The Paradox of Vulnerability

 

 

 

Or, consider another option:

 

 

 

 

 

On more than one occasion, I was told by some of those examining me for clergy ordination that I was not “self-aware” or I “lacked discernment.” They said this as if to say I didn’t know how I was impacting others or how I was being perceived. In the classic Johari “window” terminology….I must either be blind to myself (though they seemed to clearly think they could see it!), I must be hiding my true self, or I simply don’t know myself.  Every time I heard one of them say it, I laughed in my deepest soul at their ignorance.  But I also perceived that they didn’t care to really see or accept “me.”  I am quite well aware of myself….It seemed obvious to me from the first interview that there was some discomfort with who I was presenting as my “self” and judgment of it, too.  I just am not particularly concerned with how some people perceive me……especially those who presume to be superior and deign to judge others’ worthiness (perhaps in order to enhance their sense of their own?)   I am comfortable enough in my worthiness, of being “enough” for God, “enough” for those who love me, “enough” for those whom I love, and “enough” for those God will bring to me to love and assist that I am not overly concerned with people-pleasing.  I am loved….by God, by my husband, by other family members, by friends…..and their love is enough for me and I know that I am enough, just as I am, to be loved by them.  And I have enough love to love them and make them feel that they are enough, too.   I don’t need others to love and accept me, especially those who live their lives guarding their own true selves and judging others’ worthiness.   People may freely reject me if they do not like me.  But if they are not open to listening or making an effort to really know me….or only have the ears to hear what they want to hear…..that is their blindness, not my unworthiness.  Having a sense of self-worth is not the same as thinking oneself “perfect”…in fact, if one truly has self-worth, it is a full awareness that EVEN IN SPITE OF NOT BEING PERFECT, SHE IS STILL ENOUGH.  When God brings the spiritual gift of teaching to someone….God often grants to them certain experiences that others find strange, confusing, or downright shocking….just so that God can use those things to help the teacher teach better.  That has been the case with me.  This has all been quite a lesson, one for which I am grateful, as it is already providing a means for me to minister to others who have found the church and its people and processes sometimes incomprehensible and hurtful.

In the 1990’s I was required to take an in-depth psychological assessment for a career change.  The assessment team had me take it twice because they thought I must have been under some kind of acute stress or anxiety over testing for the job and answered incorrectly.  After the second test, I was hired.  The hiring manager told me that the test results, viewed as ambiguous initially, had been double checked and the test manager told him that the bottom line was that I was pretty much “unreadable”..   I was either the most honest, open, authentic person, extremely in-touch with myself, that they’d ever tested or I was completely decompensated and unable to function.  Since the hiring manager and his associate were the ones “on the scene with me” and had determined I was obviously functioning well enough to impress them, having scored excellently on all the other objective and subjective measurements of the interview battery, he hired me and I did well in the job for nearly a decade until the Lord began directing me into Christian education and social services counseling……..in a field in which numbed emotions is one of the primary presenting symptoms of clients.  Creating an emotionally “safe place” with such people requires a great deal of vulnerability, of openness, of honesty….of risking being in relationship with people who may very well not receive it and certainly are unlikely in the long run to remain in it.  It requires unconditional love that is offered freely and without demand or expectation of return.  I can’t do that…..in and of myself.  But I can do it in Christ….and that is how I have sought to do it for the last ten years.  It doesn’t mean being soft and mushy….it means being REAL…..People will see who I am and grow to trust that I will be who I am.  Or they won’t.   Few of them like me in the early stages, but even some whom I have had to confront and dismiss have come back and renewed relationship after finding their way to where God had intended them to go.   Sometimes when one is open, others see them but don’t like them.  Now, if they don’t particularly like who one is or understand who she is, it’s easier to say, “Something is wrong with you”  or “we don’t trust you” than to say point-blank “we don’t like you.”

A co-worker in 1979 had told me something similar, too, in another entirely different work environment.   He was often described as a hard-to-like and harder-to-love person by some of our mutual acquaintances.  Ed and I worked closely together daily side by side in a medical laboratory.  We had to back up one another across a range of tasks and work in sync in documenting our work, maintaining equipment, doing quality control, etc.  I did it.  It wasn’t hard.  I actually cared for him.  We laughed and encouraged one another. We each knew when the other was annoyed without getting defensive or feeling the need to prod for reasons.  Each knew that the other would be honest and we’d work through it.   He was predictable.  Do your work. He’d do his.  After about two years of working together he said to me, “You are the only woman I’ve ever known that I could count on day in and day out to be exactly who you are.  I can’t even tell when you have your monthly cycles.   You are simply you.”   From some people I wouldn’t have known how to receive that, but coming from Ed, I knew it was his way of saying, “You’re like me.”  And in being perceived by Ed to be like Ed, I think that Ed, who knew there were many who found him difficult, was saying to me, “You’re okay, kid.  You’re enough, just like you are.”  He was quite a bit older than I was and even now as I think about it I smile remembering Ed, the extra-grace-required difficult co-worker for many, but who was for me just an honest, hardworking, matter-of-fact transparent sociable person who would give others the shirt off his back, but would also tell them when they were being a jerk.  He was who he was and he was comfortable and at ease with it.

