Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Vulnerability

On Sunday, as I was driving somewhere (the car is when I have time to access the world through MPR on the radio) I was listening to an evocative program on the power of learning from mistakes, and there was a selection from Brene Brown exploring the idea of vulnerability and shame.  The idea of vulnerability is one that has been rattling around in my head this summer as I have been reflecting on all that went before this moment and what might be from this point forward.  As I put mostly logistical descriptive text in my blog and tried to figure out what I was really trying to say, the fact of the daily decisions that we make regarding the honesty of our revelations of ourselves to the world seemed to drop in large blobs in front of me.  I mostly stepped over or around them.

In any event, in this short NPR piece two things stuck out to me.
Embedded in vulnerability is an honest, raw bid for connection. 
This is a singularly critical thought for me.  Several personal experiences in recent months and years have driven home to me the regrettable fact that I have lived my life mostly hiding my innermost desires to connect with the people around me.  That I am reluctant to say to someone, let's go out for a conversation or to share with someone the simple fact that I enjoy, or think I might enjoy, their company.  Fear of the potential shame in such an act is debilitating and powerful.  More on this later.

At the same time, another comment resonated with so much of what I have been reflecting on.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. 
This was actually something of an aside in her talk; yet it was an aside that was important to me in the context of all that is at this moment.  More on this later as well.

Struck by all of this, I went back to her original Ted talk, in which she shares her research into characteristics of people who are what she calls, whole hearted.
People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging. [...] These people had the courage to be imperfect.  They had the compassion to be kind to themselves. [...] They had connection as a result of authenticity." 
She then identifies four fundamentals of vulnerability.
To let ourselves be seen.
To love with our whole hearts.
To practice gratitude and joy.
To believe that we are enough.
At this point, this gets a little soft and fuzzy for me, but that's my journey.  In any event, the thing that I want to really focus on today, at this moment, is the first of these fundamentals, "To Let Ourselves Be Seen."  I wonder about the implications of this, and the way that it should and might live in a well lived life.  It's not just a matter of telling everyone everything that happens.  Sharing on facebook the details of my colonoscopy is not vulnerability, it's just TMI.  Also, vulnerability focuses on how we open ourselves to the people we care about as well as how we allow ourselves to be perceived as imperfect.

When I think about my recent summer journey, I think about what I wanted to share from it and what the purpose of that sharing was.  As a friend observed, my blog was mostly the narrative of travel experiences, rather than a deeper reflection on the transition that I was undergoing at a much deeper level.  Still, that reflection was most certainly going on, and I desired to share it with whoever might be inclined to read about it; yet I was restrained by fear of shame stemming from the audacity of presumption.  Who was I to tell others about my fears and needs?  Why should they care, or worse still, how arrogant would they think I was for thinking anyone might care?  God forbid I should appear arrogant.  How much more interesting it seemed to simply share the amazing sensations of my travels of 12,000 miles.

But some of that reflection is packed into those journal entries, and the task at hand, which has been happening on a level that is slowly bubbling up into my consciousness, is to continue to learn to become more immediately and habitually vulnerable to the people around me each day.

I pause to consider my own list of what is required to be vulnerable.

  • To ask for help when it is needed.
  • To be willing to practice skills that are undeveloped without fearing ridicule.
  • To share a desire to make a social connection without waiting for the right moment.
  • To recognize that my value comes not from being the best, but from being present.
All of this was rattling around my head as I was driving home to change my clothes before my musical audition in front of the brilliant and intimidating head of our department.  I needed to change because I had dressed for comfort, and realized belatedly that the norm for auditions was to dress to impress.  While this is not a mode I wander into often, as a new graduate student it seemed imprudent to annoy the chair of the department.  Besides, being self-conscious about your clothes at an audition is just another marker for failure.  So I changed and, to be honest, felt much better about myself after I did so.

The day had actually gone quite well up to that point.  I had taught my first meeting of my Acting for Everyone course and had completely enjoyed myself; my only course as a student that day had been my Theater Speech course, and while I was impressed with the workload likely involved with it I was excited about what I am going to learn; and while my monologue audition wasn't brilliant, it was not bad and provided some hope for the future...a future in which I will actually have spent some time learning about the craft of acting.  So I went into my musical audition feeling pretty good about it.  I was doing 16 bars from Master of the House, the music seemed pretty easy and I had worked hard to get those few lyrics solidly into my head.

Then, without warning, after a one bar intro, I had no idea what happened next.  "I'm sorry, would you give me the intro again."  1, 2, 3, 4, "Master of the House, Keeper of the...garble, garble, ick, ick, ick...I managed to blurt out a few random lyrics and finally just chuckled a bit and said, "Thanks!"  I sat down, watched some wonderful auditions, and headed back to the hallway.

Ah, well.  That's why I'm here.  I have faked it so well for so long, but I have finally, and intentionally, placed myself in a position where I am going to be forced to learn and perform the skills most inaccessible to me in the past and to do so in a public way.  I experience an enormous load of nervous energy that accentuates a struggle to retain text when I do an audition.  I think I will overcome this with practice and repetition, but we'll see.

Meanwhile, the short term lesson for me is that at the same time that I am working to become more socially vulnerable, I am also working through the process of being more professionally vulnerable.  I am surrounded by scores of gifted students destined to be professionals in this field.  I want to learn from them and to do so I need to let go of the desire to be safely protected behind a need to be skilled.  

At the heart of my decision to do this MFA is a desire to explore innovation, creativity and change.  It would appear that vulnerability may lie in some significant way at the heart of that work.

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