I know, I know, I can never let the word “discontent” go by without the disco reference, although I never discoed in a tent. I’m not against the idea, however. It makes me feel mighty real.
Anyway. This morning I was thinking about this presenter at the WD Conference last August, whose thing was vulnerability. He did some group workshops in which people, as far as I know, were supposed to share things about themselves that made them feel, I dunno, bad, or like fuck-ups or, like stupid or evil people (i.e. not mighty real), and then people would hug them for being so brave as to share the failure or fuckup. Now, I did not go to these workshops, so I don’t really know what went on, so take everything from here on down with the proverbial crystalline substance. (SALT, baby, don’t get yer skin all a-shudder). The Vulnors (my word) also had a sort of blackboard, a black movable screen made of cardboard or something, which they had stationed at one end of the hall that lead to all the conference rooms. The object was to write things on it. So even if you didn’t want to participate in the vulnerability training you could write down some inner hurt, some hope, some message of love or solidarity or something like that, I presume. Again, I didn’t write. What was I going to say? “Nice wall?” Or some dubious attempt at humor, which would have, given my general mood during the conference (overwhelmed and speechless, GREAT for a writer!) come out as twisted and directionless and Aspergian as some of my blog posts.
Anyway, the gist of the vulnerability thing, training, whatever it was, was that it’s good to be vulnerable. And that people walk around too guarded most of the time.
Actually, I think the second part of that statement is wrong, especially in the U.S. I don’t find most people particularly guarded. On the contrary, a lot of people broadcast themselves pretty freely. Like people who interrupt a speaker to tell the speaker why what the speaker is saying doesn’t work for them, personally, which happened a few times at the conference. As if the speaker needs to hear from that one person, at that moment. (Which is not at all what I’m doing here. NOT AT ALL). Or like people who tell you about their amazing food allergy journeys while all you want to do is pay for your cabbage. Or, um . . . facebook . . .
But leaving that aside, let’s examine the issue in a more linear fashion than Glena normally engages in.
First, let’s define.
According to dictionary.com, vulnerable means:
1. capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon:
a vulnerable part of the body.
2. open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.:
an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.
3. (of a place) open to assault; difficult to defend:
a vulnerable bridge.
4. Bridge. having won one of the games of a rubber.
Let’s, for the moment, leave aside number 4, which, to me, because I don’t play bridge, is kind of inexplicable. But I have to say in passing that: wow, what a sentence! “Having won one of the games of a rubber, she peeled herself off his . . . ” Oh, but I go too far. I go too far. Let’s get our minds out of the rubbers and onto the page.
Numero 3 is also kind of unhelpful, because people aren’t really places, although that reminds me of one of those ice-breaker or creativity-forcer type test questions you can find reams and reams of on the internet, i.e. “If you were a place, what kind of place would you be?” I bet no one says they’d be an anthill. Or a beehive. Or an embalming room. But I digress again, albeit in a far less sexual and offensive manner.
That leaves #s 1 and 2. I don’t think the Vulnors at the conference meant #2, exactly, although, yeah, “open to criticism” works, because I believe one of the points to the vul-training was to heal yourself from this insane fear of criticism that makes us so stiff and so unable to “be ourselves,” which, of course, is a magic panacea in the U.S. Be yourself and you’ll succeed, gain friends, money, you’re a genius, you’re already a millionaire. You just don’t know it yet, because you’re too busy trying to be someone else.
But what if you go around being yourself and you’re still unemployed or poor, what then? Well either it’s YOUR fault for not being ENOUGH of yourself, or it’s just a bad patch and sooner or later you’ll get your moment. So let’s admit that if we say, “be yourself and you’ll still fail” that might be a turn off for most people, even if the fault DOES in fact lie with the system they’re stuck in, not any lack of authenticity.
But–worse yet—what if the real you is actually a fuck of a person, a real jerk, and not the kind of charismatic or humorous jerk you think you are, but a jerk that sours the very air around you, the kind of jerk that saps the very will to live of his or her fellow humans? In that case, I’d say, very emphatically, “Do NOT be yourself. Don’t do it. Be Mother Teresa instead. Please.” I’d really want you to be that, to find some Mother Teresa-ness floating in the air and grab it and act as if you had it in you, and, you know, forget the real you because in these times of trouble, the last thing we need is another real you who is a supreme, death-wish-inducing jerk. I’d rather have a hundred fractional Mother Teresas than one whole supreme death-wish-inducing jerk. In this country, above all. Where we specialize in the circle jerk. (Did I just go too far again?)
Sigh. I am the fucking queen of the tangent. As well as the circle . . . aw shut up, bad Glena! Stop being yourself.
Okay. Back to the point(s).
Vulnerability, definition numero 1–Capable or susceptible of being wounded.
Is this what they mean? Is this good?