Brene’ Brown writes about the necessity of vulnerability and it paradoxical truth:

“…by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice, mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here.

…..people who really have a sense of worthiness — that’s what this comes down to, a sense of worthiness — they have a strong sense of love and belonging — and folks who struggle for it, are folks who are always wondering if they’re good enough.

There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy. And to me, the hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of connection, was something that, personally and professionally, I felt like I needed to understand better. So what I did is I took all of the interviews where I saw worthiness, where I saw people living that way, and just looked at those.

What do these people have in common? …. the first words that came to my mind were “whole-hearted.” These are whole-hearted people, living from this deep sense of worthiness.

And here’s what I found. What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to separate courage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart” — and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.

The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating.  They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first … the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees … the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.

For me this caused what I call a breakdown; my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening.

(CBByrd’s note:   I call it working to convert an emotional emergency into spiritual emergence.  And we’ve gotten pretty good at Titus 2 in doing that with the women who are brought to us by the grace of God!)

I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m struggling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem, and I need some help.”

(CBByrd’s note:  She couldn’t apparently reconcile this  paradox of vulnerability…..that the core residence of shame/fear/self-worth was also the same place wherein joy, creativity, belonging and love resided!  Our hearts are deceitful! As long as we strive to numb/hide/hate/deny our vulnerability, it controls us and becomes a source of shame, fear, and self-doubt…when we accept it and allow Christ to be the one in charge, he affirms our worth in spite of the wounds that may come from vulnerability, and it becomes the doorway to the release of the Spirit in us that brings joy/creativity/belonging/love.   Some try to tell us we’re unworthy by the standard of the world and others, but the truth is we are worthy….Christ is the one who can and will “flip the script” in our hearts!)

“I just need some strategies.”   And then I said, “It’s bad, right?” And she said, “It’s neither good nor bad.”

It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that.

For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.

And so then I spent the next couple of years really trying to understand what they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what we are doing with vulnerability. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No.

So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability ……This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.

The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.

I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then, we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” That’s it. Just certain.

We attempt to perfect, most dangerously, our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh.” That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems, I think, that we see today. We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate. We pretend like what we’re doing doesn’t have a huge impact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo, people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say … “We’re sorry. We’ll fix it.”

But there’s another way, and I’ll leave you with this. This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard. That’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”

And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough” then we start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

Brene’ Brown   – The Power of Vulnerability

 

My students have heard me say for years, “It is what it is.”  They hated to hear that.  It meant that whatever “it” was, we were going to have to deal it….not deny it or numb it, dance around it or put a new coat of nail polish on it.  In doing so, “it” can be brought into submission to the will of the Holy Spirit-led soul and peace, contentment, acceptance……even gratitude and joy…can flower in one’s spirit.

When I perceived the conduct of some on the interview team as an attempt to call me and the Titus 2 ministry “unworthy”  I took exception to the process by which such judgements were being made about me and others with so little real information about us and by the lack of “appreciative inquiry” in the process that seemed intent on looking only for the worst in people and their work.  (If that is what people look for, that is what they will see!  But it is not pure, noble, merciful, or Christ-like!)  And that is what offended me most about the last three years of Board of Ministry interactions.   To realize that the system is doing that to people was such a shocking revelation…….and still is, although I think my public outcry over it has caused some to draw in their talons.

One of the things that drove my own advocacy for my pursuit of ordination was realizing that others were being hurt by the process, too…..One woman, younger than I am but with somewhat similar background and values shared her experience in the Board interview with me.  It was chillingly similar to mine.  That showed me that it was not simply a matter of me mis-perceiving what I had experienced, but that there truly was a process problem that was damaging to those being subjected to it.  There was no way that I believed that such a result was God’s will.

Here is what that candidate wrote in her diary, which she shared with me after her discontinuation in 2015 (my difficult interview years were 2014, 15, 16, and 17) .  I transcribed her entry from the photocopied diary page she had given me permission to share:    (******* is in lieu of the name of the person who led both our interviews while at least a dozen other people sat and watched.)

