We’ve learned recently that our president was infected with the coronavirus.
Reactions have varied. I’m sure the president’s followers are anxious and feel concern. His adversaries, I suspect, have reacted with a kind of “I told you so” attitude and probably with some feeling of vindication. In the corridors of government, I can imagine how anxiety and confusion rein while the country, and even the world, feels a generalized uneasiness about “what’s next.”
The worldwide spread of the virus is frankly terrifying. In the US, alone, there are over 7.4 million known infections identified, and over 210,000 deaths reported. If the numbers haven’t brought the pandemic’s virulence home to some, the news that the president tested positive has.
The media brings intense scrutiny to the afflictions of public figures in general and to an American president in particular. The coverage creates a sense of immediacy. This urgency gets fueled with hourly updates as we sit watching television in our dens and living rooms. The affliction becomes grist for political calculations.
In this essay, however, I want to focus specifically on a piece of our human condition that these present circumstances highlight. Of the emotions men and women hate, feeling vulnerable is one of the most loathed. We do almost anything to flee or deny it. From my experience, speaking in general, I’d say men manage their feelings of vulnerability differently from women. Women allow themselves to feel vulnerability openly and are more inclined to embrace candidly what they’re feeling. Men steel themselves against the pain of vulnerability. They’ll often react defiantly, as characterized in admiral Farragut’s famous cry: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” A derring-do attitude in times of personal vulnerability is always good theater, and may embolden the derring-doer himself. Bold reactions sometimes address some threats effectively, depending of course, on the complexities involved. A habitual cavalier disdain of danger, however, breeds its own hazards; it can minimize and trivialize the real threats involved and, by so doing, worsen them.
Feeling vulnerable is as human as it gets. It’s also an experience that everybody hates. At the end of the day, we human beings are and have always been, regularly exposed to all kinds of mortal dangers and we don’t like it one whit. We dread feeling vulnerable. We regularly create illusions of our invincibility for any number of reasons, but the most basic is to ward off the fear that exposure to danger evokes.
The matter of human vulnerability and addressing our powerlessness is a spiritual matter as well as a psychological one. The first of the twelve steps of recovery begins with an acknowledgment of personal vulnerability and powerlessness. Managing personal vulnerability is also the central challenge in living a spiritual life, and is seen in Christian and Buddhist teachings.
St. Paul makes what seems like a contradictory, if not outrageous, statement when he writes, “my power is made perfect in my weakness.” To embrace suffering (and by implication, to acknowledge personal vulnerability) defines Buddhist spirituality as well. “Suffering is a fact of life,” the Buddha begins. The way out of suffering, the Buddha teaches, is to first acknowledge suffering’s inevitability with a clear mind and recognize the vulnerability implied in it. For both spiritual traditions, including AA, facing this reality transparently is how one deals sanely with any adversity, and offers the means by which suffering is mitigated. But first you have to acknowledge to yourself, just how exposed you are.
The largest and most successful social revolution in history launched against powerful oppression was the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The power of the movement wasn’t in meeting force with greater force, but instead demonstrated how a society’s most vulnerable population found extraordinary power in publicly claiming its vulnerability and weakness. That’s how one begins to overcome just about anything.
Embracing vulnerability is act of humility. It’s just naming what is, and not trying to duck it or pretend. As clergyman and therapist, I’ve heard countless stories from people who’ve been feeling vulnerable, but ashamed to say so openly. When they can finally articulate and own it and embrace the circumstances openly, people say they feel less alone, as if they were freed and a burden had been taken from them.
The legendary Mr. Rogers of ‘Neighborhood’ fame, once encouraged children, when feeling scared and vulnerable, to “Look for the helpers.” Rogers was spiritually aware and psychologically sophisticated. He understood how people fear sharing their feeling of being defenseless because they will be seen as weak and inadequate. These are people who feel they must always go it alone to save face. In real life, the most enduring bonds we will ever build with anyone, will not be when we shared with them moments of our greatest triumphs and achievements –– real or imagined –– but when we spoke of our greatest fears and
uncertainty. We grow stronger by joining hands in our mutual vulnerability. We also grow closer to others because we don’t need our pretenses that had kept us so distanced.
Scholar and writer, Brené Brown, has extensively studied the subject of our human vulnerability. She identifies the cultural myths that shape our feelings about it. The association of vulnerability with personal weakness fuels the dread we have (especially in men) in acknowledging and accepting our moments of genuine helplessness and exposure to threat. Culture assigns to these natural human feelings, connotations of moral failure. Feeling frightened and vulnerable has been culturally regarded as cowardice, evidence of a serious character flaw and something to be ashamed of. The contemptuous use of the word ‘loser’ reflects this kind of disdain for being vulnerable.
Right now, I can say without any shame at all that the idea of catching the virus makes me feel, well, vulnerable. I am scared for myself and others as well.
I wish for anyone infected with the virus the comfort that others can offer and the blessing of hope. For anyone who must suffer this dreadful disease, I hold you in the light, whoever you may be.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.