Vulnerable folks live richer lives

The experience of being vulnerable, of holding your precious heart out to someone else, opens up your world in beautiful ways.

Woman sitting on the sofa and crying

We’re seated on the outside patio of our favourite restaurant. We’ve just placed our orders and now a gentle silence descends upon our table. Her gaze is toward the water, but I know it’s much farther than that. Deep down, she’s still holding that 23-month-old baby she only recently gave up calling hers. She looks at me, and smiles. She wants me to tell her about my latest writing project. I begin to complain about my novel, but it feels so petty. I don’t know what to say to her. Up until now, no one I knew had adopted a child they had to give back. I don’t know what to do. How do you comfort someone who had to endure the pain of birth parents changing their minds? All I know is, in that moment, I want my friend Theresa back. I want the Theresa who strutted around in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and three-inch heels. She was the one who could light up a room. She was the one who made everyone feel special. But that day, even her Louis Vuitton tote bag seemed to have lost its lustre.

Of course, it was difficult for me. She didn’t hide her pain or zip it up safely inside for the sake of others, the way I was used to doing. Theresa was living in the centre of that hurt, anger and confusion. I don’t think I had ever let myself go that far. Sure, I’d been hurt, but I didn’t allow myself to be wounded. I may not have known it then, but Theresa was already so far ahead of me. She was going to be authentic no matter what the cost. “I’m not even transparent,” she tells me now. “I’m translucent. I can’t hide stuff.” But at the time, that was all I was good at.

Holding my friend in her time of pain

Sitting across from her, I felt like such an impostor. I hid the fact that I was scared, that I hadn’t yet experienced that typhoon of emotion, the life event that brings you to your knees. How was I supposed to help her if I hadn’t gone through it myself? So I just listened. I let her talk. I let her be silent. I stood witness to where she was at that moment. It was all I knew how to do.

But to Theresa, even my slapdash style of help meant the world to her. “Certain people don’t know how to negotiate pain. You held my pain in your hands like a slippery warm egg. I knew it wouldn’t break, not in your hands.” To hear those words now, I’m in awe of her. The level of trust that she brought to our friendship made me begin to trust myself. I was going to need it. My own storm was already on the horizon.

She didn’t hide her pain or zip it up safely inside for the sake of others, the way I was used to doing

I was his rock

It’s been about eight months since I’ve spoken with my nephew. He’s 16 now and has changed into someone who I don’t really recognise. Maybe all parents feel this way, but I wasn’t supposed to be his parent. I was supposed to be the fun aunt, who got to take him out for ramen and gyoza, and to films where people swear in different languages. But as time went by, I began to really care about that boy. Maybe because someone had to. His home life wasn’t ever stable after the divorce of his parents. He needed a rock, and I was it.

That’s probably why it hurts so much more now that he’s not in my life. Sometimes I wonder what I could have done differently? Other times, I’m angry with myself for opening up my heart, only to get hurt. There are even times when I catch myself reminiscing about his childhood. I see us laughing so hard, we’re rolling on the floor. I know this is the path he’s chosen, that the journey to being a man has some parts where you travel alone. But it’s hard to let go. It’s hard to be hurt.

I understood loss

Some time later, I truly understood what Theresa was feeling. I haven’t gone through a failed adoption, but I experienced someone, whom I had opened my whole heart to, walk right out of my life. I understood loss. I understood those feelings of confusion, anger and hurt. I knew what it was like to be brought to your knees. If Theresa had seen me during this time, she would have recognised the vacant look in my eyes, the taste of heartache in the air. But I didn’t let her in on my suffering. I wasn’t as brave as she was. Still, throughout this whole process, Theresa has been on my mind. I realise now that she’s the strongest person I know. And not just for surviving life’s trials but for allowing me to see that fragile part of herself, for trusting me with her tired heart, for accepting my vain attempts to try to make her feel better. Whether I like it or not, she’s been trying to do that for me now.

If Theresa had seen me during this time, she would have recognised the vacant look in my eyes, the taste of heartache in the air

You may ask, what’s the point of vulnerability?

You may want to save yourself all that hurt. Stay at home and eat cup-o-noodles for one. I guess I could look at things that way too. But I’ve lived enough life to know that the lesson isn’t always visible. The thing about vulnerability is that sometimes you will get hurt, and you’ll get hurt bad. I don’t want to deny that that’s not a possibility, having gone through my own private tour of hell. But the experience of being vulnerable, of holding your precious heart out to someone else, opened my world so much more than it would have been. If I hadn’t let my nephew into my heart, I wouldn’t see the world the way I do now. The colours are richer, the feelings are deeper and the tastes are more immediate. And wouldn’t you want to read something from a writer who has tasted despair and hurt, joy and elation with all of her being rather than someone holed up in the middle of nowhere, not living?

What being vulnerable taught Theresa

Theresa has said that the experience of that adoption journey has made her more grateful for the two beautiful children she was finally able to adopt. “I definitely appreciate my kids more. I appreciate the kids for their strength. We all fought to get to each other.” And while she’s still healing from losing her first adopted child, she acknowledges all the gifts she’s gained because of it. “My children, when they hear that story someday about the brother they have but don’t have will be able to appreciate vulnerability as a strength. If that story hadn’t happened, they wouldn’t have happened. I want my kids to value vulnerability.”

Vulnerability deepens the connection between two people. it makes your life richer

But she also acknowledges that vulnerability is a never-ending process. “Parenthood, it flays you open on a daily basis. Things you didn’t think would hurt you, do. When my daughter doesn’t want to kiss me good night, it hurts. But it’s birthing. I keep telling myself that we’re not done yet,” she says. And we will never be done. But with each encounter, we will love deeper and hope deeper. We will not be afraid to show our hearts. Isn’t that what it means to be human?

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Vulnerability deepens the bond

When you’re vulnerable, it means you’re open. You’re allowing yourself to be yourself, to be authentic. In a relationship, this quality is non-negotiable. If you’re only going to hide behind your veneer, the other person will never truly get to know you with all your quirks and flaws. When we are vulnerable, it allows us to be receptive to love, and it gives the other person an opportunity to give love and practise compassion. Vulnerability deepens the connection between two people. And it makes your life richer.


A version of this was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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