In praise of vulnerability

Essay

All things are supple when alive and are only hard when dead. So what if we allowed ourselves to be soft and vulnerable for a change?

To be whole, let yourself break.

To be straight, let yourself bend.

To be full, let yourself be empty.

To be new, let yourself wear out. 

To have everything, give everything up.

Lao Tzu from The Tao Te Ching

Ever since I was a child, my singing voice has been my armour: a shining veil of perfection and an aura of strength. I put it on with splendour when performing during school galas, family recitals and vocal competitions. Very rarely did singing actually give me pleasure, only the perpetually strained cords, chronic sore throat and stage anxiety. Using my voice was all about the c o n t r o l: of the pitch, volume and timbre. My singing was well rehearsed and polished. Alas, there was very little emotion to it. Plus a lot of pain afterwards! My parents nudged me into thinking that being a performer is just not my forte. I gave it up in the early years of teenagehood, along with a huge collection of plush toys and Barbie dolls.

Fast forward twenty years and I am yet again singing, my vocal coach Jodie by my side. – Drop the throat voice. It makes you sound inauthentic and almost too placid – she urges, ever so gently. – But what if they can’t hear me? I need to control the pitch! – I insist. – Losing yourself is the best you can do. Be weak, soft and emotional. Use all shadows of vocal expression: whisper, falsetto and relaxed vibrato. They’ll love your music more that way.

And then the realisation hit me. The more I used to cling to the ideals of perfection, the less appealing I sounded. Only fully embracing the vulnerability of my voice – its subtleness, emotionality and pitch imperfections – gave me the breadth of possibilities I never dreamt of.

And that’s when Leonard Cohen’s voice starts to whisper in my ear: “There is a crack in everything. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.

High-sugar life

The modern times are a breeding era for the mythical Greek stallions and demi-gods. A constant exposure of self that social media has facilitated feeds our perfectionism like high-sugar drinks. We feel obliged to deliver: to be good partners, excellent parents, amazing employers, and on top of that – also the change-makers, revolutionaries and innovators. Pain and trouble are not welcome, gloss and lustre – just the opposite. Everyone seems to strive for some sort of betterment: of social status, character, fitness regime or diet. Even our everyday language has crossed out weakness and authenticity. Most of us go waltzing through life with the generic ‘How are you?’ on replay. Yet when we go to sleep, our minds start worrying that there’s no v i l l a g e around that would look out for our families. This culture of grit and strength is a trap many have fallen beneath, though, as being powerful often comes with a shadow.

Physics of vulnerability 

According to World Health Organisation, globally more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression. Not surprisingly, as perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, addictions, and eating disorders. Fortunately, there seems to be another way. Its path is covered with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It is called: vulnerability.

The word vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnerare, which means ‘to wound’. It is as if one was saying: I am open to attack, ready to be wounded. Brené Brown, a writer, researcher and one of the most influential TED speakers says, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

So this is the physics of vulnerability: it will h u r t, but if we are brave enough to fall, we will be able to rise up stronger.

Soft and supple

Brown’s words remind me of a beautiful quote from Alain de Botton’s little book Essays in Love. “My view of human nature is that all of us are just holding it together in various ways — and that’s okay, and we just need to go easy with one another, knowing that we’re all these incredibly fragile beings.” It is through risking being hurt that we gain the greatest chance at love.

A wonderful Persian poet Rumi praised the s o f t n e s s of heart in many of his verses:

Don’t claim in spring on stone some verdure grows
Be soft like soil to raise a lovely rose —
For years you’ve been a stonyhearted man
Try being like the soil now if you can!

All things, including the grass and tress,

are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death

This notion that we are most beautiful with our flaws exposed is reminiscent of the Taoist belief that softness and flexibility are far better qualities than stiffness and hardness. Lao Tzu, one of the most prominent thinkers of the ancient tradition of Tao, said, “A man is born gentle and weak; at his death he is hard and stiff. All things, including the grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death.” Stiffness is thus a companion of death, flexibility a companion of life.

I feel therefore I am

It seems that only hard things break, soft ones always bend back. So how to welcome softness into our daily practice to live more authentically?

• You can start from asking for help more often. Let ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I cannot handle this alone’, become your new daily mantra. Let it replace ‘It will be OK, I got this’.

• Then you can extend yourself to admitting fear and all other difficult emotions like anger, jealousy, and hostility. ‘I love you, but now I hate what you are doing’, are far more freeing than keeping a hardened heart and a sulk.

Then one should embrace the vulnerability of not only his soul, but also his body. Through understanding that all in life is transient, you remove part of the stress and suffering around the control of time, health, and beauty. In 2012 Eve Ensler, a famous American playwright, feminist and activist, best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, decided to make public her difficult battle with the uterine cancer. Yet again, here she was sharing with the whole world her most fragile self. “Western culture is so built around this overly cerebral, disembodied way we’ve created all of our institutions, and we’re impoverished by it. We’re so much smaller for it. During my cancer, I used to just chant all the time: I feel therefore I am.”

