“This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."
-- Brene Brown, from her 2010 TED Talk (embedded below)
My niece did something incredibly brave this week, and by chance I was there to witness it. My lovely, fourteen-year-old niece did something incredibly brave, and it did not go as she’d hoped. She put herself out there in a highly visible way, knowing she might face criticism and rejection. And when the worst happened, when the big, ugly world lashed out at her, there was nothing any of us could do to take the sting away.
Although we have lived hundreds of miles apart for most of her life, only seeing each other maybe once a year, for the first year of my niece’s life, we lived under the same roof. She was the first grandchild in our family, and for seven years the only grandchild. I had held and changed and fed many babies in my years of babysitting, but my niece was the first person I ever held just moments after birth. And when I held her for the first time, I was overwhelmed with emotion I had not imagined I could feel for someone else’s child. Our family had grown, and we were all suddenly cast in new roles: my brother was a father, I was an aunt, my parents grandparents.
|My niece and I circa the late 90's floral dress craze. The ivy in the hair thing was never a craze, and even my niece was scared to look at me.|
Now, fourteen years later, my little brother has almost a decade more parenting experience than I have. He and his wife have raised this gutsy, poised, talented girl. Meanwhile, I am still running around pulling toddlers down off furniture and cutting everyone else’s meat up for them at dinner time, half crazed and unable to hold a conversation without having to bolt away mid-sentence to intercede on some urgent physical violence type situation in the next room. We are on different stages of this parenting journey to be sure.
And yet, I recognized the look of terror on their faces as my niece stepped up to the plate. I recognized the look of awe they had watching her shine. And sadly, I recognized the mix of fear, anger and helplessness when they realized that in putting herself out there, she took the risk of unleashing a flood of hurt and disappointment that they could not control or soothe or kiss away. On some level, that is the same fear I have felt at every milestone my children have faced, that terror and then awe and then the sickeningly vulnerable realization that at any moment they could stumble and fall, and I can’t save them from any of it.
At the same time, I remember what it was like to be fourteen and want something, to prepare for it carefully and show up bravely, believing that if you did your best it would be enough. And then to be steamrolled by the truth that life is not fair and sometimes, for any one of a thousand reasons, the best man (or woman or girl or boy) simply does not win. Sometimes the boss’s son gets the promotion, or the person who happens to fit into last year’s leading lady costume gets the part. Sometimes you sprain your ankle on the morning of the track meet.
Not getting the part or making the team feels like taking a cannonball in the gut at any age, but as a child or as a teenager, the disappointment can be crippling. In fact, when I was a teenager, I was so discouraged by a couple of bad auditions that I decided I might as well give up singing all together. I had two brothers who could do no wrong on stage, who could sing anything you put in front of them, and I decided that since I would never be as good as they were, I would just give up this thing that I loved to do more than anything. I was so rigid that instead of bending into the force of rejection and being able to spring back from it, I let it break me.
When I went off to college and had the chance to start over with people who didn’t know me or my family history, I told everyone that I couldn’t sing, that I was terrible at it. Even when people sang happy birthday around me, I faked singing it off key. When I was alone, driving in the car or when my roommate was gone, I would sing my little heart out but always nervously, with my windows up or looking over my shoulder with the fear that I would be found out. When I finally had the nerve to sing in front of anyone other than my family again, it had been so long and I had built up my failure so much in my head that I felt like I had been stripped naked in front of ten thousand people, all ready to jeer at my glaring inadequacy.
I’ve been watching and re-watching this TED Talk by Brene Brown on shame and vulnerability. I found this talk at a time in my life when I was clinging so hard to my perfectionist tendencies that I had basically shut down. I was feeling inadequate in pretty much every area of my life, and as a result I had fallen into a trance of numbness and apathy. I got up everyday and went through the motions, but I felt as if I was living behind a three-inch sheet of glass. When I heard Brene in this video describe the tendency to want to numb uncomfortable emotions, to eat, drink, spend, gamble, religion or sex them away, I nodded in agreement. It’s just easier to do that sometimes, I thought, to protect yourself from disappointment. But, she explains, “you cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those [negative emotions], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
After years of researching what makes some people able to live open-hearted lives full of meaningful connection with others, full of compassion and joy, she found that the key to a full life is the willingness to be vulnerable. Putting yourself out there even though you may fail. And then getting up and doing it again and again. It is the definition of courage, which is like bravery’s older, wiser, soft-spoken brother.
We have to fail in some ways – not make the shot, get turned down for the date, fall off the horse, not get the part – to succeed in the big ways. People who have mastered the art of connection, joy and resilience, who have shed the crippling insecurities that breed shame, are people who are willing to stand up and fall on their face. A bad audition doesn’t just make you better prepared for the next audition; it makes you better prepared to be fully engaged in your life.
I have been thinking of my niece today and hoping that she is settling into her vulnerability softly, that she is even now witnessing the birth of a courage that was not possible before her disappointment. And I am reminded to look to my own kids, to ask myself if I am letting them stretch themselves enough, if I am giving them room to fail or if I am trying, rigidly, to protect them from themselves.
|My beautiful niece with my baby brother (yes, I can still call him that) and my sister-in-law. Grainy photo courtesy of my iPhone.|
I am learning that when you become a parent, one of the reasons that it feels like your heart has instantly grown three sizes like the Grinch on Christmas morning is because your opportunities to be vulnerable and to display courage have just doubled. You will hurt when they hurt, see the jeopardy when they only see the adventure, and will be tempted to keep them locked away from the dangers of life, fearing how keenly you will experience whatever befalls them out there. But, on the other hand, you will be plunged into the fullness of a life rife with this raw, inescapable vulnerability, and when they shine, you’ll be lit up like the 4th of July inside. It is, truly, like there is more of your heart to break, more to mend, more to share.
So how do we pass this gift of vulnerability on to our children? How do we have the courage to give them the chance to learn courage of their own? I would not urge my son to plunge his hand into a flame just to learn that fire is hot, but it seems that I have to learn to let him do the emotional equivalent of that. I may have to let Nico try out for basketball knowing he doesn’t have the body type for it. I may have to register him for a spelling bee we all believe he can win knowing that because he is confident in his ability, losing would be doubly painful. Time and again, I will have to put Lincoln in situations with typical children and give him the chance to succeed right along with the opportunity to be mocked or shunned by people who don’t understand what it is like to be different.
And through it all, somehow, I have to show that it’s not the winning that teaches us. It’s not getting the trophy that enriches our lives, but watching someone else walk away with the trophy and knowing that no one can ever walk away with our self worth. Somehow I have to help them learn, when they step up to be judged or graded or chosen for whatever thing their heart desires, that the real prize is not something anyone else can give them. The real prize is to be able to stop in that moment and say, win or lose, “I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive."