Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. —Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
In Unexpected Blessings, I describe the beautiful moments of the first few days of my recovery. Those days were truly gratifying as I surrendered to the limitations and simplicity of my nearly complete dependency on my wife, Sally. Darkness followed as time went on, the loneliness of my recovery set-in, and my expectations returned. The first full week of my recovery was marked by difficulty sleeping, incessant discomfort, and the cold hard fact of my own limitations – as basic as showering or getting dressed. In those moments, time slowed to a crawl and I was acutely tuned to all hours of day and night. The sense of loneliness was not a reflection of nobody being there for me but the realization that I was on a path that I had to walk alone. (See Times When We Have to Walk Alone.)
One night, about a week after my surgery, I remember getting up (for the fourth time) and decided that I would just stay up. It was about 3:30am. I thought, “did I make a mistake?” I wasn’t in horrific pain but I struggled to sleep and was constantly uncomfortable. I was moving but it was very, very slowly. I was doing my exercises but was frustratingly aware of my limits. I had not been out of the house for a week and the joy of the downtime had slipped away. Worst of all, I felt emotional. Raw. Broken.
Daylight Brings Hope
The good news is that daylight always brings hope. The early morning hours were bewitched with the demons of fear and doubt. As I pushed forward, I considered deeply the rawness of my state. The physical rawness of pain and discomfort. The emotional rawness of dependency, loneliness, and doubt. How could I feel lonely when loving people were all around me? Naked and afraid. I was amazed to discover how brutal the nights were emotionally and the games sleeplessness played with my head. But the sunrise always appeared.
In response to my recent post, Justice and Mercy, a friend reminded me that pride often stands in the way of our ability to show mercy. This is particularly true for our self. For me, my own expectations became my chief enemy. Everything felt great when I had no expectations but as soon as they appeared, it got ugly. Fr. Mike Schmitz talks about the sins of pride, vanity, and sensuality. He describes pride in terms of control and expectation, vanity in terms of our need to impress the outside world, and sensuality as our need for comforts. We all struggle with these monsters. I was surprised to realize how they still appeared, though in different forms, during my recovery. I’ve got this. Watch how quickly I recover. Please make it go away.
The sense of rawness stayed with me for a few weeks. I compare the sensation to being “skinless.” Imagine the sensitivity you would feel if you had no skin to protect you from the outside world. Even a breeze blowing across your body would feel excruciating. That is a different level of vulnerability and it reappeared to me numerous times in the weeks after my surgery. I soon discovered that the discomfort shifted to comfort when I allowed myself the grace of mercy and then vulnerability. Though, I continued to resist it.
And so I went, naked and afraid, until that too passed. Movement became less painful. Independence started to return. Sleep befriended me once again. The rawness passed but the humility remained. For at its heart, this process has been humbling. Limitations. Weakness. Doubt. Struggle. The vulnerability is humbling. At first, that seems a darkly negative effect. But with humility comes gratitude. Sitting in the same chair, looking out the same window, and seeing the same sun rise again reminds me that I have much for which to be grateful. My brief brush with the darker elements of my recovery pales in comparison to so much other suffering.
The Peculiarity of Vulnerability
Recently, I’ve encountered the deaths of people not far removed from me. Every day, I see another story of someone diagnosed with cancer or some other terrible disease. We recently celebrated my mother-in-law’s one year clean bill of health from her own bout with breast cancer. We are vulnerable. And that is the gift. Our vulnerability and impermanence enables us, in a peculiar way, to experience the joys and pains of life. When we allow our self the mercy of vulnerability, we can shift our perspective on the fear and doubt. We are naked but we need not be afraid.