Be Impressively Vulnerable

Yesterday, I admit to my dear friend that I’m not good at being vulnerable.  I’m better at listening and giving advice and pretending I have it all together.  I’m better at being cheery and funny than admitting when I’m not feeling well.  Maybe, deep down, I think that folks won’t love me as much if I admit my struggles and my weaknesses.

I spent five years studying the emotion of shame.  One would think I could see through my tactics!  We hide away and protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable.  We preempt the mere possibility of feeling inferior, exposed, or judged by tucking ourselves away in protective spaces of various forms.  But my research regarding shame proves this:  when we make ourselves vulnerable, we create pathways for intimacy.  Our capacity for intimacy directly correlates to how vulnerable we are.

My cats perform dramatic displays of vulnerability.  When they roll flat on their backs and expose their tummies, they welcome affection.  Dogs enact even more impressive acts.  With incredible submission, a dog will lay down, roll over, and endanger himself by revealing an unprotected belly and throat.

In the animal world, showing the belly and offering submissive gestures signals love and trust.  What submissive gestures might I enact to signal to my friends that same love and trust?  A willingness to expose my underbelly–those weak and unpleasant things about me–might seem dangerous and shameful. But these impressive acts of vulnerability are what make friendship happen. 

Who wants a friend who can’t be vulnerable?  Who wants a life shackled by the fear of shame?  Roll over, show your belly, and just see what love you find.

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What I Don’t Want to Share

I’ll be honest.  I don’t want to tell you about this flair moment, but it’s the real one for today.

At the gym, I do the minimum and hide as far back into the machines as I can with my iPod and earphones keeping me in a safe cocoon away from any trainers.  But today I walk in, and two trainers greet me and insist that I try this new Body Combat class. One literally escorts me upstairs as I’m mumbling excuses and pulling away from her.  All of a sudden, I’m in this classroom of incredibly beautiful and muscular people.  She closes the door, and I find a corner, terrified. 

The trainer in front has a headset and looks like a drill sergeant.  He’s ripped and already sweating.  His sidekick is a petite blond woman who is absolutely gorgeous.  Every muscle is sleek and defined, she’s smiling, and she looks like a Cover Girl model.  They adjust their headsets, pump up loud techno music, and start teaching everybody these complicated combinations of squats, kicks, and punches.

I try to work the room and introduce myself to everybody.  My defense mechanism of encouraging all the others kicks in.  Maybe I could set up a table up front and talk to people as they exercise.  Maybe I could write a narrative or lay on the ground and pray for all those people. 

I’m dying.  I can’t even figure out the moves.  The class lasts an hour, and every millisecond is absolute pain and humiliation. I cling to my water bottle like a security blanket.

And then, it’s almost over.  But before we stretch, the instructors come over and give each of us a high-five.

Oh, come on!  A high-five?  A high-five like I’m a child?  And I totally failed in that class.  I couldn’t even do the push up thing where you put one hand in the air.

But when the woman comes over and looks me in the eye and gives me that high-five, I burst into tears.  The drill sergeant gives me not one, but two high-fives.  I cry harder.

What was wrong with me?  I’ve been humiliated before, but something about physical fitness strikes a nerve.  There’s no defense mechanism, no personality gift that aids me in my own body’s response to exercise.  It’s just me, my own muscles, and my own heart and blood out there.

I feel lost at sea every time.  It’s the real me stripped of all the flair.

That’s why I cried.  I was there, with nothing to offer, and those trainers still gave the high-five.  I felt like saying, “Are you kidding?  Do you know what a loser I am?”  But they did know–they saw every uncoordinated move.  And what makes the whole thing even better is that they bowed to us at the end to show how honored they were to have exercised with us.

I learned that living with flair means deliberately embracing situations that strip me of all my coping mechanisms.  It’s good to feel lost at sea so I can receive love and instruction from somebody else.  I don’t have to always be the teacher, the encourager, or the one with the flair. 

I’m a loser at the gym, crying in my minivan afterward because of a silly high-five.  But it felt like the best flair possible for someone like me.

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The Flair Disaster

Today in church, during the most reflective part, a little girl in a soft pink Easter dress spilled her grape communion juice. It trickled down her dress and pooled on the floor beneath her sandals. I was sitting two rows behind her.

Quickly, her grandpa and grandma (who happened to be the pastor and his wife!) found a cloth and began to wipe her dress and the floor. Her father joined in, trying to minimize the damage. And then, her mother–hawk-like and decisive–turned from her seat at the end of the aisle and made her way to where her daughter sat.

I felt myself bristle. Would this mother scold? Would she grab her daughter and drag her out of the church, shaming her for distracting the other worshipers? Was the Easter dress expensive, and would the little girl be punished for staining it?

The mother leaned down to her daughter. I couldn’t see the daughter’s face, but she had her head down, shaking.

The mother took the child’s face in her hands, firmly, tilting the chin up.

Then, looking clearly into that little girl’s eyes, she kissed her cheek and smiled.

It’s Easter.

Something about the way that mother held the girl’s face, something about tilting a chin up, something about that soft kiss overwhelmed me. It was a picture of God’s grace: choosing to love and not shame, lifting a face, covering a stain with a kiss. It was Easter flair.

Maybe I was so struck because I studied the emotion of shame in graduate school. When we feel tormenting inferiority because of a shortcoming, the body’s response is to look down. We hide. We cannot endure the gaze of an audience.

But this mother tilted the child’s face up. By refusing to allow the shame response, this mother locked eyes with her daughter and gazed with love and unconditional acceptance.

Later, I saw that little girl laughing and running around at an Easter egg hunt. The bright stain on her dress made no difference to her. But it could have.

Living with flair means I take a face in my hands (even if it’s my own), tilt up the chin, and choose to love regardless of the deep stain. Who isn’t walking around with grape juice on their clothes? Who isn’t that child? Who doesn’t need a love like that?

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