Think of the largest crush you’ve ever had. Butterflies, sweaty palms, endless daydreams. It was brutal, right? Imagine how you felt any time
you considered telling him or her. That feeling you’re thinking of…it’s
Vulnerable isn’t something most people would like to admit to feeling, which makes sense when you look at vulnerability as being “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally”, the way Merriam-Webster Dictionary does (Vulnerable). However, our refusal to fully experience it is what’s holding us back from true freedom. Social psychologist Brene Brown has devoted her life to the study of vulnerability and its worth. Through her work Brown has found that vulnerability can be redefined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Brown 34). Brown describes vulnerability as being all in, letting go of what you cannot control, and fully engaging with the world as you are. When we look at this kind of vulnerability, it’s easier to imagine it as something that we all have to live with it. We have all had a crush. None of us is a stranger to uncertainty, risk, or emotion. Vulnerability is requisite for a free life, and to live a free life is to live one of vulnerability.
Vulnerability intersects freedom at every level. Freedom does not exist in isolation, but through deliberate action in a public arena. It is largely because of this that we have vulnerability. It is in the public sphere where we utilize it most. German philosopher Hannah Arendt considered the public sphere to be the only place where true freedom can exist. According to Arendt in her essay What is Freedom? freedom becomes a reality where it is “tangible in words which can be heard, in deeds which can be seen, and in the events which are talked about, [and] remembered” (153). In this sense, a contemplative person, who thinks but never shares or acts upon those thoughts is not behaving in a manner consistent with freedom and not free, for these thoughts exist to no one else but the contemplator. Freedom is only present in action. As soon as this
contemplator chooses to step into the public and share their ideas with those outside their self, as soon as they were to act upon them, they would be free. Vulnerability comes into play here in the sharing of those thoughts. The contemplator cannot know how the public will respond to the ideas they spent so much time forming, ideas they poured their heart into crafting and are proud of. When they walk into that arena they are taking a risk, uncertain of what the response will be and exposing their ideas to public scrutiny and judgement. They are making themselves vulnerable, so that the world may see them.
While the scenario posed was of an abstract contemplator, this situation is one encountered on some level everyday. Everyday we have the opportunity to share our ideas and emotions. Everyday we have the opportunity to lay ourselves bare and show the world who we really are and what we believe in, and reap the rewards or losses of that risk. What is it though, that stops us from doing so? Usually it is the fear of vulnerability. The idea that sharing that idea leaves us open for criticism and being told that our ideas are not of merit. However, in holding back from doing so we are throwing out the chance to reach our full potential.
Looking further into the idea of setting something into the public arena reveals even more how freedom is linked to vulnerability in creation. For Brown it is vulnerability to put “our art, our writing, our photography…out into the world” It is the birthplace of all creativity (Brown 34). Creation nearly always comes from a place intrinsically connected to our core person. It comes from a place of deep feeling.
The process in which something new is called into being which did not exist before, which was not given, not even as an object of cognition or imagination, and which therefore could not be known” without that specific individual’s efforts is one of great vulnerability, and thus an exceptional display of freedom (What is Freedom 150). For to make something from nothing involves the heart and tears. It necessitates frustration and time and painstaking tenderness. And when it is finished to bring it to the world and leave it for scrutinization is an act of incredible courage. Creating leaves us so vulnerable because whereas in love and life we fear losing what makes up happy, in creation we fear learning that the world does not want what we have to offer. It offers some of the biggest rewards as well though, in “deeper clarity in our purpose” (Brown 34). When an act of creation is met with public appreciation, it is a sign that these efforts were needed by the population at large. That the specific work put forth is one that was not known to be needed, but that now has filled a void in the public space and is valued.
To create something new is in some ways the most remarkable use of freedom. Each person when brought into this world is something entirely new from anyone that has existed before. They are nothing more or less than anybody else, but at the same magnitude entirely different from all others. Creating is in many ways a way of saying, “My way of thinking has worth, and whether you agree with me or not, you must consider me.”
There does exist a disparity in how loudly different forms of art say this though. Brown would be apt to argue that regardless of whether the art is of the performance variety or created in private then displayed, the vulnerability exists in the act of putting the art on display for the world. Regardless of it being performed or displayed, you are still putting your heart on the line and risking negative reaction. Arendt would be more prone to saying, though, the performing arts are of more freedom than the one created in private, for the performing arts need an audience to show their virtuosity (What is Freedom 152). The act of creating them, at least for the performers, is very much a public one. It is a larger act. I tend more towards the side of Brown than Arendt. Art that is created and entered into the public arena is of more scrutiny than that which is performed. When watching a performance, it is harder to judge the performer. It is harder to look at a person as they dare greatly in public and ridicule or degrade what they have done. In comparison it is by far easier to look at a work of writing and rip it to pieces. Performing arts have the benefit of human sympathy. Creative arts have more longevity than performance arts. They leave you exposed and uncertain for longer. Either way, vulnerability and risk are inherent in both forms and freedom is there in the act of creation and presentation.
Freedom in vulnerability applies even in situations that are not considered by the modern population to be public. For Arendt, anything involving people outside the self would have been labelled public, current times though would be more apt to consider one-on-one interactions to still be counted as private. All actions involving a world outside one’s self will require this vulnerability to experience freedom. Being a part of this world is non-optional, therefore vulnerability is the only way ever get to freedom.