In the 1950s, the Japanese society was left shocked by an epidemic of Minamata disease, a neurological disorder resulting from the mass mercury poisoning after the fish and seafood got contaminated. A group of avant-garde artists responded by creating a dance routine called butoh, with the most vulnerable moves of a distorted body. Kazuo Ohno, one of the most famous butoh dancers, noted that when the Western dance praises strength of human body and its physical perfection, the Japanese style celebrates its weakness and degeneration as a new form of beauty.

Love the unadorned

If one thinks of any Japanese word that has recently taken the Western world by storm, it must be wabi-sabi. This humble philosophy of ancient Japan honours everything unadorned, imperfect, flawed and aged, and can refer as much to a general way of living, as to architecture, garden design and a general aesthetics of everything that we surround ourselves with: ceramics, textiles, art and music.

In our fast-paced and ostensibly consumerist world wabi-sabi becomes an ode to the simple, natural, unpolished, reclaimed and sustainable. Its purest and most evolved philosophical form would be the Japanese tea ceremony and most famous art form: kintsugi, i.e. ‘golden joinery’, which is the practice of mending broken objects with lacquer and gold.

What I particularly like about wabi-sabi is that it embodies both the form and the substance. It can be about the materials that we use when shopping for clothes, but also about the i d e a of who we become when we put them on. It is the pride that we take in the look of our minimalistic flat, but also the responsibility of no or minimal-waste household that we have created.
The lens of wabi-sabi can be applied to almost everything, adorning it with an added touch of nobility. In one of her art projects, French artist Hélène Guggenheim decided to challenge the global perfectionist beauty standards by applying gold to people’s scars, especially after difficult surgeries like mastectomy. Through this act she wanted to show how people could be strong and vulnerable at the same time. Guggenheim’s photographic art show, Mes cicatrices je suis d’elles, entièrment tissé (My scars, of them I am fully woven), is a powerful example of the wabi-sabi of life. Just as wrinkles and age spots are a gracious evidence of a rich life experience, scars can be a gentle reminder of one’s braveness in the face of adversity.

HOW TO LIVE CLOSER TO THE IDEALS OF WABI-SABI?

Cherish the old, inherited and reclaimed.

Pick natural materials (preferably sustainably sourced): timber, stone, clay, porcelain and natural fibres.

Choose functionality of smaller, but well divided space.

Think: less is more, in makeup, house décor, clothing and even life’s undertakings.

Vulnerable urban dwellers

Towards the end of his life an American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck turned his attention from individual psyche’s ailments to the universal problems of humanity. And he conceded: people lost the glue that has kept them happy and flourishing. “There can be no vulnerability without risk; no community without vulnerability. There can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community”, he fretted.

Yet every community needs free and non-oppressive space for people to form bonds and sustain interaction. Modern cities like London or Singapore almost completely renounced community areas in favour of commercial space. Urban squares turned into shopping alleys, open nature reserves – into theme parks. Nowadays people brush against each other in the crowded shopping centres, at the train stations or in restaurants, and sometimes these brusque meetings are their only chance at a daily human interaction. There seems to be less and less public space to practice free play and companionship, where it is OK not to purchase anything, but to simply take out homemade sandwiches and lay on the grass unobserved by the surveillance cameras.

“A city should be a school for learning how to live a centred life. A ground where strangers can become friends”, wrote Richard Sennett, an American urban sociologist in his first book The Uses of Disorder. As he observed, the orderly urban environments stifle personal development. “Only unpredictability, anarchy, and creative disorder will foster adults better equipped to confront the complexities of life”, he claimed.

It is wastelands, the most vulnerable urban areas, that are the best fertile ground for human creativity. There are oodles of possibilities to turn around unused parking lots, post-industrial sites, old railway lines, or viaducts. They can become art squats, communal gardens, eco pop-up shops or mini-farmer’s markets. Places with the most vulnerable history offer unique insight on how to sustain life in the face of change and decay. A public sculpture park Gas Works in Seattle was designed specifically to rehabilitate contaminated soil in site of the gasification plant. New Yorkers are lucky to have a different unique space – the green pathway of High Line Trail, placed along a disused railway line, where people gather to picnic, concert and party.

Guardian of integrity

In his scintillating book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and the Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, an English poet David Whyte called vulnerability: the ever-present undercurrent of our natural state and a guardian of integrity. “To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature; the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not” – Whyte writes in a chapter on the vulnerability itself.

His words are very poignant. The whole sense of being vulnerable to the world is that it forces us to drop a false sense of power over events and circumstances. As the poet adds wisely: “The only choice we have as we mature is how we i n h a b i t our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance”.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit 
our vulnerability, how we become larger and more
compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.

David Whyte

It makes sense. As we grow older, less supple and more inflexible, the only fresh space we have left in us is our vulnerability. So next time you are facing the inevitable vicissitudes of life, look at your wounds and scars. Think of them as the richest you could ever get, and possibly the happiest you could ever be.

WORDS: Alex Reszelska