And Now I Have New Work To Do…

I’ve been thinking about Vulnerability, lately. 

I know it’s a triggering word, for some. That it has connotations of submission, even victimhood. A state of being unprotected. Targeted for abuse. Some people use that word most often in reference to “vulnerable populations,” groups that are actually in need of our protection. Their vulnerability is problematic. Their vulnerability is the thing we want to address, and eventually to eliminate.

Of course, I also think about the authors and speakers and teachers in the spiritual and personal growth fields. How they talk about vulnerability as a desirable thing, a tool for self-knowledge and connection. Even though I notice that they are, generally, fairly privileged people talking to other privileged people – people who can choosewhether or when to be vulnerable – I don’t think they’re wrong.

I think vulnerability has two faces. I think it is a very different thing as a condition of your being, than it is as a conscious opening.

I’ve been thinking about vulnerability in terms of leadership work – what those in several of my communities call “Priestessing.” I’ve been thinking about vulnerability in terms of energy, of it’s energetic signature, if you will. I’ve been looking for a way to explain what I mean when I say that vulnerability is essential to ethical, effective leadership.

I certainly do not mean submission. I don’t mean creating or accepting a situation in which I am actually unsafe. But I don’t mean unconditional opening to everything and everyone around me, either. Many of us have heard that “perfect love and perfect trust” are the standards for entering into a ritual circle. But let’s be honest, those are aspirations, at best. “Perfect love” is a phrase so unboundaried and vague as to be almost meaningless. And “perfect trust”? Is that even wise? A fellow Priestess said to me, recently, that they could not be vulnerable around people they did not trust.

And a voice in my head said, immediately: Oh yes you can.

So I’ve been wondering why that thought came to me, so quick and sure. Because my colleague’s caveat certainly sounds like wisdom, doesn’t it? And in this moment I’m sounding like Pollyanna which, let’s just say is not my usual mode. I’ve been wondering what I mean by vulnerability. Why I think it’s something anyone can choose, in any situation, to be.

I’ll admit I have thought of vulnerability as a tactic. The image that arises for me is that of the Gaesatae, the Celtic tribe that Polybius wrote about who went into battle naked, carrying only their shields and their swords. They did this, Polybius says, to demonstrate their confidence to their allies, and to intimidate and confuse their enemies. A display of (in this case physical) vulnerability as a means of disarming (in this case maybe literally) an opponent.

Of course, most of us aren’t facing enemy swords on a regular basis (I hope).  For myself, the weapons I find (or imagine) arrayed before me are the specters of rejection, humiliation, disapproval and gossip. Instead of shields, my (sometimes unwitting) opponents carry mirrors, bright and dark, in which I see painful reflections of my own challenges, or prismatic refractions of memories that conjure all the fear, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness from my past into the space I occupy right now.

This is the armory I prepare myself to face each time I step onto a stage, or up to a podium, or into the center of a circle. In every one of those situations I do so believing that there are some people out there actively rooting for me, that most of them aren’t invested in me one way or the other, and that a few may bear me actual ill will. How can I carry vulnerability into that space? And why would I want to?

This quote, attributed to the poet Michael Xavier, has made a few rounds on social media. Every time I see it, I shiver:

So,

You want to be tough.

You want to be rebellious.

You want to be a badass.

Then show your heart to everyone…

EVERYONE

I shiver because that injunction feels so scary, and so right. It feels like integrity. It feels like modeling courage and self-possession and doing it afraid. It feels like the only possibility in claustrophobic spaces. It feels like Option 3 in response to the binary.

Baring my heart in the face of uncertainty – or even certain failure – instead of baring my flesh in the face of the blade, feels like both tactic andtruth.

So I ask myself: Can I show you my heart without letting you break it? Can I show you my tears even though your actions brought them about? Can I show you what I want even while you refuse it?

Can I show you my fear of the impact of my “No”, and still say No? Can I show you my heartbreak at your choices, and still mete out the consequences?

Can I show you how much I wish things were different, even though my mind is already made up?

The Gaesatae carried shields, remember? I suddenly imagine them as transparent. Diamond-hard but clear as glass. Can I show someone everything that is inside of me, without letting theminside of me? Can I be that vulnerable, andthat protected? Can I let my vulnerability actually bemy protection?

And that voice, again, in my head says: Oh yes, you can.

And now I have new work to do…

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