It’s Vulnerability all the Way Down

Among the mix of many emotions and actions that make up the lifestyle we call love, there are few uniting themes more prominent and significant to me than that of vulnerability.

Yet, vulnerability is not the first image we seem to associate with love.

Indeed, vulnerability is easier to think of as a necessary evil, a by product of the dating scene the need for which goes away once love is achieved, secured and developed.

In other words, as young teenagers all throughout the world realize early on in life, to be noticed and be loved requires an acceptance of a certain level of exposure to potential shame and hurtful rejection. It requires opening up your inner world to somebody else and allowing them to judge the whole of you just for the chance of co-living life together. Scary.

Nonetheless, many take the deal. After all, the potential benefits of long-term happiness, growth, and intimacy seem to justify the risks. The initial vulnerability might truly feel uncomfortable, but without it life becomes the dwelling place of inexpressible desire and a home to a haunting sense of loneliness.

But is vulnerability just a bitter cost we have to pay initially so we can eventually find love and never again be made to exchange comfort for appreciation?

Yes. But really, no.

Yes, because once love is found there is indeed little further need to open up before the world. After all, emotional and sexual needs can be met within the safe confines of the relationship. And thus, the world can go back to normalcy, i.e. that state in which others are allowed to only see our most polished and consumption-ready selves.

Yet, no, because whatever love takes away in breadth, it more than makes up for in depth. Indeed, in love we might be less exposed to the whole world, but we become that much more revealed before the one(s) we love. 

Put plainly, in love, vulnerability does not go away.

On the contrary. In many cases, vulnerability is a precondition for love. 

A little introspection is enough to see why. The features of our partners that we end up loving most are frequently the most well-hidden and quirky. It could be their favorite expressions, gestures, mimics or it could be their uncommon hobbies or tastes. The details don’t matter precisely. What matters is that all of those are things that require vulnerability to a great extent to show for another one to learn to love.

Yet, it is not just our weirdness that we hide from the world. It is also the richness of our emotional lives as well. Intense pain and extreme joy are what define our world, yet they often get subdued when out in public in sacrifice of the need to fit in. If love has anything to do with empathizing fully with our partners or sharing who we are with them, then clearly love can only really thrive through vulnerability.

Finally, love is not a one way street. Vulnerability is not something one partner does for the enjoyment of the other. Rather, vulnerability goes both ways and is the channel through which the benefits of love manifest themselves. Indeed, unless we open up, how can we expect emotional support to come our way? 

All of this is why the naive idea of vulnerability as an artifact of dating eventually breaks down. It is also why modern ideas of timing responses to messages, feigning disinterest or hiding affection are more stupid than they are effective at securing sex, let alone true love. 

As it turns out, when it comes to love, it’s vulnerability all the way down.

That thought had been simmering up in my mind for a while, but a recent interview with a lady called Bozoma Saint John struck a chord with me and made me reflect deeper.

In short, Bozoma lost her husband to a fast-developing and highly treatment-resistant form of cancer. Incidentally, her story also reminded me of that of Sheryl Sandberg who also lost unfortunately her husband (albeit not to cancer).

Certainly, these two stories are just the tip of the iceberg and along with them there are million others which would never receive anywhere near the same attention. Yet, the moral seems to always be the same: true love exposes us to the suffering of others like nothing else.

Today, we exalt compassion, but, if we are honest, we’d admit that it’s hard to sustain it for long. We might feel the suffering of someone else now, but an hour later we have moved on.

In some sense, com-passion (i.e. suffering with someone else) can only be real once it has become unescapable. As mentioned above, most of the time we speak of compassion we can move on. But with love we cannot. Love makes an escape impossible.

Put differently, love does not just requires the vulnerability of opening up. It also demands an embrace of another subtler form of vulnerability which even the worst sides of dating spare us from. 

This subtler form of vulnerability is found in the open embrace of another human’s tragedies; in voluntarily increasing the surface area through which life can hit you and put you down.

In fact, when children get involved in that conversation, the above point only grows in importance. After all, the surest way to destroy a parent is to harm their child. Thinking along those lines and realizing all of the above, it is clear that true love demands courage, resilience and inner strength. 

Moreover, it also becomes clear that love is never vulnerability-free. On the contrary, it always contains in itself an ever increasing dose of exposure to suffering. 

Going back to the stories I mentioned above, It’s useful to remember that marriage vows end only in death; that we are blessed to never mourn our own death; but that those two facts mean that the death of a lifelong partner is the closest we’ll ever come to die and be alive all at the same exact time.

In this way, marriage takes it all to a whole new level. In marriage, It’s vulnerability all the way down to death. 

Admittedly, all this talk of vulnerability, suffering and death does indeed sound off-putting. Yet, that’s only true superficially. 

Indeed, think a bit further and you’ll see how amazing it is that that our world enables experiences (like love) that are great, cool, and awesome enough as to justify the most painful of downsides. 

In other words, despite its inherent demand of vulnerability, love should ultimately be regarded as a cause for celebration and optimism. It might truly be vulnerability all the way down. Yet it’s also an even greater joy all the way up!

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  1. emilymacklow January 6, 2018 @ 7:28 AM

    You really captured something so important here. “This subtler form of vulnerability is found in the open embrace of another human’s tragedies; in voluntarily increasing the surface area through which life can hit you and put you down.” Thank you for that. Also what you said about losing a life partner being the closest we can get to dying and yet being alive is so true. I am currently living that near death… and never have I felt more vulnerable than now, in my relentless grief. Yet I have decided not to hide it in an attempt to fit in, and am finding that vulnerable calls forth vulnerable. Openness and honesty helps others open and honestly reveal their struggles. I appreciate your understanding of this.

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