Vulnerability vs. safety

23-jimmyboyBy Rev. Jim Innes

As babies, we are highly susceptible to the physical and emotional effects of circumstance. And before too many breaths, we begin to develop defense mechanisms.

The first unexpected bump or loud noise begins our descent into complex layers of self-protection that guard against potential harm. In fact, studies indicate we grow wary even within the womb. Especially when the life of our mother is burdened with stress.

These “defense mechanisms” mature like the prickles on the stem of a rose. Many botanists agree that these sharp and pointed barbs developed over time to ward off hungry herbivores which are naturally attracted to its fragrance.

No living thing wants to be wolfed down. Yet, such harm is built into the natural order of things. That is also why our protective mechanisms surface naturally.

Back to the rose… The protective prickles not only scratch painfully, but are vehicles for injecting infectious material into your skin (as seen with a fungus commonly referred to as rose picker’s disease). However, because rose prickles are outgrowths of the stem’s outer layers (not part of the core wood), they can be easily broken off.

When prickles are broken off the plant becomes more manageable.  And such ‘taming’ enhances its usefulness as a cherished representation of natural beauty and, as we all know, a rose given (preferably one that doesn’t poke you) is a time-honoured way to declare feelings of warm affection.

It has been my experience, personally and professionally, that the time will come when we realize that some of our timeworn prickles limit the depth to our connections, and/or undermine our attempts at ‘playing nice in the sand box’. And what once was a solution to a past (and perhaps long managed) threat becomes increasingly detrimental.

Not a day goes by that we don’t have to deal with our own self-protective behaviours or the same from others. We can’t always name what is happening, but the skid marks created by our defensive braking is, when we look back, very evident.

Such behaviour can be chronically habitual. It will appear without forethought, constrict our breath, and disable an open heart and mind. Whether our true selves are anywhere present, is questionable.

To move beyond these confines, we must first make friends with our need for safety. Without this natural courage to stand tall and on guard we may have otherwise been devoured by some very real threats.

Secondly, we must want to change our rigidity because continuing the way we have is too isolating… the outcomes too limited.

Thirdly, we must acknowledge that any movement towards greater vulnerability will come at a cost. We will, in no easy manner, be pushed beyond our comfort zone.

Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, describes this vulnerable journey as a process of “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She explains that those who risk it, let go of who they think they should be, in order to be who they really are.

As I see it, balancing self-protectiveness with vulnerability is a universal human experience. Self-protectiveness creates the environment in which we can safely enjoy our connections and experience the love available to us within that sheltered space.

Vulnerability, on the other hand, is as equally natural to our human nature as self-protection. But it prompts the creation of a wider community and increases our experience of the universal connection we all share. Of this, Brené Brown states: “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences….”

Rev. Jim Innes is the rector of the Regional Ministry of South Huron.
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(Featured photo: Kristina Flour, Unsplash)