In the twenty-first century perhaps security has become a false god. Are there ways we need to learn not merely to accept our vulnerability but to embrace and even cultivate it?
Brené Brown is a fifth-generation Texan who teaches at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. She became wildly famous overnight through two TED talks. Although it may not be initially obvious to many, her Christian faith deeply undergirds her conclusions about the connection between human flourishing and vulnerability. She argues that we need to become vulnerable in order to really thrive.
At the beginning of her academic career the ideal of a detached, objective researcher deeply attracted Brown. She liked hearing her mentor say that, “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” In short she became a researcher in order to avoid being vulnerable. Later a friend described her as “the worst role model for vulnerability ever!”
Brown did not set out to study vulnerability. She wanted to study the human connection which gives purpose and meaning to our lives. She says that experience is “why we’re here.” In thousands of interviews she found that when you ask people about connection, they tell you about disconnection. If you ask about love, they tell you stories of being broken-hearted. She could not make any progress on understanding connection without learning a great deal about being unconnected. This is where shame comes in.
Shame is not an idea that I use to understand the world. For Brown however it is central to our social experience. She defines shame as the fear of disconnection. She claims that everyone who is not a sociopath experiences this. It is the little voice inside us that says, “if others knew this about me they would not want to be connected to me,” or even, “I do not deserve to be loved.” She goes on to say that “the less you talk about shame, the more you have it.” Shame grows and thrives by keeping itself hidden. Shame motivates us more intensely precisely when we are unaware of it.
Shame is the fear that produces what Christians call spiritual pride. Mostly in our ordinary conversations when we use the word pride we mean the warm feeling that comes along with being part of a larger group (for example school pride or national pride). Spiritual pride is a different but familiar part of our interior landscape and is a much more isolating phenomenon.
Often we cannot accept that God loves everyone equally so we act and think in ways that reinforce our false sense that we are superior to others. Spiritual pride provides a mistaken answer to the problem of shame. It seeks to overcome our fear of being disconnected by dominating other people.
C.S. Lewis calls spiritual pride “the great sin” and says that it “is essentially competitive.” Lewis makes the point that “each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride.” “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next person.” A person with spiritual pride cannot be satisfied by any amount of success, wealth, charisma, or friends. They feel a compulsion to be more successful, wealthy, charismatic and popular than you.
Shame, this gnawing sense of inadequacy, brings out the worst in us. Brown claims that we are more in debt, addicted, depressed, obese, and medicated than any other adult cohort in history. She finds that shame is correlated with these conditions. We try to numb the shame we feel, but we cannot selectively numb emotion without numbing joy, gratitude and happiness. Although when we meet someone new vulnerability is what we most look for, it is also what we most want to hide from others.
Brown points out that most people equate vulnerability with weakness. For them the definition of strength is invulnerability. But this is a myth. If you are not vulnerable you can never love with your whole heart.
This insight led her to name those vulnerable people she studied wholehearted. These are the people who do not live out of a sense of shame. The fear of being disconnected does not prevent them from being connected to others. They take risks. They are the first ones to say, “I love you” or “I’m sorry,” or, “forgive me.” This vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.
Wholehearted people have confidence and the courage to tell the story of their whole heart. They have the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. They can be connected to others because they can give up who they are supposed to be in order to be who they are. Wholehearted people embrace the idea that what makes them vulnerable and imperfect is also what makes them beautiful. Wholehearted people are able to contribute precisely because of their imperfections not in spite of them.
Brown wonders not only what living wholeheartedly could mean for us as individuals but for our whole society. She believes that in religion and politics the conversation has become focused on what we are supposed to be afraid of and who is to blame for it. What would be possible if we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, to take the risks that love demands?