Friday, December 23, 2005

Vulnerability as Strength

Those who dare to be vulnerable have great strength. This is something I believe. Aspazia and I were having a "gmail conversation" (oh, the glory of technology), and we broached a subject is very interesting. Aspazia, like always, had invested a lot of time and energy into one of her students, who then betrayed her by plaigarizing. She admitted she was bitter about this, but that it was a temporary bitterness. I explained to her that I thought her actions amounted to bravery.

I told her, “Professors like you--the ones who care deeply and give of their time and attention so generously--are most hurt by such actions of betrayal. Yet, also, you are the types of professors most able to understand why these students choose to act in such ways. Bitterness--if temporary--is an attribute for a professor: it shows they care. The alternative is apathy. Bitterness--if lasting--is a disease for a professor: it shows that they have let their disappointment for the ways students have failed them become a force so strong that it overshadows their compassion for helping those who will benefit from it, and hardens them to a posterity that has committed no crime. (I have met many professors and teachers like this. The sad truth is that the hardened, fakely apathetic attitude they give to their students make students who have a history of making poor choices more likely to make poor choices. When a professors suspects the worst and you have a history of doing the worst, there is little incentive to do well. When a professor or teacher gives you the benefit of the doubt and has faith in your abilities, your past is more easily erased, you have hope, and you feel a great disappointment when you let them down). Truly, when professors care they make themselves vulnerable. You are experiencing that here and now with this student. I don’t think I need to tell you this, but I will anyway. Just remember that those who put themselves in situations where they are vulnerable are the strongest people. They understand the consequences, and refuse to be overcome by fear or apathy. I can't say this is the last time a student will let you down. But I can urge you to keep being who you are.”

We live in a society where a superficial definition of strength often takes the cake. Those who are physically strong, emotionally unfeeling, distanced, and stoic are often seen as the mightiest. Those who are vulnerable, feeling, conflicted--dare I say human--are often seen as weak.

Vulnerability is one of the most fascinating subjects. It is an unavoidable part of human life: We are all vulnerable. At the time of birth, we depend upon adults to take care of us, to nurture us and sustain us. As we learn language and culture, we find ourselves enmeshed in webs of interdependence. We derive meaning from our relationships with others. Humans are social beasts, and vulnerability bubbles beneath the surface of every social construction or situation. We can be hurt by others.

When Aspazia opens up to her students, when she lets them in, she is vulnerable. They may betray her. They may defy her expectations. They may, as they learn more about her, find ways to hurt her. She understands this. Yet she still chooses to care, to be vulnerable, because being vulnerable empowers her. Ironic, eh? To avoid vulnerability, she would distance herself from students, teach and not mentor, and preach a moral life without practicing it. Yet by placing herself in that vulnerable position, she is able to help some, but not all. I am speaking from experience: Aspazia has helped me in countless ways. I paid Aspazia the highest compliment I have ever paid anyone in my life recently. I told her, "You are the great moral force in my life." I cannot count the amount of times she has opened up to me, listened to me when I was need, and given me her thoughtful advice on a number of subjects. I could have abused her trust. I could have hurt her. I never would, and my life is fuller with her presence.

My next post, a less whimsical and more thought-through post, will be called "The Marketplace of Ideas." In many ways, the world Aspazia and I live in is a market place of ideas. If you don't know what I am talking about, spend a few days on the campus of a small liberal arts college. In this market, our value is derived by the content of our ideas and the strength of our character.

Liberal arts colleges are not just preparation for careers; they strive to prepare us for life. Thus, these educators seek to build within their students the habits of a healthy mind: inquisitiveness, resourcefulness, open-mindedness, thirst for knowledge, creativity, adaptability, and empathy. They also seek to encourage us to develop character through moral conscience and ethical constraint. While it may seem like I am on an infomercial for the liberal arts, my rant is wholly related to the subject at hand. In order to truly immerse ourselves in the marketplace of ideas, we must recognize our vulnerability. Our ideas will be challenged, our minds will be opened, and it is wise to throw ego to the wind. Let it drift away.

Yet the second part of liberal arts preparation, the moral conscience, makes us especially vulnerable. As we learn that self-interest and community-interest are not so disparate, as we learn that we are interconnected, and as we develop empathy we become more willing to sacrifice for others. The professor spends more time with that student in need. The friend rushes upstairs in the dormitory to spend the evening comforting someone who is lost. A student understands the failure to give health insurance or food to so many in this country is OUR problem. And we all come to that chilling fact: We cannot alone change the world. By ourselves, we are vulnerable. The conglomeration of talents and energies that makes up communities--dare I say even some governments--is a necessary part of our success in civil society. Don't get me wrong, our communities are often vulnerable themselves. But we are more vulnerable alone. If you don't believe me, take a look at your family and/or friends: would you be safer without them?

Indeed, we are all vulnerable. Some choose to layer their vulnerability with sheets of faux-invincibility or the puppetry of apathy. Others accept vulnerability, and charge ahead nonetheless: they immerse themselves in meaningul relationships, both personal and professional. For these folks, the greatest fear is inaction, and the greatest gain manifests itself in growing closer others and, in the process, to oneself.