“it is time to put on paper what happened at the Conference Board-

While all but 1 person I interviewed with over the two years were encouraging and indicated approval, 1 person did not.  The 1st year there was justification for not approving my Bible study.  The 2nd year – no- When I entered the room rather than make me feel welcome as all others did,    ******************   immediately became aggressive and combative- stating we asked you to incorporate Wesleyan Theology in your Bible Study & said something to the effect is was not there. The tone was negative and meant to be intimidating.  Having worked with military officers for 30+ years, it was easy to detect this attempt at ………. isolation.  I explained I had done as asked and used Methodist resources to write the Bible study.

When asked for Wesleyan Theology I provided 2 overarching ones- God’s grace and the history of God with Christ at the center.  ******** then asked for specifics on Grace (___ is that not specific) My response was that every time someone turned to God in repentance he was gracious and forgives them. At this point other members began to interject.  2 of them saying this was awesome, the best and most complete studies they had seen.   As they questioned me on various stories I responded and let them know I could answer questions on them – We were discussing Deborah and Barack and _____when the subject of the enemy having iron chariots came up and the question was asked How did the Israelites without defeat them.  I stated as the Bible says that God threw the enemy into confusion insuring the victory as the enemy defeated itself.  (or at least something along those lines.)  At that point ********** jumped in and said are you saying that God is a God of punishment and vengeance.  I replied, no I am not.  During the rest of this interrogation her voice continued to get rougher and more aggravated and nastier.  She then stated that I couldn’t have a God who directly caused the enemy to be destroyed and not have this – so which did I mean.  I reiterated that God was not a God of punishment and vengeance but he was a God of justice and took care of the oppressed.  That while God prefers to work through people, if necessary he will intervene.  At this point she leaned across the table put her face inches from mine and with a voice full of vitriol asked if I thought God would intervene in a war situation (Not exact words but gist of question.)  At this point given her total inappropriate behavior I would have been justified to respond to her abusive bullying.  Instead I calmly replied that if things were bad enough- such as a situation like the holocaust that yes, God could intervene (not I said could- not would).   At this point she sat back in her seat.  I definitely through my years of work understand working with someone who follows regulations to the letter.  I also understand when someone is abusing their power.  This was a case of the latter.  That came through in the letter sent saying I was being discontinued.  It could have said you had 2 attempts to do the bible study while last study was good, it did not meet the requirements we gave you.  But no, it was full of aggressive belittling statements to the effect that I was incapable, incompetent, and inarticulate.  Rather an abusive bully chose to exercise her power to stop my candidacy.  It is a shame and to some degree a disgrace that 1 person can do this just to show they can –   Okay, Lord, I don’t think you want me to pursue what I just wrote.  But it’s written and on record.  I was wronged… Maybe you are using that wrong to direct my life – but I was treated wrongly and that wasn’t okay.  Its Okay that I’m not going forward in my candidacy, but not that I was wronged so Lord I need your help to let go of the fact I was mistreated and move forward.  Somehow I need to forgive without condemning.  Best response when people ask- What happened wasn’t right – an aggressive bully derailed. But I’m okay because God had told me that door was closing (wish it had closed differently).  Now I can do ministry elsewhere and work on forgiving – not condemning- but forgiving.  OK what was done to me was wrong but I need to forgive and move on.”

 

People may not be suited to ordained ministry in the eyes of a few who have taken upon themselves the right of veto over the confidence expressed by many in putting forth candidates.  But even when that is the case, the conduct described in this candidate’s diary entry and my own experience, which has been shared previously, is unacceptable.

So, when I was asked in my final interview with the Board a month ago, “Have you apologized to the Board?” my internal thought was, “For what?  Winning an appeal of their discontinuation process last year?  Calling “foul” on what a candidate cohort called an “abusive bully?”  Has the Board apologized to me and others who had to endure such conduct that appeared to be intended to intimidate and demean?”  My verbal answer was somewhat more gentle, but still assertive in stating that I had done what I needed to do with those whom I felt I owed an apology.  Then, when asked, “Can we trust you?”  my internal thought was, “I trusted you and look what it got me.”  My verbal answer was biblical and honest, but clearly not acceptable.

At one point in all of this matter last year, a highly regarded leader in our Conference said to me in a personal aside, “One must always approach the Board with a spirit of grace.”  I didn’t answer.  My internal thought was, “Maybe the Board should be instructed to do the same with candidates.”  However, given the lack of grace to candidates as experienced by myself and others, we’ll settle for a little truth on the matter instead.

And so….unless some wish to continue to press their point that I am the one who is not self-aware in this, that I am the one who is mentally suspect, that I am the one that is making this more than it was……I’ll just leave it at this for the reader ( the 2 or 3 who may care to know) to decide for themselves.

 

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