I think what the Vulnors are saying is that defensiveness is bad. Sure, sometimes it is. Not always, but if it becomes a habitual thing, it probably is. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me. I know you stopped reading this blog two paragraphs ago. I know you’ve always hated me. F**k you – that kind of thing. My mother, bless her soul, used to “overhear” people saying bad things about her in the strangest places. Like on Ferris Wheels. So. . . not so good. But again, I tangent.
But, does “defensiveness is bad” automatically equal “vulnerability is good?” And if vulnerability is good, does vulnerability come from confessing some idiotic shit in public and then letting people hug you? (As an Aspergian, I don’t really care for the hug. I have a quota of lifetime hugs, and I believe I’ve almost reached it, so I’d rather not spend the last few being hugged in a freezing hotel hallway by desconocidos).
So: Is vulnerability good? Let’s unpack some of the assumed (based on observation of the vul-training video) benefits of vulnerability.
Vulnerability makes you feel better—because you’re not holding in a lot of putrefying shit.
Vulnerability makes other people like you.
Let’s take the second one first. There’s some truth in it. I’m watching a TV series on Netflix, called El Mar de Plastico (Spain) (which has nothing to do with the great Pacific garbage patch, the subject of a future post). It’s a cop show, basically, with serial killers and a lot of twists and turns and great characters and cultural and racial clashes while they’re at it, all set in contemporary Southern Spain. It’s one of the best cop shows I’ve ever seen actually. One of the main characters is a detective named Hector, who’s got PTSD from being in Afghanistan. He’s kind of wounded and obsessive and has very little sense of humor, yet he’s one of the most likable cop characters I’ve come across in any show. He’s also really tough: like jumping into cars from motorcycles tough, cars that contain heavily armed Serbian criminals. So he’s not vulnerable like he’s going to go in for confessing some jerky thing from his past in front of a bunch of corporate team builders. But he is vulnerable, insofar as he’s wounded. What makes him likable? I think it’s that aspect–the vulnerability, which is, in his case, bravery. But more important it’s his complete lack of swagger. The actor (Rodolfo Sancho) plays Hector as a moody but moral and compassionate loner. It works.
So we can say that the vulnerability is part of what makes him likable. He doesn’t pretend to be okay.
Another example is Lola (Nya de la Rubia), from the same series. She’s from a very traditional family of Gitanos (gypsies) and her father basically disowned her for becoming a cop. She’s also in love with Hector, but he doesn’t return the love. So those are two vulnerable points. But she’s also as brave and tough as Hector, AND, she’s always defending her family even when they turn their backs on her.
Then there’s Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben’s books. He’s got more swagger and humor than Hector, but he’s also got Achilles heels—he does occasional stupid things, he feels shit he doesn’t want to feel. But he’s also a character in a book, so you see his internal dialog. That’s a little different, he’s not getting up in front of a group saying that he once took ten dollars from a poor old lady across the street. Although if Myron Bolitar had done so, he would probably confess it, and then set about making it right. For the rest of his life. Because Myron, like Hector, has a morality code, and is obsessive in that good way.
And of course–Jane Eyre, nuff said.
So these characters are vulnerable, but that’s only a small part of what makes them likable. What makes them likable is that they are brave, and that they aren’t full of shit. Therefore, vulnerability helps make you likable as long as you have other stuff going on. Like compassion for others, or a sense of humor. I think I’m talking about “character,” as in the thing you build via misery. GREAT.
Accordingly, likability doesn’t automatically arise with the kind of confessional vulnerability I’m talking about here.
Second assumption: Vulnerability makes you feel better about yourself. You unburden, so you aren’t walking around armed to the teeth all the time, or ready to fight. Because that’s tension, and everybody knows that tension is bad for artists. Right? Right? (hmmm. But could a dancer spin without any tension? Could he leap or raise his leg above his ear? Shut up, Glena. Five sides to every fucking coin.)
I believe this kind of unburdening was, at base, what was being sold in the Vulnerability workshops. Telling something about yourself that you’ve always felt ashamed of, or weird about. For example (and this isn’t the first time I’ve told this story) When I was about 8 years old, I broke into the house across the street. Friends of ours lived there, but they were gone, and we didn’t know when or if they’d be back. You have to know I loved these people—a childless couple—in fact they saved my sanity back then. When they left, I felt lost. What did I do? This is so logical it hurts. I broke into their house. I didn’t take anything–oh maybe a triscuit, which was all they’d left in the kitchen. I didn’t feel what I wanted to feel from being there. There was an initial rush of excitement when the window I’d jimmied gave way, but when I went inside–pure sadness. This desolate little house. Without the couple in it, I swear the place mourned. I swear the walls changed color, went pale, the dust didn’t even swirl in the shafts of sun coming through the bare windows. Everything lay still and flat. It overwhelmed me—this intense, intense quiet. Nothing scary either, the house didn’t creak or sigh and the words GET OUT didn’t suddenly appear in dripping blood on the walls. It was just–sad. I think the couple was so vibrant that when they were there, the house seemed super full of books and games and color and light, but without them in it, you saw that they didn’t really have a lot of stuff at all. It was empty. All that fun came from them, not from stuff. Without them, the house was a lonely little box.
