This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.
Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.
By contrast, Ryan came from a peaceful family, where everyone had an almost limitless ability to get along. If ever problems arose, Ryan’s parents encouraged everyone to just forgive and do something fun together (playing board games and going on bike rides were among their favorite activities). As an adult, Ryan was very good at peace-keeping but had little skills when it came to peace-making. If any of his friends or family struggled with difficult emotions, he tried to side-step the issue, smoothing everything over with something fun.
When Ryan was twenty-three, he met Claire after she started attending the Bible church where he served as worship leader. Claire was immediately attracted to Ryan and found his happy-go-lucky personality very stabilizing.
Now fast-forward eleven years down the road. Ryan and Claire have a good marriage, five lovely children and they rarely get into arguments. However, when conflict does arise, neither of them know how to deal with it, and both of their default mode of operating is to quickly diffuse tension by saying what they think the other person wants to hear. This appeared to work well until their lives started getting more complicated.
Following the birth of their third child, Claire experienced bad postpartum depression. After that, things got even more challenging as one of their boys, Jess, showed signs of developmental disorders. Claire pulled Jess out of school and began teaching them herself, a process that was both rewarding and incredibly exhausting.
Meanwhile, Ryan began coaching soccer at the school their oldest son attended. Through the soccer team, he began integrating into the local community and spending a lot of time with his new friends. Claire found it difficult for Ryan to be away from home so much. While she didn’t mind him coaching soccer, she found herself wishing he would come home as soon as practice was over. But Claire didn’t know how to explain this to Ryan without sounding selfish and needy. As a result, she just kept quiet. But sometimes all of her bottled-up emotions spilled out and she would start crying, or occasionally even say something hurtful to Ryan. Claire always felt guilty about this and would apologize profusely afterwards. During his wife’s meltdowns, Ryan would respond by just saying whatever he could think of to help Claire stop crying, but without any sense of connection with what she was actually going through. After she was back to normal, Ryan would put on Claire’s favorite movie, or buy one of her favorite take-away meals, and then carry on as if nothing had happened. Ryan genuinely believed that he was helping Claire by distracting her from how she was feeling, yet it had the effect of making her feel even more isolated.
As time went on, more problems began developing. Both Ryan and Claire knew something was wrong in their marriage but neither understood what was happening or what to do about it. They felt they couldn’t go to the pastor of their Bible church for help since neither of them could even articulate what the problem actually was.
On Thursday afternoons following soccer practice, Ryan took the team to the gym. While using the elliptical machine, he typically watched TED Talks relating to science and technology. But one Thursday afternoon his attention was caught by a talk Brené Brown gave back in 2010 for TEDx Houston. Brown, who teaches at the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, shared the research that lead to her spiritual awakening.
Brown explained that, as part of a study on shame, she had analyzed data gathered from interviews with thousands of people over many years. The data from these interviews suggested that our ability to have connection with others depends on something Brown termed “whole-heartedness.” At the center of whole-heartedness, she explained, is the ability to embrace vulnerability.
Even the word “vulnerability” made Ryan uncomfortable. But he sensed that there was something important—potentially even life-transforming—in the research Brown was sharing. He continued watching the video as Brown shared that vulnerability involves being authentic to who we really are even when it’s uncomfortable and even when it comes with a risk. “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness,” Brown shared, “but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
Later we’ll return to Ryan and Claire’s story to see what happened, but now I want to switch and introduce you to another couple who also had to learn about the value of vulnerability.
Robert and Emma
When Emma married Robert six years ago, she had high hopes. Robert was every woman’s dream guy: handsome, witty, prosperous and a strong leader. Emma dropped out of the music program at the California university she had been attending in order to be with Robert in Illinois. Emma didn’t mind giving up her musical career to marry him because just being with Robert made her feel more fully herself.
A couple years into their marriage, Emma found herself wishing there might be a way to continue her education. Robert seemed open to the idea, but in practice the demands of his career and goals always took precedent over her desires. Emma didn’t really mind this because she loved Robert and wanted whatever was best for him.
