The Path of Vulnerability

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Helplessness. Vulnerability. Fear. Grief. Those describe the feelings that have cropped up for me in the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Then there is the continued news about war in Ukraine and desperate situations of poverty all around the globe. It exposes me again to feelings I have had related to many other tragic events in my life. We do not know what to with these feelings … the vulnerability sometimes seems to be too much for us.

Perhaps you have felt the same thing. We feel helpless, and then we rail against the politicians and gun lobby. We rail against leaders, both foreign and domestic, who seem to be either actively causing harm or at the very least complicit or powerless to stop the harm. We point fingers and cast blame in all directions. It seems to help, for a time, this righteous indignation.

At the most basic level, what is driving us right now is the fight against vulnerability. None of us want to experience what others have experienced. Few of us can fathom the terrorization or the killing of innocents. It is hard to get our heads around the devastation that has befallen so many people at our borders as their hopes for a better life are shattered by closed borders, arrests, separation of families, and deportation that, for some, means certain death. Most of us can’t begin to comprehend the perpetual stench of death that exists in many of the poorest countries in our world.

And this doesn’t even begin to take in account the more than 1,000,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA alone, with millions more deaths globally. I read a fascinating PBS featured article about the challenges of getting our minds around that many deaths and emotional numbness. Ultimately, such numbness is the ego’s attempt to limit vulnerability.

As people who live (for the most part) lives of privilege, we often make the assumption that our primary task is to limit our vulnerabilities … to keep the fear at bay and to provide for greater security. When we have lived long enough, however, what we discover is that security is finally an illusion. The utterly secure world we seek simply does not exist.

How then are we to escape the vulnerabilities we fear so much? The answer is simple. We can’t. There is nothing in all of God’s creation that is not vulnerable … including God. (Yes, I’m aware it is heard as blasphemy to some.)

Fr. Richard Rohr, in his book The Wisdom Pattern: Order-Disorder-Reorder, says that Jesus did not do a great job founding a religion that most people would want to create. “Christians indeed have a strange image of God: a naked, bleeding man dying on a cross. Let’s be honest. If we were going to create a religion, would we ever have thought up this image of God?” (p.38)

Rohr then helps unpack something that I have long taught. Penal substitutionary atonement (our notion that Jesus died to wipe the slate clean and secure a place in some future heaven) is simply wrong. The purpose of the cross is not about Jesus taking our sin and suffering so we don’t have to; rather, it has everything to do with vulnerability.

It is on the cross that we are taught how to hold all our fears and our suffering without discharging that fear and suffering to others. It is about offering all of our fear and suffering to a God who is capable of both holding and then teaching us to hold our fear and suffering together. The death of Jesus is what finally lets us take suffering and death and use those as tools (not weapons) to connect us with the whole of suffering and dying humanity.

I say this carefully as I speak from a place of comfort and privilege, but I think it is true nonetheless: the only way forward is to walk the path of vulnerability. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work for reform to our gun laws or decline to speak truth to power about our unhealthy fascination with weaponry in our country. What it does mean, however, is that we take those crucial steps only by giving up the illusion of invulnerability.

What I have discovered is that when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I can have greater capacity for empathy and compassion for those who did not get to “choose” vulnerability. I can use my own sense of vulnerability to keep the conversation focused where it needs to be, which is beyond my own sense of comfort and control and on those who continue to be most at risk. It is through my vulnerability that I can connect with the ones whom Jesus called “the least of these” his siblings. It is through vulnerability that I can name my own egoic, sinful patterns (which sometimes comes cleverly disguised as that “righteous indignation” mentioned above) and offer them up to the God who chooses to be vulnerable with us.

Finally, I am discovering that the key to going deeper into wisdom isn’t by just knowing more and being more educated. The key to deeper wisdom is vulnerability, which implicitly is an education of the heart. My prayer is that, on this path of vulnerability, we might authentically meet each other and, if we keep our eyes open, we might just meet God on that same path.

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