Honesty and vulnerability have stopped me in my tracks three times in the past few weeks. Not my own heart-on-sleeve habit, which regularly trips me up, but other people’s willingness to acknowledge their fragility in public.
Firstly it was Katharine Welby’s musings about her ongoing experience of hope and despair in the midst of depression. Then Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in which he tipped off a million or so listeners to the fact that he spends time on the therapist’s couch. And finally Vicky Walker’s anguished and hilarious blog story of a day of mess and awkwardness – life as lived by the gloriously imperfect.
Most of us struggle to some degree with issues around vulnerability and openness. How much we reveal of our deepest hopes, questions and fears will depend on our personality and preferences, our comfort level with the individual or group that we’re talking to, our awareness of the impact on relationships and professional roles, and quite simply our fear of being misunderstood.
If you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable then the answer is simple: keep your thoughts and struggles to yourself. Katharine’s blog went viral, and was followed by an excellent interview in The Telegraph where she acknowledged both her fear of ‘getting boxed up as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Depressed Daughter’ and also the relief she experienced – and the countless grateful responses she received – when she did speak out.
We generally learn most about ourselves, others, life and God when we are willing to take off our metaphorical protective clothing. As Vicky Walker puts it, ‘How can anyone really know me if I hide? And how can you really be known if you say you’re OK too?’ Of course the appropriate level of disclosure does require some good sense. In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s ‘PM’, Giles Fraser was asked what drove him to therapy in the first place. Laughing, he replied, ‘The point about the therapist’s couch is it’s a safe space to talk about one’s own problems and anxieties – and the point about the PM programme is that it’s not!’
Richard Rohr writes, ‘Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in … You are always larger after any intimate encounter … It is always grace’. Even if we’re not living life in the public eye, any decision about opening our hearts involves a risk assessment. But at the right time and with the right person the risks are often outweighed by the potential for new understanding, deepened relationships and real growth, together, in wisdom.
You may have seen those Brene Brown TED videos which linked vulnerability to the ability to take risks. Fragility is harder to acknowledge, the ability to be hurt. Most of us are fragile, it is good when people admit it.
I haven’t seen the Brene Brown videos but will look for them now. I’m sure there’s a link, because if we can’t cope with our own vulnerability then we’ll have a tendency to avoid risks and therefore live an impoverished life. Similarly there’s a close connection between fragility and strength, I think.
Katherine Welby was brave to reveal her vulnerability and I hope it reassured those people who are depressed that they are not alone and there is hope. However, people feel they cannot reveal the ‘real me’ as people are not interested or do not have the time or don’t know how to help. Recently bereaved I’ve been faced in the playground with ‘how are you?’. I should be able to say ‘I’m sad today’ but deep down I know there response would be the same if I replied ‘great thanks’. They’d carry and walk on, for whatever reason. So yes, the intimacy with the right person in the right place is the best.
Perhaps the more we take the risk of being real, the more we discover the people who can cope with our honesty and give us an appropriate response. But I guess we need to recognise that it’s a risk and be prepared to be hurt sometimes.