Robert and Emma spent lots of time together, but it was always doing things Robert wanted: ministry activities with the church, attending college basketball games, going to the cinema to watch the type of action movies he liked. Emma enjoyed these activities, yet she found herself wishing that sometimes they might be able to do something that she wanted to do. Living in a big city, there was always plenty of classical concerts every weekend. Emma often asked Robert if he would take her to one of these concerts, and while he always said yes, he never got around to it. On the few occasions where they scheduled a date that involved a concert, something always seemed to come up at the last minute with Robert’s work, church or friends. But if they had a date to go to a college basketball game, Robert always made sure nothing interfered with it.
Emma had been raised in a family that taught that the ideal wife is always there to meet the husband’s needs: to cook what he wants to eat, to go where he wants to go, and to revolve around him. Robert seemed to have a similar idea: his expectations of a good wife was someone who made it possible for him to come home to a clean house, a nice dinner and who would always be available to him. Emma didn’t really mind this kind of set-up because she loved serving Robert. Also, she felt most secure when the people around her were happy and fulfilled. If she began insisting that her needs be met, she worried that Robert might not love her as much; he might even reject her.
Emma’s fear of rejection went back to an experience she had when she was thirteen. One night when Emma had been having trouble sleeping, she crept upstairs for a drink of water. As she quietly approached the kitchen, she heard angry voices. Her parents were in the room arguing. It was then that Emma saw something she would never forget. She saw her father hit her mother. Emma’s parents never knew she had seen what happened.
Emma was too scared to talk to her parents about what she had seen, so she shared it with her best friend, a girl in the next grade named Amanda. Tragically, however, Amanda gossiped about this to the rest of the girls at the school. Emma was so hurt by this that she vowed never to talk to anyone about her problems again. She vowed never to share her deepest feelings. In the years that followed, Emma found herself instinctively keeping her closest friends at arms-distance so as not to get hurt. Even as an adult, she found it hard to share deeply with anyone, even her best friend Lizzy.
As might be expected, when Emma started feeling some frustrations in her relationship with Robert, it was second-nature for her to keep her feelings bottled up inside. She wanted to be the perfect wife, yet sometimes she couldn’t help feeling smothered by the marriage. It was like the relationship was always one-sided: it was always about what he wanted, what he needed, what he thought was best. Robert seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Emma might have some needs of her own. Emma knew this was partly her fault: she just didn’t know how to explain things to Robert without coming across as sounding selfish. At a deeper level, Emma was afraid that if she shared some of her needs, then Robert might reject her.
“Maybe I’m just being selfish,” a self-critical Emma shared one afternoon with her friend Lizzy during their weekly get-together at Starbucks.
Lizzy’s reply caught Emma off-guard. “Maybe you should stop thinking about whether your feelings are right or wrong, and just share with Robert how you feel. After all, isn’t that how people grow close to each other—by being authentic and transparent with one another?”
In the conversation that followed, Emma explained to Lizzy how she was nervous sharing her feelings in case she was rejected. She shared how she had never got over what happened at school when Amanda had betrayed her by gossiping about the sensitive information she had confided.
“I just don’t want to be hurt,” Emma explained. “To share how I’m feeling with Robert would make me feel so vulnerable. You know, Robert has never seen that side of me. He might not like me anymore.”
As Emma said these words, she saw Lizzy reach for her iPhone, apparently zoning out of the conversation. As if sensing Emma’s thoughts, Lizzy laughed and said, “Oh sorry. I am still listening to you, but I just wanted to find a quote that I think might be relevant here. Oh, I’ve found it.”
Lizzy then read out a quote from C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves. In this passage, Lewis was writing about the importance of vulnerability, trying to help his readers understand that always comes with an element of risk. Here is the passage Lizzy read out to Emma.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[i]
After reading this, Emma was quiet for about fifteen seconds, taking in the import of these words. Lizzy broke the silence, saying, “Let me read you another passage that occurs on the next page.” Then she read the following:
“We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.”[ii]
Lizzy later emailed these quotes to Emma, who re-read them multiple times over the next few days. Emma began to see that one of her basic problems was a fear of vulnerability, rooted in anxiety about being hurt.
We’ll return to Emma and Robert’s story later, but for now I’d like to explore the relationship between vulnerability and gratitude.
Gratitude and Vulnerability
In 2015 when I began publishing articles on gratitude for this blog and other websites, I came under attack from readers who had previously known me as a political journalist. One recurring criticism was that I had become an escapist, refusing to acknowledge the pain of the world. Some people even responded to my articles by accusing me of advocating a “Pollyanna optimism” that failed to engage with the world’s suffering.
