I believe in the essential vulnerability of all human beings – physical vulnerability to accident, disease, aging, and psychological vulnerability to misunderstanding, worry for the future, and creeping dread at 3 AM on a sleepless night. But this isn’t a misanthropic or a hopeless belief, because recognizing human vulnerability has led me closer than anything else toward courage and compassion.
Courage and compassion are ideals that I haven’t realized; I’m a nervous person, prone to worry and indecisive. I’ve handled this in a number of ways, from alcohol to therapy and antidepressants, failed attempts to meditate and long daily walks. But the birth of my children, together with the illness and death first of my father and then my mother, have taught me that drowning or squelching fear will not “work”, and that the most wonderful and the most tragic events are beyond my control.
These themes – fear, lack of control – run through my favorite literature and music. While I’ve become a doubter of the religion I grew up with, I still appreciate the story of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane, asking God to “take this cup away from me.” Jesus knows what is coming and doesn’t want to go through with it – a recognizable, human moment. Or there’s the great bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, who in voice and stature was a powerful presence, but whose music was all about vulnerability. I think of the dread mixed with humor running through the song “Ain’t Superstitious”, or the way Wolf sings “oh don’t you hear me cryin’” in “Smokestack Lightnin’”.
Aside from literature and music, there are conversations I have with my wife and my friends. We’re all hitting age 40. None of us are doing exactly the work we once thought we’d do. Those of us with children fret about whether we’re guiding them well through a world that feels more uncertain than the one in which we grew up, punctuated by 9/11. We feel the rush of time passing far more quickly than we’d expected.
But through art and conversation, we find courage. For myself, I’m reminded that I’m living an old story, and that so much human achievement has come in the wake of sleepless nights. I feel the vulnerability, but can still get on with work and love. Moreover, recognizing vulnerability as an old human story can awaken whatever compassion I possess, and not only for those who are clearly victims of injustice or tragedy. Maybe this neighborhood gossip or that pandering politician are just falling into traps set by their fears, traps that I myself could be caught in if circumstances were different or if I hadn’t been lucky enough to experience the guiding hand of certain teachers and my parents. (And don’t I listen to the gossip? Do I never cheer when pandered to?).
So I try to grow toward courage and compassion, and fall short. But believing in human vulnerability has helped me finally to begin seeing beyond my own fears.
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