Risk Vulnerability for Deep Relationship
Pastor Jeff Wells, October 10, 2016
Jesus rose from his place at the table, and, taking off his upper garments, tied a towel around his waist. He then poured some water into the basin, and began to wash his followers’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
– John 13:1-5, 12-17
I am convinced that building deep relationships is fundamental to a life well and fully lived and mutual vulnerability is an absolutely crucial ingredient for building deep relationships.
What I am not advocating and, in fact, condemn, is the sort of vulnerability that exists in relationships where one or more persons have power, authority, and privilege over others and take advantage of their positions of power to manipulate, harm, abuse, or exploit others.
What I encourage is seeking opportunities to work toward mutual vulnerability with the goal of creating significant connection, friendship, relatedness, and love.
I will admit that vulnerability does not come naturally and easily to me. I did not grow up in a family in which vulnerability was valued. We were a buttoned-up Midwestern family, in which we all tried to be “nice” to each other – that’s how we tried to show our love to each other, but we ended up with pretty superficial relationships that involved very little physical affection and little attempt to really get to know each other deeply. I don’t think it was because we did not have the desire to know each other – I think we just did not know how. We did not have the right tools or the training on how to use them. So, even though I have done a lot of intentional work on practicing vulnerability, it still challenges me.
I was teased and laughed at and put down at times during my childhood – as most of us are – and because I was not really deeply known or sufficiently affirmed and valued by those closest to me for my true, authentic, worthy self, I often withdrew and protected myself from vulnerability. So, for all of my adult life, and especially over the past 20 years, I have had to work hard at learning to practice vulnerability.
Brené Brown is a social psychology researcher and storyteller who has written several books about vulnerability, courage, and connectedness. She relates that of all the persons she has interviewed in her various research studies, about twenty-five percent strive to consciously practice being vulnerable in their relations with others. Of that group, only about 20 percent say they grew up with that being modeled for them in their families of origin. The rest of us have to work at it.
Why should we bother putting in the effort? Brené Brown makes the following claim that resonates deeply with me: “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” I would put it slight differently: God created us with the need for deep connection with God and with other human beings. I am convinced this is part of what Jesus meant when he said he came that we might experience abundant life. Abundant life in God’s vision is life lived fully and wholeheartedly. We cannot experience abundant, wholehearted living without deep relationships characterized by love, trust, respect, and compassion. And we cannot get to deep relationship without mutual vulnerability.
So we need vulnerability for a life fully and wholeheartedly lived, yet, we often run away from it. We hate feeling vulnerable because of feelings of shame or the pain of past hurts and times when someone has taken advantage of us or because we just want to be “in control.”
You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, I know I have trouble with opening up and being vulnerable. Being vulnerable scares me. I am afraid of being hurt again. I know this interferes with my ability to build deep relationships, but I can’t help it. I can’t do anything about it. This is just the way I am.” But that is not true. Most people do not grow up learning to live wholehearted – but somewhere along the line, they see it modeled and acquire a burning desire to live that way and then, they fight their way to vulnerability and wholeheartedness. You can, too.
I am not saying this is easy. Becoming able to be vulnerable in our relationships takes commitment, intentionality, effort, and practice – and it does not always succeed. Through much effort and over 59 years of being in relationship, my sister and I have a pretty deep relationship. We can be vulnerable with each other and really share our authentic selves with each other. But my relationship with my brother still feels pretty superficial and distant. Diane and I just celebrated our twelfth anniversary and we have the kind of deep relationship I am describing and have always longed for, yet we have to continually work at it.
If we have to work hard at the relationships with those we know and love the best, imagine the effort required to do that with a large group of people we happen to be drawn together with in a community like the Church of the Village? Yet, in the face of our trepidation, anxiety, and the necessary hard work, imagine the freedom and joy of living in a community that seeks to practice this together as a way of living.
Admittedly, even when we try to be mutually vulnerable and practice love, respect, and compassion for ourselves and the other person, we will sometimes hurt one another. Building deep, loving relationships is not easy, quick, or straightforward. It demands time, patience, a willingness to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, authenticity, and deep caring for one another. It demands that we desire to know each other as we really are, to value each other, and therefore to fight through our fears of vulnerability and intimacy. It means that we need to struggle to metaphorically kneel down and wash one another’s feet and to love one another.
I urge all of us to challenge ourselves not to be content with where we are today. Some of you may have grown up learning how to be vulnerable in relationships and you thrive on that. But don’t be satisfied with that. Challenge yourself to reach out and go even deeper and to help teach others how to be vulnerable. Others of us have to struggle harder to practice being vulnerable. I urge you not to live on the surface of things, but to live wholeheartedly. Don’t allow yourself to remain withdrawn, unable to reveal your imperfect self to others out of fear or shame. Search for the resources within you and pray to God for the strength to learn how to be vulnerable so that you might experience the pain and the joy of more deep loving relationships – of knowing and being known.