Objections like these arise because of a fundamental misunderstanding about gratitude. True gratitude presupposes acknowledgment of our vulnerability to pain. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within an overall positive context. We see this in the example of Viktor Frankl in describing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps where he was imprisoned (a topic I have written about elsewhere on this blog). When Frankl told about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, he accurately identified the depths of evil to which man had stooped. Without being escapist or denying the evil around him, Frankl was still able to put an accurate valuation on what is good in life, and to understand that what is good is larger and more lasting than what is evil. What we have to be grateful for is stronger than what we have to grumble about. To recognize this is not to be escapist; rather it is to be realistic.
Sometimes in the self-help literature, people are encouraged just to assert they are happy even when they are not, and to deny the frailty and weakness that is part of being human. There are some interesting studies showing often this type of false optimism not only fails to achieve the intended result, but can actually make people more miserable.[iii] Gratitude is different, however. Gratitude is not about gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they are not; rather, gratitude involves acknowledging and accepting our sufferings, but then interpreting the pain in a spiritual way.
To accept our sufferings and to reframe them in a spiritual way presupposes we have first acknowledged that things are not what they ought to be. For a lot of people, just being able to do that is a very big step. In our culture it is especially easy to have a picture perfect idea of our life and to project that out to the world. Sometimes before we can get to the point of being able to practice gratitude we have to admit that our life is a mess—we need permission to feel sad over our dashed hopes and lost dreams, so that out of our brokenness God can work something even more beautiful within us.
The psychologist M. Scott Peck (1936–2005) pointed out that sometimes this very act of accepting that life is difficult has the potential to ease our burden, for it enables us to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us. As Peck explained in his classic The Road Less Traveled,
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them…[iv]
Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful.[v] Once we have accepted that life is difficult and suffering normal, only then can we begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in Auschwitz were able to do when they saw a sunset. This suggests not simply that gratitude and suffering can co-exist, but that without suffering it is hard to truly develop a disposition of gratitude. When life becomes too easy, we take our blessings for granted; we cease to view the basic necessities of life—warmth, food, shelter and friends—as pure gift. Only by first accepting that normal life is difficult are we freed to come to grips with the vulnerability, pain and complexity of being human.
All too often, however, we try to eliminate vulnerability from our lives by eliminating uncertainty, or eschewing the risks involved in living a life of meaning. We also eliminate vulnerability through technologies that constantly distract us, and which often act as an insurance policy against boredom so we never have to be alone with ourselves. By providing a constant stream of stimuli, our technologies can help to numb us to the uncertainty, confusion and vulnerability that lies at the heart of human experience. I understand this appeal; after all, pain is hard, vulnerability is hard, having needs is hard, even being yourself is hard. But sometimes we have to slow down and be present with our own vulnerability precisely so God can reach us in our weakness, pain and brokenness. “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)
Although vulnerability is often associated with weakness, it actually lies at the heart of courage, for a person who has accepted her vulnerability can put herself in situations where there is risk, uncertainty or the possibility of failure. It takes both courage and vulnerability to open up when you might be misunderstood, to speak openly to your loved one about how you’re really feeling inside, to initiate when you might be turned down, to express need when you might be rejected, or to love even when you might get hurt.[vi] Similarly, it takes courage to consider areas where you might be wrong and need to change. It takes courage to move out of your comfort zone to explore new possibilities. It takes courage to embrace healthy conflict so that relationships can grow rather than stagnate. It takes courage to accept yourself even when you feel like a failure. Above all, it takes courage to become vulnerable.[vii]
Theodore Roosevelt talked about this attitude of courageous vulnerability in his famous “Man in the Arena” speech. Roosevelt contrasted a soul that is cold and timid with one that can dare greatly, even if it means opening oneself up to the risk of defeat.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”[viii]
Sentimentalism, Cynicism and Stoicism
Without a healthy understanding of vulnerability, it is hard to avoid lapsing into some form of sentimentalism, cynicism or stoicism. Sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism are all widespread in our culture, with the first two being rampant in the popular arts.
