I have come to learn in the last two weeks what feeling vulnerable is all about. But I will get to that later. Brene Brown, both in her writing and speaking, has revealed how powerful vulnerability can be in bonding our lives to others. Her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” is a must watch for anyone who values meaningful relationships at both the personal and professional levels. This state of existence can be threatening; it can also be empowering.
But how does vulnerability feel? Across the years, I have witnessed others in vulnerable moments: hearing a cancer diagnosis, learning of a loved one’s death, descending into the realities of a lost job, a divorce, and more. In every case, I saw it by observing the erupting emotions, witnessing trembling hands, and noticing a quivering lower jaw. But I had little idea how vulnerability felt.
Such is the watching-but-not-feeling phenomenon possible when with our clients.
We hear uncertainty expressed by a man facing early retirement. The face and hands of an otherwise strong woman paint anxious gestures on the room’s canvas as words like “mother’s Alzheimer’s,” “fear,” “confusion,” and “helplessness” tumble out. Questions tainted by vulnerability sound like, “Are we going to be OK in retirement?” and “How can my husband and I cope with our drug dependent adult son?” No matter how often we hear the words and questions, they are external, out there, until one day, without warning, they move into our own lives.
That’s what’s happened to me in the last two months. After the blood work, the MRI, and the biopsy, I learned two weeks ago I have low to intermediate prostate cancer. Treatable? Yes! Common? Certainly. Will it kill me? Probably not. In fact, prostate cancer is one of if not the most treatable of all the cancers if caught early. And in my case, “early” is the important word. Hearing this rush of words that have always belonged to others has been difficult as a form of helplessness, and near overwhelming vulnerability poured over my soul.
No longer a detached observation, I know existentially what “feeling vulnerable” is all about—at least in its early manifestations.
Like most men and women in advisory roles, I have robed myself in strength for decades. As a minister, I was in role being there for others. Similarly, as an advisor, clients look to me for guidance, strength, confidence, and planning. For my part, I gladly pick up those invitations, humbled by others’ trust.
Since hearing this news, however, an entirely new collection of feelings has taken up residence. My guess is they may be with me for a season. After a week of due diligence, I decided to pursue surgery and have since seen a urologist at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore. Both here and there, I could not ask for better care.
Kathie and I learned of my diagnosis on our 42nd wedding anniversary. We held each other as close at that moment as any we have shared these past four decades. We have so much for which to be grateful; so many wonderful memories and gifts to celebrate. This journey is made bearable with the love and uncompromising support of an amazing family. By God’s grace and the kindness and prayers of many, cancer will not win nor will it rob me of my life’s mission and purpose.
Vulnerability, however, is another story. And yet, having named it, a new and growing peace has moved in. What I am learning is that a good cry can be a tonic for the soul, and letting others hug and comfort me conveys inexpressible strength. I admit I am not as resilient as others have made me out to be all these years. Confessing this somehow helps to manage the changing landscape of my emotions.
What’s the takeaway for our work? Why not become an advisor who creates such an open, accepting space that those you serve can feel safe enough to be vulnerable with you and you with them? When a person’s life is in a rough place, they need, even require someone with whom they can express fear and, at times, even fall apart. In my experience, moving from the place of witness to the tenuous place of vulnerability has already changed how I see this good work. And the changes are only beginning.