I’ve been looking around and struggling to find a word to capture how the world looks to me at the moment. All these wary eyes peering over face-masks, stripped back and fraying nerves that flare weekly on a local and global scale, and near-daily reports on the decline of our emotional wellbeing… It all seems so raw. As though months assailed by an unseen enemy have flayed the top layer from society’s skin, leaving us all pink and exposed. What’s the word, I wondered…..? To capture us at our most open to threat, stripped as we are of everything that usually keeps things ticking-along?
The word, perhaps, is vulnerable. Extremely, possibly critically, vulnerable. A word, in my experience, almost universally railed against. “I’m not vulnerable! She’s vulnerable. He’s vulnerable. I’m not vulnerable!” And yet….
For many, I wonder, if an easy distinction between ‘the vulnerable and me’ was made in March by the government’s mandate that the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ were to shield at home. Vulnerable = locked away safely, invulnerable = different rules. However, purely from a virological perspective this belief is clearly unfounded as the death toll passes 50,000. Clearly covid doesn’t care if we class ourselves as vulnerable or not. Status, power, wealth or celebrity… none of these have proved effective vaccines (though your chances of survival are significantly higher if you are, say, a white politician and not a Bangladeshi care worker…)
It’s a strange thing to become aware of your vulnerability, your very human ability to become very ill, damaged, broken. I suppose that, as we get older, maybe that’s what happens – age awakens us to the realities of our bodies as the seasons of our lives point us to our physical truths. Maybe we need age to prepare us for the reality of our own vulnerability, maybe that’s just part of ‘growing up’? However, for huge swathes of the population a shock encounter with vulnerability came at once this year, a waking up to the realisation, “I could get really ill….” And the end-point, if we follow this full realisation through: “I will not live forever” – the one thing that (in my experience) most people go through life determined to ignore. No wonder people look so scared!
And it’s not just physical vulnerability that we see reflected back to us in those wide eyes; glinting darkly from deep waters never reached before. We are also, this year, emotionally stripped bare. Quick to anger, hard to settle, restless at night and listless, tired or whirring with energy. It’s been so hard to sit with our emotions all year. In this year of intense re-making of ‘normal’, we’ve been left with a lot of time with our ‘selves’. It’s been a tough gig. Even POTUS, now flailing around in a potentially catastrophic emotional state… watching I can’t help but be reminded of my children when they were toddlers, fuming and entirely self-absorbed. Who knows what his response would have been without these COVID months – perhaps just the same – but alongside much else I feel when I read the news from US, I can’t help but pity the exposed and somewhat pathetic emotional vulnerability.
Perhaps we’re all acting out in similar ways, on a micro-scale and hopefully with tinier consequences. Perhaps these months of collective loss – of hopes, of plans, of the false idea that we were ever in control – have left our adult selves taking refuge, curled up with Netflix on the sofa, whilst our vulnerable and emotionally raw child-selves peer out from behind face masks trying to work out how to make sense of this same-but-different world?
Of course, anyone who’s been anyone near a podcast, TED talk, self-help book or therapist in recent years knows that vulnerability doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Uncomfortable, yes, but not bad. There are so many wise words on vulnerability, from Brené Brown to C.S. Lewis, and reading them is a great idea for now and whatever lies ahead. For me, vulnerability feels like cracking open the safe space that I build for myself, saying “here I am”. A safe space is often a good thing, a place to grow, protect and nurture each other. But staying in my safe place can also hold me back, inhibiting curiosity and closing the door to encounter, presence, Love. Being extremely, critically vulnerable to the world, to each other, to the unknown is scary – but it’s also life in full colour.
The reality is we’re all vulnerable – to virus’, to becoming unwell (or worse), to each other and an uncertain future. The truth is we always were, and this year has brought us uncomfortably face-to-face with the reality of that. Yes, vulnerability was the word I was looking for. And so, a time for excessive gentleness and care with one another. A time for soft words that fall like snow and wrap around our weary bones at the end of this long year. A time of newness and bare soil. The sense that anything could happen.