Sentimentalism fails to confront the reality of pain in our world through an escapism in which everything becomes rosy. Like a Thomas Kinkade painting, sentimentalism presents an overly-simplistic worldview that has no framework for understanding the darker and more complex side of human experience.[ix] It offers us a shortcut to the genuine joy, through numbing away our capacity to feel suffering, vulnerability and pain.
Cynicism, on the other hand, recognizes what is wrong but also has no context for understanding it, no framework for being able to see purpose and meaning in the hard providences God sends our way. To the cynic, evil becomes a type of cruel joke. Whereas the sentimentalist numbs himself to pain, cynicism looks evil in the eye and despairs.
Stoicism, on the other hand, approaches suffering with a “stiff upper lip”, enabling a person to be unmoved by circumstances that might otherwise lead to emotional suffering. Stoicism provides a psychological buffer against the impact of emotional pain through offering an escape from the realm of unpleasant emotions.[x] Stoicism was popular in the Roman Empire and exerted an influence on some of the church fathers. For example, Origen of Alexandria (184-253) taught that grief is not an appropriate emotion for a Christian to feel.[xi] Accordingly, when the great Alexandrian teacher came to discuss the grief and agitation Christ is said to have felt in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46), he is at pains to point out that Jesus only began to grieve but then stopped short of actually grieving.[xii]
Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the character of Brutus is a Stoic. Thus, when grief gets the better of Brutus, he declares to his friend Cassius, “O Cassius, I am sick of many griefs”, Cassius replies, “Of your philosophy you make no use if you give place to accidental evils.” Cassius, though himself an Epicurean, is reminding Brutus to be a good Stoic and not be impacted by difficulties that only happen by chance (“accidental evils”). Brutus responds as a Stoic, saying, “No man bears sorrow better.” Later when Cassius latter expresses more sorrow than Brutus for the death of his wife, Brutus (having recovered his stoicism) tells Cassius to be quiet and speak no more of it. As a good stoic, Brutus will no longer let himself be moved by what happens by fate.
All three of these false philosophies—sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism—affect a hardening in us, a tightening of the heart, a process of emotional numbing. All are defense mechanisms that offer a false path of escape from painful feelings like vulnerability, shame, insecurity and emotional wounds. Other common ways of numbing ourselves to painful emotions include things like:
- substance abuse;
- rationalizing our pain away, in an attempt to think ourselves out of pain;
- comfort eating;
- displacing uncomfortable emotions (i.e. vulnerability, shame, insecurity) with other unhealthy substitutes like blame, anger and judgment;
- inner vows to never let ourselves become vulnerable again;
- projecting an exterior of bravado and toughness, as if to say, “I’m the sort of person who can never be hurt.”
What would it look like if, instead of trying to escape from our vulnerability with these and other defiance mechanisms, we embraced it? That is what I want to discuss in the next section.
Lean into Discomfort with Gratitude
Gratitude is the answer to sentimentalism, cynicism and stoicism, for it releases us to lean into our pain with a courageous vulnerability. Gratitude releases us to stand face to face with the pain, ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. Gratitude empowers us to embrace the frailty, weakness and vulnerability around us while remaining at peace. Here’s why: when we use gratitude to reframe our sufferings, we are not denying that the suffering is taking place, nor are we painting a sentimental, escapist gloss over our difficulties. Rather, we are choosing to perceive the larger context in which the suffering is taking place: a context that provides occasions for gratitude regardless of what is happening around us. Insofar as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to be there for others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain as a form of self-protection.
In our comfort-oriented culture it has become second-nature for us to avoid those who are suffering, lonely or whose lives are messy and filled with pain. People are desperately hungry for acceptance, understanding, belonging and empathy, and when these are not available, our society offers all the equipment they need for numbing themselves.
The problem is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. When you make yourself invulnerable to the emotional impact of the pain and hurt happening around you and to you, then you are inadvertently numbing away your capacity to feel love, joy, empathy and thanksgiving. When you harden yourself as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, the result is that you also reduce your capacity to feel the emotions that are important for wellbeing, such as compassion, gratitude and love. As Brené Brown explained in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “We can’t make a list of all the ‘bad’ emotions and say, ‘I’m going to numb these’ and then make a list of the positive emotions and say, ‘I’m going to fully engage in these!’ You can imagine the vicious cycle this creates: I don’t experience much joy so I have no reservoir to draw from when hard things happen. They feel even more painful, so I numb. I numb so I don’t experience joy. And so on.”[xiii]
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the Psalms make the progression from vulnerability and sadness, to gratitude and thankfulness. Psalm 56 is a good example. David begins the Psalm with an honest recognition that he is afraid, and that he has become vulnerable to painful circumstances and inner turmoil. But after recounting these troubles, David turns to God in thankfulness, praising Him for how He has delivering his soul from death and kept his feet from falling (Ps. 56: 13).