There are those like the Greek philosopher Epictetus that would argue that man can only be free in separation from an outside world that he cannot control (What is Freedom 146). However, those of this mindset ignore the fact
that human beings are pack animals. We are wired for social interaction. To be human is to engage with other humans. Any collection of people with functioning, thinking minds would create a world of change and uncertainty, of disagreement. To think that one could ever fully disengage from it is ludicrous. A home “securely shielded from outside interference” is not a free home, but a self-made prison (What is Freedom 146). The idea of limiting oneself merely to what one knows they are capable of is not freedom, but rather a hindrance of the self. For although we each have our limitations, we also have abilities hidden within us waiting and “ready to be explored”. Hiding from our hidden talents keeps us from possible disappointment and harm, but “not being harmed is not the same as being strong” (Blanco). In the very same way, trying to block emotion and selectively choose what to feel is impossible (The Power of Vulnerability).
Just as human interaction is non-optional, so is human feeling. It would be impossible to have a world free from human interaction. To be human is to feel and “to feel is to be vulnerable” (Brown 33). Vulnerability in direct emotional exposure is still connected to the idea of Arendtian freedom. Vulnerability allows the crucial act of working through one’s emotions. While stigma may exist against processing and dealing with one’s emotions in the name of productivity, improperly handled, suppressed feelings slows down progress by sucking up cognitive resources and lowering efficiency (Desmarais). True feeling requires vulnerability and action.
Take a look at anger. Often when anger is felt it is a result of a core value being threatened (Desmarais). When someone feels angry, they feel as if the person they are interacting with is devaluing something they deeply care about. As long as they feel this value is at risk, the anger will continue to be felt. The only real way for this person to feel their way through this is to talk to the person who is endangering these values of theirs. This requires them to be vulnerable. Talking to this person requires admitting to another human being that they had power over you and how you felt about your values and yourself. Like in the scenario of the contemplator, there is no way to know how this person will react to you. You hope that they value you enough to respect what you’re saying and bring it into consideration. You hope that they don’t through your emotions back into your face invalidating them, but until you take that chance there is no way to know for certain how it will play out. Until you take the chance you can’t deal with these feelings and move past them. True feeling requires action. To feel is to be vulnerable, and “to act is to be free”, therefore to feel is to be free (What is Freedom 151).
The situations presented so far to demonstrate the intrinsic link between vulnerability and freedom have shown that in every way to act in a manner consistent with freedom is to act in vulnerability. They’ve demonstrated how vulnerability can bring you to lead a more emotionally healthy life and enjoy the personal rewards of risk, of action. There is one mark these situations have missed though. Every scenario shown can be avoided to a fairly large extent while still living what some would consider to be a perfectly reasonable life. Even though it would lead to an unfulfilling and somewhat depleted existence, it is still possible to exist in society while avoiding dealing with emotions. It is possible to walk through life and never offer up opinion or thought for public dispute. It is possible to exist in civil society without any meaningful self-deliberated action. However, it is impossible to exist in society without appearance.
Before I stated how freedom occurs in the public arena because it is only real in “deeds which can be seen, and in the events which are talked about” and remembered. People must act upon their “inner qualities, gifts of heart or mind” for them to be acting with freedom. Yet, that is an option, and only happens when a choice to be vulnerable is actively made. It is within the control of the individual. Appearances though, they always “appear” in public (Reflections on Little Rock). The way a person looks is not a choice; it is a matter of biology. Yet the choice to put that appearance into society can be a monumental act of courage. Appearance in society is the most basic, and most complex, use of freedom that exists. We are less likely to think of merely showing up physically as an act that makes us vulnerable. For many people though, just showing up somewhere, without any additional action, is leaving yourself open to public dismissal and
attack. For Black Americans specifically the choice to appear in public leaves them open to criticism, invalidation, and literal attack, a topic I won’t delve into here for I would do it injustice. Their appearance is far enough removed from the white norm that they will forever have what Arendt referred to as a visibility “unalterable and permanent”. Visibility makes one vulnerable. Yet, In the public realm, “visibility is of prime importance” (Reflections on Little Rock). If one wishes to engage in the world, if they wish to exist in public, if they wish to use their most base freedom, then they set to make themselves vulnerable to however the world deems them.
Vulnerability and freedom require total commitment. They require an individual be engaged and involved. While on some level we engage with both daily, there is always the opportunity to do more, to throw ourselves into the arena of life. Each of us is capable of living a full, free, vulnerable life, so let us not err with Epictetus and choose to play it small, rather we should choose to utilize the freedom with which we are abled and “dare greatly”.
Arendt, Hannah. “Reflections on Little Rock.” Pearltrees. N.p., Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pearltrees.com/valeriekinsey/wind-freedom-2015/id14731555#item155589531>.
Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Freedom.” Between past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Penguin, 2006. 142-69. Print.
Blanco, Manel. “The Strength In Vulnerability: The Freedom Beyond Fear.”Manel Blanco : The Strength In Vulnerability: The Freedom Beyond Fear.Blogger, 17 Sept. 2015. Web. 03 Dec. 2015.
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham, 2012. Print.
Desmarais, Christina. “The Flip Side of Negative Emotions.” Inc.com. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.
The Power of Vulnerability. Perf. Brené Brown. Youtube. TED, 3 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
“Vulnerable.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Wallace, David Foster. “2005 Kenyon Commencement Address.” Kenyon Commencement. Gambier, Ohio. 21 May 2005. PearlTrees. Web. 20 Sept. 2015.