Our society greatly values vulnerability, provided it occurs under specific circumstances.
We give awards and celebrity and fame to those performers most able to be truly vulnerable. The truth in every word at a Mumford and Sons concert; the shellshocked look on Meryl Streep’s face during that scene in The Devil Wears Prada; the resonant truth of Amanda Palmer’s writing; the gut-wrenching moments of hysterically horrifying honesty in great comedy: it is moments of absolute vulnerability that reverberate through us and bring our attention to the world’s artists, writers, and performers.
Yet outside of the parameters of presentation society seems not know how to cope with it. There is a tendency to react to vulnerability on the immediate, human scale as something embarrassing to be covered up.
It is seen, in a word, as weakness — or at the very least is treated as such.
There comes a point in most children’s lives where continued vulnerability is seen as a barrier to entering true “adulthood”; where some form of resilient, self-reliant independence is required, and any remnants of the child that came before are eradicated.
Do not misunderstand me — there is clearly a need for children to learn the independence to be able to feed, wash, and clothe themselves, or to care for minor injuries and to seek help for larger ones. That is a pertinent point: “to seek help for larger ones”.
“To seek help”.
We know that it is important to learn how and when to seek help, and yet with the exception of physical injury or danger we have created a society in which seeking help is seen as a failure rather than as an appropriate and necessary response to situations that no individual could possibly be expected to weather on their own.
We create masks for ourselves that fall somewhere on a line between our true selves and an imagined ideal of what we should be; an ideal our society still defines by the rugged, strong, silent, white, almost aggressively independent and self-reliant male who dominates so much of our heroic fiction.
It is interesting to me that even as we slowly begin to expand our definition of heroes to include different genders, races, and body shapes, the element of aggressive independence and total self-reliance are still seen as necessary hallmarks of any hero or anti-hero.
Why? Psychologists and anthropologists have told us for years that humans are inherently a social species and that our very biology demands communal support and social interaction; that being vulnerable and accepted is a healthy and empowering thing to do. The scientific literature on the subject is breathtaking in its unanimity: our bodies and minds are empirically healthier when we are vulnerable within a group of people who understand and support that vulnerability.
Yet look around. So many of us choose to surround ourselves with peer groups that reinforce our respective masks: the characters and mechanisms we create to protect our vulnerable selves. The independent, self-reliant, cyphers of the socially-dictated hero myth.
We accept as normal a perpetual sense of loneliness punctuated by brief moments of manic self-sedation, often in groups of people equally unable or unwilling to truly connect, as opposed to seeking out those people who know and love our vulnerable selves. Moments of true vulnerability are seen as moments of indulgence, if they occur at all, and must be compensated for.
This is not a universal rule, but rather a general pattern. It leads to the strangest interactions, and the compensations take different shapes in different societies. The “stiff upper lip” of the English; the raucous overindulgence of the Americans; the aloofness of the French: these are all grossly stereotypical manifestations of masks created and maintained to prevent vulnerability. It is interesting that so much of the conflict between cultures stems from two different manifestations of the mask undermining each other rather than from any true interaction between the people wearing them.
The tragedy here is that we have masses of people desperately subduing their true selves out of fear of vulnerability, thinking that any pain they might show is inherently weakness, because society has told them consistently that this is the case.
Think of the art we are robbing ourselves of. When we celebrate the performer onstage once already successful but create an environment where the requisite vulnerability for art is punished and looked down upon, we are robbing ourselves of performers. We are losing artists and their voices daily. We are silencing some of the greatest gifts humanity can offer itself with a scientifically unsupported lie.
I ask again: why?
I believe the answer is rooted in what has been termed “toxic masculinity”. It is this myth we have created of perfect manhood, as represented by the hero-figure mentioned earlier. The false narrative goes: since man is inherently better than woman, and since this is the perfect embodiment of those traits we deem inherently male, then this is the ideal that we must all aspire to.
It is a lie.
It is a lie borne out of an ancient power-structure designed to undermine the deep importance of those traits we have deemed female — vulnerability, sociability, emotionality — and further create an environment in which half the human race is kept subservient. It plays in to a construct wherein vulnerable women must be protected by independent men. The gender pay gap reinforces this narrative by keeping women less financially independent than men, thereby encouraging the notion that ultimately a woman needs a man to protect and save her because she will never be as independent as a man.
Capitalism itself links the idea of independence to money, and thereby encourages people to seek out money in their quest for independence, without regard as to whether the methods of acquiring that money are in any way in the long-term interests of their vulnerable selves.
By creating a need for money and then equating asking for help with failure, capitalism ensures that people of all genders trap themselves in their masks for the sake of imagined safety instead of simply asking for and receiving help.
This is how powerful the fear of vulnerability is, and this is how it serves a capitalist, patriarchal narrative.
Accepting vulnerability as a positive quality undermines this narrative. Self-acceptance and self-care and surrounding oneself with the people who do not play to these tropes undermines this narrative. Being honest with oneself and with others, especially when that honesty is uncomfortable and the fear of rejection overwhelming, undermines this narrative.
At this point it feels necessary to highlight the difference between asking for help and awaiting rescue. Choosing to be vulnerable and asking for help is embracing one’s inner self with honesty and acting accordingly. Refusing to allow yourself to ask for help and instead broadcasting a faux-vulnerability or performative overconfidence is akin to awaiting rescue, and regardless of gender casts you in the role of damsel in distress. This in turn plays directly in to this toxic narrative by removing your agency.
Please do not misunderstand me: I am not saying independence and self-reliance are somehow wrong or bad, or that anyone displaying those traits is anti-feminist or misogynist or part of the patriarchy. Such a statement would be ludicrous.
What I am saying is that independence and self-reliance take many different shapes, and that all things come with balance. To paraphrase John Donne, no person is an island.
It is deeply harmful to assume that a more self-reliant, less vulnerable person is inherently a better or stronger one; an ideal to be pursued. It plays in to a capitalist, patriarchal narrative.
I believe that true strength, self-reliance, and independence are all rooted in vulnerability. When you can uncover, love, and accept the vulnerable self to the degree that you walk through life baring it for all the world to see, and surrounding yourself with the people who celebrate and accept that rather than recoil from or belittle it, then you are developing the foundations of a life lived to the fullest.
It is under these circumstances that you will discover all that you are truly capable of.
So please, reconnect with the people who see and love and nurture your true self rather than your mask. Let go of those who prop up the mask or balk at your vulnerability when it appears. Love your vulnerability, and use it as a test for those you keep. Stop punishing yourselves for being vulnerable: it is your key to greatness.
In your moments of darkness, it is okay if you have to ask for help. It is okay if you feel you have to talk to someone who truly understands. Doing so honestly and with vulnerability will merely equip you to shine even brighter in your moments of light. Wear both those moments and all the others in between with pride, because you are real, and that in and of itself is a gift to the rest of us.
I shall end with a quote from the inimitable Neil Gaiman.