Anyone can adopt the type of pseudo-gratefulness that comes from denying the reality of our pain, suffering and vulnerability, or pretending everything is fine when it really isn’t. The true test is whether we can be thankful to God in the midst of real acknowledged pain. Are we able to be like David in Psalm 56 or 25 and cry out to God while being present with feelings of shame, vulnerability and insecurity?
Again we see how different gratitude is from escapism and false optimism. Gratitude gives us the power to look pain straight in the eye and instead of despairing to be at peace. Gratitude gives us the power to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. Gratitude gives us the power to dare greatly, with a courageous vulnerability that is able to stand up after defeat, striving valiantly for what is most meaningful to us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot cope with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and, like the Apostle said, “rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.” (Rom. 12:15)
Biblical writers like Saint Paul and Saint James told their readers to joy in their tribulations, not to deny that their tribulations are taking place with a sentimental optimism. But neither are we to resign ourselves to suffering through passive resignation as a stoic would. As Alfred Plummer pointed out in his Commentary on James 1, when discussing James’ injunction to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” (James 1:1
“This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude. The effort to be resigned, and to suffer without complaining, is not a very inspiring effort. Its tendency is towards depression. It does not lift us out of ourselves or above our tribulations.
On the contrary, it leads rather to self-contemplation and a brooding over miseries…. It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”[xiv]
When I think of what it means to have joy in the midst of suffering, I think of my friend, Ruth, who has been struggling with a degenerative disease ever since her teenage years. While being interviewed for the UK magazine Woman Alive, Ruth shared many things she is thankful for, including “beauty in the mundane, loveliness in the broken and hope in the darkness.” What really struck me is when Ruth shared that her ability to appreciate these ordinary blessings is rooted in an acceptance that life is difficult. When asked what she would say to others who are struggling in some way, she replied,
“Firstly, that it’s OK to be sad and find things difficult. We like to fix people and make them happy again. But life isn’t like that. The Bible gives us plenty of examples – David cries out in the Psalms, Paul begs for his ‘thorn in the flesh’ to be taken away, even Jesus asks if there is another way….
Richard Rohr talks about living with a “bright sadness” – the something inexplicable you see in people who live with suffering and yet have a deep joy at the same time. I love that phrase and it’s come to mind over and over in these past few months. Things are hard and sadness is a natural and legitimate response. But that’s not where it ends. I want to live that bright sadness and the first step is coming to terms with who I am now and learning to be grateful for that.”[xv]
To Love is to be Vulnerable
Remember Ryan and Claire at the beginning of this article? Their story has a happy-ending. Ryan shared Brené Brown’s video with his wife. Over the next few months, they began exploring how their respective backgrounds had contributed to a deep-seated fear of vulnerability. That was the beginning of a journey towards greater authenticity and deeper connection with one another. Now they make a habit of checking in with each other twice a week to talk about how they are feeling even when it means approaching topics that are uncomfortable. They do this over coffee on Tuesday and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Claire shares anything that is on her heart, while on Fridays, it is Ryan’s turn to share whatever is on his heart. If they don’t have any issues to discuss—which is often the case on Fridays when its Ryan’s turn to share—then they simply enjoy being with each other. Ryan has also started being present in the home more, coming back after soccer practice to see if Claire needs any help with the children or chores.
In their journey together, Ryan and Claire have been learning to stop viewing vulnerability as an enemy, but instead to see it as an opportunity for deeper connection and growth. Ryan and Claire are also beginning to have a greater hospitality to tension in their relationship, viewing it as an opportunity for growth and a catalyst for further intimacy, instead of something to be avoided at all costs.
Not every person is ready to take this journey towards greater authenticity, vulnerability and wholeness. In some relationships, one partner may be ready for greater vulnerability and authenticity while the other partner may not. Growth cannot be forced, and recognizing this fact can itself be a painful act of vulnerability. This brings us back to Emma and Robert’s story, which initially didn’t work out quite as well.