Anyway, it was summer, I was 8 years old and somewhat troubled, albeit largely invisibly. After the first time, I told my brother and a friend and we all went in. It was fun showing them how to get the window open and then put it back the way it was, but once we were in, the joy, as before, disappeared. They felt it too. We went in a couple more times, and then we stopped. But then, guess what? I started feeling this fierce, grinding guilt. Teeth-gnashing, you may call it, or twisting, because that’s what it would do: make me twist and writhe, trying to get comfortable, trying to get my evil act out of my mind. I finally told my mother. Punishment followed, although not as bad as I’d thought it would be. My parents tended to over-punish for relatively minor infractions–like “being smart,” and under-punish for things like B&E. The worst of the punishment was having to call and tell the couple what I’d done.
Did I feel better having confessed? Yes, in that the guilt was incessant and painful and obligated me to tell on myself. No, in that I didn’t feel “understood” or “accepted” or any of those things that I assume the Vulnors are looking for. But maybe that’s a function of time. Do I feel better for writing down that episode? Not really. I mean I’ve long since stopped feeling bad for that break in, so it’s pretty much just a story. But the Vulnor-man himself, the head of the Vul-trainings, confessed something similar–that he’d robbed some money from his first employer, who’d been such a nice man. The trainer felt bad about that little bit of larceny—small and mean. Telling it, the way he framed it, I guess, left him open to criticism. So he felt brave facing that. Yes, I get that. Facing potential criticism is hard.
Next, a white woman (I’m talking now about the video they showed), talked about a moment when she’d had a racist thought, and how bad it made her feel that she was that kind of person, a person who could have such a thought. So hers was less of a confession and more of a “I may look perfect but I’m not” moment. And, well, I don’t wanna get all “yeah, and?” on you, but most white people in the U.S. are racist, and/or nationalistic, and/or insert particular xenophobia here, to some extent, and yes, we should admit it. But THEN, we should try to see how it affects the things we do every day—the wars we don’t protest against, the environmental devastation that’s way worse in POC communities (and why IS that??), the laws on non-violent crimes, which give us the second highest incarceration rate in the world and disproportionately affect POC. (The highest, apparently, is the Seychelles??? Remind me not to go there. They might have very long Statutes of Limitation, and I just confessed to a B&E). So, this woman’s confession was indeed brave. But, is that enough?
Back to the narrow discussion: did this woman’s admission of her racism make her feel better? Maybe, I dunno. Maybe she got a hug for being so brave as to admit it among such an enlightened and earnest bunch of folks as writers—NONE of whom, especially not the white ones, are at ALL racist, right??? But, what if she’d just admitted it to herself? Would she have felt as good? Probably not. But would she have used the information to do some “good,” even if that meant on a very personal level? Maybe. I don’t think the V-training was about actually doing stuff, other than hugging each other for sharing. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seemed to be about “me”. Kinda. The “ME”, I mean. THE ME.
Which brings me to the two reasons it made me a little queasy, the whole thing: One: It’s about “ME” feeling better about myself, feeling I can “open up” and people won’t hurl invective at me or hit me, or, in my case, set my hair on fire (yeah, really. You get why I’m not big on vulnerability?)
Two: It’s a commodity. I think this is, for me, the real turn off. Vulnerability as “new thing,” as “schtick,” as corporate team building. As means to an end—the end being success in our late-capitalist context. Sales, money, fame, all o dat. Hey, I can’t hurl stones, I went to the damn Conference to learn about the BIZ. But let’s be honest, folks, “vulnerability” is not something you have to buy. All humans are vulnerable to some extent. “Opening up,” whether in some Yoga or Buddhist or Team Building context, always seems to have to do with extroverts telling introverts they need to be extroverts. It doesn’t work, even when you couch it in lovey-dovey, touchy-feely, “sharing wall” and hugs and tears of the “I was so moved” variety. It doesn’t. Sorry. In fact, it makes this introvert freeze up. There’s something too, I dunno, unearned about all of it. The trappings of intimacy without the real blood and sweat of it. Aw, maybe I should just relax and admit it’s all good.
I’m a fan of non-human animals as examples for us humans. Many mammals, for instance, are “open” when they’re with family, herd, pack, whatever—meaning that they play. So I’ll take that as my definition for vulnerability—the ability to play. But those same animals know that in some contexts, you don’t let your guard down. And you need to know those contexts for yourself. If you’re lucky (like most cats) your ma teaches you. Otherwise, if you err on the side of “closed” you probably live longer. Or in the late modern context–stay sane longer.
One more thing on the subject, and then, te lo juro, I will STFU. Just this: I can’t imagine Thomas Pynchon ever taking part in a vulnerability workshop. There. Nuff said. I coulda saved the rest of the 3k plus verbiage.