The Vulnerability of Kindness

Vulnerability is scary.

Whether you’re a wildebeest parching your thirst from a possibly-crocodile-infested pond or a person sitting in a room about to tell someone a truth that you’ve hidden for a while, it’s frightening stuff. Your heart races. Your skin shines. Your muscles tense. Your voice shakes.

The truth of a situation is naked. Vulnerable. Exposed. We spend most of our life trying our best to avoid situations where we must admit the truth, see the truth, or otherwise open ourselves up to things that scare us.

But we run from vulnerability to our peril. There is fundamentally no way out of situations that require vulnerability. We are vulnerable creatures, each one of us fundamentally unable to create the world we want alone. Something will always be different than we’d choose — whether it’s sickness, weakness, or an urgent need for help. We simply are not omnipotent.

We can try to escape this reality, but only by fleeing into vices that distract our mind from it. You can get drunk. Get high. Get distracted. Get fat. Get conceited. Get selfish. Get mean. Get quiet. Get isolated. But none of those gets rid of the vulnerability that caused you to seek escape. They only mask it.

Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return.

Coping strategies put a rug over over the hole of vulnerability. It superficially seems we’ve rid the area of that unsightly hole, but someday when we’re not careful that hole will catch us. And then we’ll be at the bottom of a hole with a huge rug and anything else that rug brought down with us. We’ll be stymied down there in the hole, wrestling with all that stuff before we can even think about how we can get out.

Kindness is hard. And it is fundamentally about vulnerability. About laying yourself open, if only the smallest bit, so that someone else can accept that opening. Kindness is about saying things people may read as weak, or stupid, or weird. About doing things without any guarantee you’ll receive anything in return. You simply cannot do those things while you’re scared of being vulnerable.

Opening to vulnerability requires tremendous awareness. It requires you to escape the invulnerable bubble of your regular stories and patterns and actually sit there and keep going as your pulse quickens, your mind races, and you want anything to not have to go through with this thing. But you do it, not because it’s easy but because it’s important.

There is, to my knowledge, no quick shortcut to empowering brave vulnerability. You must try and you must feel the horror and you must, sometimes, feel stupid and foolish for having made the effort.

But sometimes you will also feel stupid and foolish for having found the effort so hard, because no catastrophe befalls you. And sometimes great things come from the effort. And as those experiences accumulate, you get more comfortable. You’re better able to be open and fully present and kind in the world. It’s hard work, but I’m not sure any work is more worthy.


Deep Honesty and Machismo

I think that one of the hardest things in the world is to be honest. We all give lip-service to the value of honesty. We all like to think that we don’t lie and that therefore we’re being honest. But there’s a large difference between being honest and refraining from lying. One of the clearest examples of the point is what I think of as the “confrontational masculine style”.

Socialized as we are, men are not to demonstrate weakness. To say that you’re uncertain of the situation you find yourself in and worrying about how you appear is honest, but the “confrontational masculine style” doesn’t allow such displays of “weakness”. So instead we see gestures of fight: threatening words, looks, lunges–caricatures of what society has taught is proper.

Confronted with disorienting facts or opinions, men aren’t trained to say “That’s interesting. I’d never thought of that.” A man will, instead, tend to get angry and accuse the cause of his disorientation of trying to get everyone riled up or pick a fight. Whether or not this impulse rises to the level of physical violence depends a lot on social context.

Similar arguments occur on the John’s Hopkins campus and in the tough parts of Baltimore made famous by The Wire, but the methods and outcomes can be vastly different. At the prestigious university, a man who feels so entitled will stake his claim on a woman by spreading the knowledge through a social sphere large and norm-enfocing enough to protect his reputation from any threat. On streets without law enforcers, a man will likely resort to punches, if not a knife or gun, if he feels that his claim on a woman is inadequately respected.

In either context, what’s missing is honesty. It’s honest to say “I feel threatened by the amount of time you spend hanging out with that guy.” It’s honest to say “Your questions are making me feel angry.” What happens is that we yell, we start fights, and we blame other people.

Fundamental to these dysfunctions is a dishonesty to ourselves. Not only are we unable to express these emotions and feelings to others, but we frequently fail to even articulate them for ourselves. We–males especially, but perhaps the whole culture–are not fluent in the language of emotions. We don’t always know the words that match up to our internal state. They try, when we’re young, to teach us this stuff, but many of us aren’t really educated about until much much later. Some of us never really get it.

It’s so much more common and visible for “I feel hurt” to be expressed as “You’ve hurt me”, or even “You’ve hurt me and now I’m angry”, that we can be given some leniency for thinking the second reading is correct. But this second expression fails to accurately identify the situation as it is first encountered. The personal feeling of hurt is always more primary and accurate than the assigning of blame for that emotion. But more importantly, the second makes it natural to expand into the third, which brings with it a whole new set of emotions which only inflame a situation.

Honesty is hard because of all the ways and reasons–strength, machismo, fear–we’ve learned to favor dishonesty. Dishonestly allows for a pleasing clarity. A nice certainty that I have no responsibility for the current situation because the world is refusing to comply with the way it’s meant to be. Dishonesty allows us to play the easy game, projecting our emotions outward so we can move on from them. But it’s very limiting.

Honesty is hard, scary, and worthy of the energy it takes to find. Honesty is the fundamental basis for all useful knowledge. Deep honesty is the basis for wisdom. Almost everything I find admirable in the world is rooted in this deep difficult honesty. And the fight to live in that deep difficult honestly is probably the most important goal I have on a daily basis.