Taking inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ insight that “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, Emma began sharing with Robert about her feelings and needs, even at the risk of sounding selfish. At first, Robert didn’t react well: he was confused, puzzled and even a little alarmed at this side of Emma that he had never seen before. Once he even exclaimed, “It’s like you’ve picked up some feminist crap somewhere and it’s changing your personality.” This reaction made Emma feel rejected and never want to open up to him again. She vowed to return to being Robert’s ideal of the “perfect wife” even if it meant that something deep inside her was dying.
Fortunately, Emma’s friend Lizzy didn’t let her give up so easily. They continued to have coffee once a week and used this time to read some of C.S. Lewis books together. Lewis’s teaching on vulnerability encouraged Emma to continue taking the inward journey towards greater authenticity in her relationship with Robert. It was a painful process, and one that eventually resulted in the couple going to see a marriage and family therapist. Because Robert genuinely loved Emma and wanted what was best for her, they were able to work through their struggles under the patient guidance of their therapist. Eventually, Robert learned not to become defensive when Emma shared her feelings, and he also learned to treat her vulnerability as a precious gift rather than a personal attack against him.
Today Robert and Emma are more in love than ever before. She has gone back to school to finish her music degree and Robert has started being proactive to take her on dates he knows she will enjoy. But most importantly, they have both learned that it is necessary to be vulnerable with each other, and each has learned to listen non-defensively to the thoughts and feelings of the other. As with Ryan and Claire, they are learning not to resist the uncomfortable topics, but instead to lean into discomfort as an opportunity for growth.
This lesson that both couples learned—that to reach greater love we have to walk the path of vulnerability—is the message of the cross. The supreme act of vulnerability was when Christ hung on the cross out of love for you and me, to redeem us from our sins and bring new creation to the world. Christ willingly embraced vulnerability by choosing to walk the path of a condemned criminal, submitting to a form of execution that involved public humiliation and shame. Christ’s vulnerability on the cross culminated with the sense of total loneliness and rejection, as He first experienced His own disciples abandoning Him (Mt. 26:31-34) and then even lost the sense of His own Father’s presence (Mark 15:34).
But Christ’s act of vulnerability on the cross was also the supreme act of love. Through the cross, He shows us that without vulnerability there can be no love, just as without the risk of heartache there can be no relationships, and without death there can be no resurrection.
Finding God in the Darkness
If we look at Christian mystics throughout church history, as well as many heroes of faith in the Bible itself, we find that spiritual growth is often born out of times of intense vulnerability, loneliness, and even apparent abandonment by God. These men and women of faith show us that the spiritual life is as much about seeking as it is beholding; as much about doubt and confusion as it is certainty and assurance; as much about the painful longing for God in the midst of exile, darkness and pain as it is about the reassuring presence of His light. It’s about learning to have a certain hospitality to the painful emotions that Providence sees fit to bestow on us, even if that means learning to be present with our pain instead of trying to escape with the false promise of quick fixes.
One person who illustrates this for me is the medieval British mystic Julian of Norwich (1342–c.1416). In his book Spirituality and the Awakening Self, David Benner described the period of painful searching that was a necessary prelude to Julian’s vision of God’s love.
“Although [Julian of Norwich] is primarily associated with the mystical revelations of Love that she received late in her life, I believe her most valuable gift to us comes from the many years of darkness that preceded these revelations. This was a protracted period of suffering, unfulfilled longing, and waiting in trust; what she learned from this was at least as important as what she learned in her later experiences of Divine Love…. Julian’s life and writings illustrate trust in the God who comes to us in a cloud of darkness, desolation, and unknowing and meets us with grace that can never be received in the light, in states of consolation, or with the knowing that comes through reason or the senses. This is the grace that allowed her to wait on God with such hope and trust.”[xvi]
The Russian monk, St. Silouan the Athonite (1866–1938), also spent years searching for God in the midst of anguish, grief and manifold temptations. Once as a novice, he “suddenly for an instant he beheld the living Christ. His heart and body were filled with fire of such force that had the vision continued for another instant, he must have expired. Afterwards he was never to forget the inexpressibly gentle, infinitely loving, joyous gaze of Christ full of peace…”[xvii] After this vision, this special grace was removed and Silouan struggled for fifteen years against temptation, depression and even despair. But out of these painful struggles, he produced some of the most beautiful love poetry to God that has ever been written. Here is one of St. Silouan’s poems that shows him turning to God in the midst of vulnerability and anguish.
