excited when I talk to him about the latest updates with my grad school program. He even mentioned that he saves the letters I send him and shows them to the staff at his facility.
My dad's dad died a few months before I was born, and I only got to spend time with my mom's dad every couple of years. He lived in California and passed when I was eleven. So every time I visit with my friend, I partially discovering what a relationship with a grandfather feels like. Yesterday, we celebrated his 95th birthday with about 30 people at his facility. There was an abundance of cake and ice cream, and I got sit with a few people that have called him friend for far longer than I have. A few of his lady friends even had a special t-shirt made for him. I loved seeing his smile before and during the party. There was so much love in the room, and I could tell he felt it.
These are the moments that inspire me to live with vulnerability. The risk is worth the reward.
**Click here for part two of this article**
Join The Conversation
What is your definition of vulnerability? Have you viewed it as weakness? Or something else? Is a previous definition of this word being rewritten? I would love to hear your stories. Please comment in the section below, or contact me on Twitter @RickGuttersohn.
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