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The Power of Vulnerability, by Brené Brown

A friend recently introduced me to Brené Brown’s TEDx talk on vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it, check it out – there’s a reason why it went viral. Brown is an excellent speaker, or as she likes to call herself, a researcher/storyteller. There are great nuggets scattered throughout the talk: A story is just data with a soul, that numbing ourselves from the bad also numbs us from the good, that we constantly fear we are not worthy of love, belonging, and connection. What makes her talk especially powerful is that Brown doesn’t simply lecture. She reaches deep inside herself to share something shameful, uncomfortable, and genuine with a group of strangers. She demonstrates being vulnerable.

Brown argues that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Anyone can boast about exploits and accomplishments, but to share one’s shortcomings honestly for the purposes of self-improvement demands true courage. As I wrote in the piece Tao Today: A Sage’s Take on Modern Society, being vulnerable is essential for cultivating empathy in others. Only when we acknowledge that we can be deeply hurt can we open ourselves to meaningful interaction. Each of us must suffer alone, and it is out of that solitude and place of deep pain that we come to understand the value of human bonds, the worth of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Blogging from Vulnerability

All this talk of vulnerability made me reexamine the intentions of Ekostories. Having been blogging for a while now, it’s easy to fall into the routine without seriously questioning why I continue to do it. My original intention had been to share my love for these wonderful, beautiful, funny, complex, serious, amusing, and potentially life-changing stories. But is that love still coming through in the writing?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. Looking back, I see instances where I’ve become too abstract and detached. Brown’s talk reminds me that I must ground myself in a place of vulnerability, that the ideas I’m passionate in conveying only matter to others if I can capture why they matter to me. If I wish to communicate the love of nature, culture, and self within these stories, I must truly understand on a personal level why and how they have affected me. It’s a challenge. It’s easy to write a detached analysis. It’s easy to preach and throw out terms and concepts. It’s a lot more difficult to reach deep inside myself and expose what I find to the light of criticism and judgement. But that’s the way it goes. That’s the way it must go.

I am fortunate I can still be a coward: I can hide my insecurities behind the stories I explore. But the creators of these stories – the filmmakers, authors, and artists I’ve featured, have no such luxury: They cannot hide behind anything. Their works are laid bare for all to see and to dissect – that’s them on every page, in every scene, in every brush stroke. But these stories they’ve crafted can take the scrutiny, precisely because they were forged in a place of vulnerability. I understand now more than ever that the meaningful act must come from the vulnerable self, because it is the journey through the pain, toil, and uncertainty that infuses the story with beauty, power, and resonance. There is no other way. One can go around, take shortcuts, but the work will come out wrong, and people will see it, say it’s nice, and then they will walk away.

Vulnerability in Fiction and Life

All of this brings me back to the Nausicaä project, my most treasured and beloved story. Throughout the process of writing about it, I have asked myself on more than one occasion: Why?

Nausicaa Animage August 1989 cover. (Watercolor Impressions, p. 47)

Nausicaa Animage August 1989 cover. (Watercolor Impressions, p. 47)

Vulnerability is the key. I’ve mentioned before that I consider the saga to be the creator’s most painful and vulnerable piece of work. Brown’s talk got me to think of another interesting answer. Without spoiling too much of the story, I believe it comes down to Miyazaki creating one of the most compellingly vulnerable protagonists I have ever come across. Despite living in a world of unimaginable suffering, Nausicaä unflinchingly opens her heart to all she encounters – humans, animals, even the forest – because that’s who she is and that’s what she does. One would imagine this deep vulnerability makes her weak and susceptible to the winds of fate. But the opposite is true. Again and again, the people and creatures around her sense her compassion and authenticity and are inspired to change out of love and empathy for her. By living life susceptible to both deep love and sorrow, by accepting both as the price of being human, by being utterly vulnerable, Nausicaä actually becomes one of the strongest protagonists I have ever come across.

