He felt as if all of this had happened before. He covered his heart with both hands to keep anyone from hearing the noise it made.
But nobody heard it.
– Eudora Welty, Death of a Travelling Salesman, 1941
Lately I have been thanking people for their vulnerability. It has occurred to me that the work that I have done for the past forty-five years – teaching, auctioneering, counseling, higher education, consulting, public health – this work has been made easier and more fulfilling because I have worked hard on being vulnerable. Like growing old, elective vulnerability is not a sport for the weak.
My thanks to others for their vulnerability is predicated, however, not on my own willingness to be vulnerable, but rather on a growing appreciation of others’ willingness during a time when it seems like vulnerability is a rarer and rarer commodity. If one watches so-called reality television, it is hard to miss the harsh defensiveness that blocks anything that would remotely look like reality. A friend recently posted on Facebook a question that prompted longish responses about calling-out culture. The thoughtful comments expressed worries, ambivalence, and cautions about the critical attacks one hears on a daily basis. These public critiques generally blame people for how they are working for change instead of acknowledging that they are working for change or challenging them on the change that they seek.
From my perspective, I think that the source of the criticism may also lie in an unwillingness to be vulnerable. The discourse is hampered by many things, but among them is a failure of the critic to show their challenges with finding their power and revealing their dream. “You don’t have a clue” can be hurled at someone when the speaker feels discouraged, hopeless, or resigned. It can also reflect a defensive decision to hide one’s heart, hoping someone else will hear it. Vulnerability looks better and better.