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Courage & Vulnerability

Thursday, 29 August 2013


One Diamond, One Heart - Smashing Pumpkins (mp3)

Sea Diver - Mott the Hoople (mp3)

Wherein we discuss the power of vulnerability and shame, surviving child sexual abuse, and good dogs, but not in that order.

Here’s when I love my dog the most. We’ll be playing -- I’m the only person in the house who really plays with the dog the way dogs want to be played with. I'm the harshest disciplinarian, but also the most fun. My hand becomes a spider or some creature with a life of its own, and Chip treats it as such. He paws and jumps and bites at it in ways he would never do with any other part of my body.

Chip, a small terrier-sized mutt, isn’t comfortable doing this game with one of my feet. I think because feet are riskier. More damage can be done unintentionally with a foot, at least when that foot is attached to my leg. Also, he won’t play the game with any of my children in physical proximity. When they try to play the same game, he won’t do it, I think because he cannot relinquish his role as their protector. (Which is kinda funny, since he’s a crappy protector. Terrier-sized mutts ain't the best bet for protecting stuff.)

Whenever I have to tell him we’re done, that the roughhousing is over, I just pat the floor gently, and Chip crawls over to me and rolls over. It’s his way of showing that he knows I’m the Alpha Dog, but I don’t love my dog the most in that moment because he recognizes my superiority, but rather because of the vulnerability on display.

He trusts I won’t hurt him.

This morning, thanks to a link from NPR on Twitter, I discovered Brene Brown, a researcher whose two TED talks have been viewed millions of times over. Her research has focused on two key interrelated concepts: vulnerability and shame. Her knowledge is stunning and her delivery masterful.

I needed to hear Brene Brown this week. Finding her was one of those glorious moments of kismet where the food of her words and voice fell from the Internet heavens into my lap, like Manna.

You see, the past week on TheAtlantic.com has been, like, Pedophile Week or something. First they had an article by what is a “good pedophile.” It’s a terribly uncomfortable read, which obviously means it’s important... even if I couldn't bring myself to finish it. That piece was followed -- wisely -- by an article looking to explore the issue of pedophilia not as a predator or victim, but as a knowledgeable, mostly-dispassionate researcher.

Finally, they concluded with the most moving of all, an essay from the wife of a survivor of child sexual abuse. The article is brave because it acknowledges vulnerability and weakness in a person to whom we are most want to give wide berth and understanding, and who better to be frank and blunt in an unflinching (but loving) way than a spouse?

(Disclosure for non-regulars: As many as one in six boys and male teens in America are sexually abused. I am but one of millions, and I am OK, wanting neither pity nor admiration, but in light of all these topics, this fact seems inescapably crucial to it all.)

Like most of life, it is in the chemical combination of many experiences where the greatest comforts and revelations emerge. Reading the story of that husband, struggling but surviving, and his amazing wife, and then following that up (albeit unintentionally) with Brene Brown’s talks, gave me a feeling of tremendous pride and empowerment.

As Brown says so beautifully, shame is what makes us human, but it is oh so destructive. Vulnerability might be an area our culture must continue working on, but it’s oh so vital. Vulnerability isn’t a prized trait if it’s not used judiciously. Being vulnerable all the time to all people in all ways isn’t admirable anymore than being incapable of it.

While I have enough flaws that it would take me a dozen lifetimes to dent the stack, I can at least rest my head in the comforting thought that I have worked through much of my shame, and I have never sacrificed my willingness to let myself be vulnerable in the right settings.

Sometimes we need reminders that we’re all right, that we are doing some things well, that we might be fortunate enough to have someone (or several someones) who love us enough to stand by us in our darkest times, our most vulnerable times, our most flawed times. And sometimes, even those of us who somehow have all of these blessings, who have so much that they should never be able to lose sight of it all, sometimes even they need reminders.

Millions have watched Brown’s 20-minute talks. What an amazing gift she has given, a talk all but guaranteed to allow a listener to walk away feeling better about themselves and about humanity, a priceless reminder to a countless audience.

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