And so I try to follow her example in my life. In the real world, a bleeding heart is described as an over-sympathetic and naïve person, of someone who cares too much. But I have come to realize that to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, especially after challenging experiences, is really a badge of honour. To live with vulnerability doesn’t preclude one from being pragmatic or exercising critical thinking; rather it is an active rejection of cynicism, that most dangerous and paralyzing trap any of us can fall into. To be willing to open one’s heart to profound love even at the risk of profound hurt takes strength. To weather through disappointment and heartache to emerge undiminished on the other side is the greatest demonstration of resilience. To live life within the soft spot of one’s heart demands courage, as Brown notes, in the truest sense of the word: A whole-hearted pursuit of genuine meaning, joy, and fulfillment.

All well and good to say, but hard to practice when failure, defeat, pain, and darkness come knocking. And so I rely once in a while on this imaginary guide to help me through the country of vulnerability, to remind me to practice empathy, compassion, and courage with myself and others, to learn from my experiences to become better and not bitter. It is a difficult road. But that’s the way it goes. That’s the way it must go.

Related Ekostories

Reference

Miyazaki, Hayao (1980-1996). The Art of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Watercolor Impressions. English Adaptation by Andrew Cunningham. Viz Media, LLC: San Francisco, 2007.

14 Comments

  1. Her videos are awesome! Did you see the one on shame? I’ve watched them both a number of times and recommend them often. Her frank honesty is refreshing and her words are encouraging.

    • I did. The part that really resonated with me is that empathy is the most powerful antidote to shame. If we can allow ourselves in our moments of shame to accept empathy from others, it can become a healing process.

  2. Excellent post and so true. It is easy to become abstract and detached when we want to pass on a message sometimes. Thanks for the reminder and the humility you display
    .

  3. What’s weird is I’m reading THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell, and he talked about Connectors–people who connect one another. And here Brown talks about the value of connection, but especially the vulnerability that connects us to each other. I can see why you coupled this talk with Nausicaä’s story. She lived life with gusto–so in tune with everyone. I have too many doors and locks on my life. I needed this talk. Thanks for this post.

    • Wonderful to hear that this makes sense to someone haha. One never knows if the ideas in one’s head actually are useful or comprehensible to others – I guess that’s the vulnerability portion talking. Thank you for your heartfelt comment – I truly appreciate it.

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  5. Brene Brown’s storytelling is so inspiring. Life is a daring adventure and risk takers have the strength it takes to connect and admit their struggles. Vulnerability is a state in which we learn the importance of loving and championing our self and in the process, a sense of new found confidence is born of self-approval of worthiness. Self honest self love leads to compassion for others and vulnerability is the point of connection.

    • Self approval. Self Love. Self honesty. Yes, first and foremost. I’ve strayed from that a bit lately, and the talk and your comment really reinforces the importance of those qualities. Thank you, TT.

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  9. I need to watch that TEDtalk again.
    “… Being vulnerable is essential for cultivating empathy in others.” This really struck me because I had never thought about how vulnerability and empathy are connected, especially when you look at the role of storytelling. Sharing your story comes from a place of vulnerability, and it can – does – lead to empathy from other people.
    I’ve always struggled with vulnerability, and it has shown in my writing. I’ve realized recently that, for me, in order to fully become a successful writer, I have to take risks and open myself up more. Thank you for the reminder!

  10. Yes I share your struggles with being vulnerable. The work here on Ekostories has the luxury of detachment – I am exploring other’s people work. But in my more creative pieces, in memoirs and meditations, I can’t hide behind anything, and that’s terrifying. But also I think if you are willing to learn the craft, work on being honest with yourself, and put what you know about yourself on the page, art can be created.

    One of my favourite quotes on writing and vulnerability:

    “You know how hard it is to say to somebody, just somebody you know, how you really feel, what you really think – with complete honesty? You have to trust them; and you have to know yourself: before you can say anything anywhere near the truth. And it’s hard. It takes a lot out of you.

    You multiply that by thousands; you remove the listener, the live flesh-and blood friend you trust, and replace him with a faceless unknown audience of people who may possibly not even exist; and you try to write the truth to them, you try to draw them a map of your inmost mind and feelings, hiding nothing and trying to keep all the distances straight and the altitudes right and the emotions honest… And you never succeed.”

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