Where art Thou, O my Light? Where art Thou, my joy?
Why hast Thou forsaken me? My heart is heavy.
Why has Thou hidden Thyself from me?
and my soul is sorrowful.
When Thou camest into my soul, Thou didst consume
my sins with fire.
Come now again into my soul,
and again consume my sins with fire,
for they conceal Thee from me as clouds conceal the sun.
Do Thou come and rejoice me with Thy coming.
Why tarryest Thou, O Lord?
Thou seest how my soul languishes,
and I seek Thee in tears.
Where hidest Thou Thyself?
Indeed, Thou art in every place,
but my soul sees Thee not, and aching and in sorrow seeks
In our own era, Mother Teresa offers similar inspiration for those of us struggling with the darker emotions. Apart from a period in 1946-47 when she experienced a profound closeness with the Lord, the remainder of Mother Teresa’s life was lived in a condition of spiritual dryness and even darkness. A posthumously published collection of letters between Mother Teresa and her confessors spanning sixty-six years, shows that she often felt lonely, had many doubts and even struggled with feeling that God had abandoned her. In a 1953 letter she wrote, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’”[xix] Seeing how Mother Teresa showered Christ’s love on “the least of these my brethren”, one would never have imagined that she felt abandoned by Christ’s love. “I am told God loves me,” she wrote in another letter, “and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”[xx] Despite this great inner turmoil, this remarkable woman was able to channel her pain into service of others.
All of us should take great encouragement from Mother Teresa’s experience. We often measure the health of our relationship with Christ by how close He feels to us. It is certainly appropriate that we should pray for, and search after, a continual sense of Christ’s presence. But we must never forget that sometimes it is the times when Christ feels the furthest away that He is actually closest to us. As the 23rd Psalm puts it so movingly, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, His rod and staff are there to support and comfort us.
What we learn from the heroes of the faith is that facing pain is always an invitation for growth. That growth might involve learning to become more dependent on Christ, being able better to empathize with other people’s suffering, learning to be thankful in all circumstances, or having the opportunity to be like the wedding guest in Coleridge’s poem, who rose the next day as a sadder and a wiser man. Whatever our particular journey might be, it is in our darkest and most vulnerable moments that we are invited to take the journey towards spiritual wholeness. Some of us may never reach a place of complete wholeness and healing in this life, such as my friend Ruth whose terminal illness is gradually killing her. For still others, the wounds of our brokenness run too deep to even understand. Sometimes our suffering is so great that we don’t even know how to call out to God, yet He is there with us all the same. One of the most moving examples of this was told by Viktor Frankl in the preface to his book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. He tells of a student of his who experience such pain, humiliation and vulnerability that he could not even call out to God. But in his very vulnerability, God touched this student in a remarkable and life-transforming way.
“In the mental hospital, I was locked like an animal in a cage, no one came when I called begging to be taken to the bathroom, and I finally had to succumb to the inevitable. Blessedly, I was given daily shock treatment, insulin shock, and sufficient drugs so that I lost most of the next several weeks… in the darkest moment of my life, when I lay abandoned as an animal in a cage, when because of the forgetfulness induced by ECT I could not call out to Him, He was there. In the solitary darkness of the “pit” where men had abandoned me, He was there. When I did not know His name, He was there; God was there”.[xxi]
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[i] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 121.
[ii] Lewis, 122.
[iii] Ed Yong, “The Peril of Positive Thinking – Why Positive Messages Hurt People with Low Self-Esteem,” May 27, 2009, http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/27/the-peril-of-positive-thinking-why-positive-messages-hurt/; Renuka Rayasam, “Positive Thinking Can Make You Too Lazy to Meet Your Goals,” October 12, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20161011-positive-thinking-can-make-you-too-lazy-to-meet-your-goals.
[iv] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth (London: Guild Publishing, 1978), p. 15.
