Vulnerability (2)

Last month, my view on vulnerability changed in a way I didn’t expect. I was at a talk by Angie Lina, and it got me thinking in a new way, as the best talks do.

We agree, I assume, that letting ourselves be more vulnerable is (in general) a positive thing. Last week I wrote about how reluctance to be vulnerable takes away from Social Nonsense games in particular, and life in general. And how the act of saying, “Hey, let’s play a game” is a vulnerable act.

The Tom Waits story is a great example, but I didn’t tell it, because that’s not what I really wanted to write about. Just take it as granted that my life got a lot better when I started letting myself be open, take social risks, etc. And that your life will be better, too.

And yeah, that’s kind of bullshit, isn’t it?

I mean, it’s true, for me at least, but let me give you an example. Once upon a time my friends were talking about Yoko Ono, making the standard jokes, and I mentioned that I liked her music. Someone said that they had never actually heard her music, and we’d all been drinking, and I did my falsetto rendition of Sisters Oh Sisters from the Some Time in New York City album. Yes, I can imitate Yoko Ono singing, yes, I do a good job, and yes, I have the lyrics to Sisters oh Sisters memorized. What a social risk I took! I opened myself up! I’m so enlightened!

Except it wasn’t really a risk. I’ve spent decades building a community around myself where I am safe. Yes, I may have gotten funny looks. Yes, I may even have… gotten teased. But risk? Nobody was going to scream “faggot!” at me, like my social group would have a few decades ago. Nobody was going to hit me for it – that would have been on the table a few decades ago, too. Nobody was going to surreptitiously take video and post it on facebook. There are people like that – I don’t hang out with them. Due to a combination of luck and skill I’m in a physically and psychologically safe place. Being vulnerable is difficult for me, but the “risk” isn’t really what it seems like.

So I get paid by the UNI College of Business to tell students about the joys of risk-taking and allowing oneself to be vulnerable by doing one’s best. And the ones who feel safe nod and smile, and I don’t see the other ones, or at least I didn’t before.

Am I being vulnerable now? Is this honesty a risky thing? I feel like it is. But really, how risky is it? I’m a tenured professor of mathematics and highly valued by my department. Maybe you’ll tease me. Maybe you’ll stop reading this blog. But we both know that even that probably won’t happen. I’m feeling brave but it’s not really bravery, is it?

So what’s my point? Maybe instead of exploring how we can learn to take risks, and how to be less afraid of being vulnerable, maybe we should be exploring how we can make other people feel safe enough to take risks. Maybe we should be noticing ways in which we make people less or more afraid to be vulnerable in front of us. Is it safe for people to do embarrassing things at a party in front of us? Is it safe for them to tell us how they really are if “fine” is not the answer? Is it safe for them to choke up and cry a bit? How vulnerable can they be in front of us before we make them regret it?

Since I started thinking along those lines, I noticed things in my own behavior, little things, ways that I make people less able to take those social risks as I’m espousing the philosophy that they should take more. And that’s what I was really thinking about as I wrote that last post. What can we do differently? What should we do differently?

I believe that this has everything to do with the book. Thanks for listening.