Vulnerability is a good thing. It’s an honest thing, it’s a relationship-building thing, and it’s a brave thing. I think one of the hardest things about being human is being intentionally good at vulnerability, both in the choosing to be and being vulnerable with, and in the being a person people can be vulnerable with sense.
One of the hardest things about vulnerability is knowing when to be vulnerable. When it is safe to be vulnerable. It seems almost false to put the word “safe” on it, because safety seems to be the exact thing we are rejecting when we try to be vulnerable. By definition, vulnerability never feels safe! Being vulnerable is being (and most times feeling) susceptible to harm. Trying to be vulnerable in a healthy and safe way will thus probably never feel healthy and safe, because vulnerability will always, by virtue of it what it is, feel risky. Intentional vulnerability will always come with a side helping of fear.
When I went to Palmyra, one of the things I realized was just how vulnerable the environment was (and is) to human impact. Every visitor has to follow strict biosecurity and behavioral protocols in order to get the privilege of interacting with and soaking in the environment. The privilege of participating in that vulnerability, the ability to experience the beauty of a vulnerable yet robustly healthy ecosystem, has to be earned every moment of every day.
I realized: just like Palmyra, my vulnerability with you is a privilege for you, not a right. Your vulnerability with me is a privilege for me, not a right. Your experience of my vulnerability is a privilege, not a right. My experience of your vulnerability is a privilege, not a right.
No one is owed anyone else’s vulnerability, that kind of deep honesty and fragility. I don’t even think vulnerability is perfectly owed within intimate relationships. (Healthy intimate relationship require a certain amount of vulnerability, but that’s in order to have the right kind of relationship, which also depends on the behavior and participation of the other person in the relationship.) We can only ever endeavor to work for that privilege, to demonstrate through our consistent behavior and words that we are as much of a safe place for that fear and risk as anyone human and imperfect can be. Not only that, but we need to demonstrate that we are aware of our imperfections and willing to do what it takes to apologize for not being careful with that vulnerability when such inevitably happens, and to change when and as warranted to make the relationship a safer place.
I also think this works in the opposite direction, too. Sometimes we foist our vulnerability on someone who is not equipped or interested in handling it. We do this in an effort to get love and approval (for the most part), and sometimes to make a relationship more intimate than it currently is. But we don’t have a right to be vulnerable with everyone. Those with the vulnerability should exercise good judgment and care not to claim that giving someone the experience of our vulnerability is a right of ours to determine. There is a give and take. Vulnerability confers responsibility, on both parties.
Of course, there are times when we can’t help but be vulnerable, in a time we might have wished we weren’t. See: Jana crying at work (not my best moment). In a weird way, I think those moments are also the privilege of those who see us vulnerable. They get to see us at one of our most real moments, and have a chance to be a safe, loving, gracious recipient of our vulnerability. We get to interact and engage as real people in those moments. Not everyone will act well in those moments (on either side). But the elements of privilege, I believe, are there nonetheless.
Vulnerability is a privilege. May we endeavor to bestow, recognize, and honor it as such.