I recently facilitated a story-telling session for a nonprofit board of directors. The idea was to help them identify their personal connection to the organization’s mission and to be able to verbalize it in a compelling way. The first part of the exercise had each of them sharing with one other person, and then they reported to the larger group of twelve.
As I listened to their stories, I was aware of how difficult it can be to tell a personal story that reveals our vulnerability. Only a few of the people present were able to share a personal incident that connected them to the organization’s mission; most affirmed the good work the organization is doing for others. They deflected attention away from themselves.
I wondered what it takes to get people to admit that they have been hurt or frightened or felt vulnerable. I wondered what fear prevents us from speaking these deep truths.
Perhaps it is human nature to want to feel strong and in control, and perhaps our culture promotes the idea of invincibility over vulnerability. Maybe it is a bit of both that can make it difficult for us to share personal stories that run contrary to the images we project of ourselves, stories that reveal a chink in our armor.
In my work at a cancer support center, I am with people every day who are deeply aware of their vulnerability; cancer does that—it seems to shine a light on just how vulnerable we really are. I suppose any illness can do that—remind us that we do not have ultimate control over our bodies or our lives.
Figuring out a way to make peace with an illness or trauma or personal disaster is part of the healing process. Making peace with something we did not ask for or want usually involves accepting the reality of the situation and letting go of our desires to control or change what we cannot change.
In the spiritual journey, letting go—surrendering—is essential for growth, and it does not mean allowing ourselves to be treated as doormats, to be stepped on or disregarded. Spiritual traditions give us many examples of people who surrendered, from Jesus to St. Paul to saints through the ages, examples that contradict the notion that being vulnerable means being weak. Surrender does not lead to powerlessness; in fact, once we surrender, fear loses its grip and we are free.
Surrendering is easier said than done, at least for me. Fortunately, I have many opportunities to practice. I am also fortunate to have opportunities to talk about my vulnerability.
In a few weeks, I will be facilitating another story-telling session with a different group of people; this time, the focus will be on conflict management. It will be another opportunity for me to admit my shortcomings, to touch my brokenness, accept my vulnerability and to speak of it.