[v] There is a common teaching that is sometimes referred to as “the prosperity gospel.” This teaching asserts that God wants us to be prosperous and that suffering should have no place in the Christian life. The prosperity gospel is the spiritual correlate to the Hallmark-feel-good-escapist-positive-thinking that has become such an epidemic in the contemporary world. If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to find our Lord telling His listeners not to mourn. Instead He declared “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). If the prosperity gospel were true, we should expect to read Christ telling us to expect all men to bless us, yet instead He declared, “Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12) Notice how Christ acknowledges evil deeds (reviling, persecution, saying all manner of evil) but then positively reframes these evils. Prosperity theology, on the other hand, removes the need for reframing since it denies the inevitability of pain.
[vi] “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.” Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, 12–13.
[vii] The connection between vulnerability and courage was often understood better in the ancient world, as evidenced in texts like The Odyssey of Homer. For a brief discussion of the role of vulnerability in The Odyssey, see Robin Phillips, “Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class,” Unpragmatic Thoughts (blog), May 30, 2018, https://robinmarkphillips.com/?p=4792. For an additional discussion on the relationship between courage and vulnerability, see Robin Phillips, “How Jordan Peterson and Kevin Costner Taught Me the Meaning of Courage,” Unpragmatic Thoughts (blog), June 15, 2018, https://robinmarkphillips.com/?p=4862.
[viii] Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena: The Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. Brian Thomsen (New York: Forge, 2003), 5.
[ix] One common form of sentimentalism manifests itself in the tendency to overprotect our children, or to create an environment for them which attempts to preempt the potential for hurt. We see this in the way the canon of children’s literature and film has steadily been moving away from stories in which the characters have to grapple with pain, hurt and vulnerability. Ty Burr remarked on the paradox that this presents: “On one level, our current pop culture throws far too much at children’s heads: casual violence, glittering coarseness, crude language, kiddie sexuality, the cynicism of the constant sell. On another level, it overprotects them from the things that are supposed to hurt and that we learn from. It has been years since the movies felt comfortable offering young audiences—any audiences, for that matter—endings that were anything but triumphant, regardless of how far they have to distort plot and character. If Old Yeller were made today, the dog would live; in a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson would walk out the courthouse door a free man and Boo Radley would be on Xanax. And some idiot parent would approve of the changes because their children wouldn’t be challenged by unhappiness, however briefly.” Ty Burr, The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2008), 102.
[x] Stoicism originated with the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. Building on Zeno’s teachings, many of the stoics believed that the Good Life involves emotional indifference to the pain of the world as we submit to our fate with detachment. Yet the stoic approach to emotion is much more complex than our use of the adjective “stoical” implies, as many stoics were interested in achieving rightly ordered feelings rather than eliminating emotion altogether. Even so, one predominant theme among the stoics, especially during the Roman imperial era, was that virtue alone should be sufficient for happiness; consequently, a good man should be immune to the emotional impact of misfortune. This was reflected in the Roman statesmen and philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), who wrote that “the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast – a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire…” Building on Aristotle’s idea that a good man derives pleasure from reflecting on his own virtue, Seneca adds that “A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, trans. Moses Hadas (W. W. Norton & Company, 1968). This sense of stoical indifference to the misfortunes of life was also reflected in the Roman philosopher Cicero (106 BC –43 BC), who wrote that a wise person is not susceptible to grief or distress of any kind. Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 92–93.
[xi] Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, 102 & 106.
[xii] Margaret R. Graver, 106. In his On First Principles, Origen raises the fact of Christ’s apparent emotional agony as a problem in understanding the theology of the incarnation. Like the monk, Jorge, in The Name of the Rose who insists that Jesus could never have laughed, the stoical Origen is clear that Jesus could never have grieved
[xiii] Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, 73.
[xiv] Alfred Plummer, The General Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1891), 65.
[xv] Ruth Van den Broek, cited in Sharon Barnard, “Living With a Life-Limiting Illness,” Woman Alive, March 13, 2018, https://www.womanalive.co.uk/stories/view?articleid=2780.
[xvi] David G Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 78–79.
[xvii] Sofroniĭ, Saint Silouan, the Athonite (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999), 1.
[xviii] St. Silouan, cited in Sofroniĭ, 374–75.
[xix] Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, 1 edition (New York, NY: Image, 2009), 149.
[xx] Teresa, 187.
[xxi] Cited in Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, NY: Plenum Press, 1997), 15.