By Catherine DiMercurio
Maybe vulnerability and trust are not connected in the way we thought they were.
Being away from our usual routines often affords us new insights, but sometimes it isn’t until we return home that new ways of looking at things emerge. I recently travelled to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for a week-long writing retreat. While there, I attended a panel discussion with other writers, led by the retreat’s faculty members, on being vulnerable and what it means as a writer. Inevitably, in the days that followed, I considered what it meant to be vulnerable as a regular woman-person, not exclusively as a writer-person. Like many people, I have experienced the emotionally wrenching side effects of vulnerability. I don’t see much difference between allowing one’s self to be emotionally vulnerable and the notion of being open hearted. It is a deliberate choice, an act, to open ourselves to others.
As writers (in our relationship with our work and with our audience), and as “regular” people (in our relationships with the loved ones in our lives), the risks of vulnerability include pain, rejection, being misunderstood—in short, isolation. We expose ourselves in order to seek connection, and the risk we take is that the opposite effect will occur. And the more we’ve been hurt in our past, or misunderstood, or rejected, the greater the perceived risk of this exposure. We simultaneously want to protect ourselves and want to be open, to seek out all those things that make us feel good about being a person in this world.
Most of us want to understand and be understood, regardless of our perspectives as writers, artists, lovers, family members, friends. But I think it goes a bit deeper than this longing. In endeavoring to connect with one another, we seek to reveal not just what we think, but how our brains operate, not just that we love but how our hearts function. It is in the intricacies of these processes of thinking and loving that we truly engage with one another, and understanding them in ourselves and in others offers us pathways to the sought-after connection.
We want roadmaps as we wander through the mazes of each other’s heartscapes, and each of us in our own way wants to offer the same guidance to those we welcome into our worlds. It is not just why some people make art, it is why we all read it, see it, hear it, touch it, taste it.
Being vulnerable, or, opening our hearts to each other, is an act of trust. It is an act of relinquishing (perceived) control of outcomes. But when we extend and open ourselves in this way, we are often filled with self-doubt. Will isolation instead of connection be the result of our exposure? We can’t know. But we trust. In many ways, in all of the emotional interactions we seek out, we place our trust in the other party – whether it be a partner, a family member, a friend, or those who consume our art. We place our trust in them, hoping that what we offer will be accepted, that the roadmap will be decipherable, that the other person or people will willingly journey with us. We hope that in return, we may receive the reciprocal invitation to understand and connect. It is a seemingly simple conversation, an exchange, but beneath it exists a complex system of highways and byways, along which race countless thoughts and emotions as we try and gauge the success or failure of a particular act of vulnerability.
I think though what we often fail to realize is how unfair all that is, and the burden it places on those we care about. We delude ourselves into thinking we are entering into a pact and in doing so we are obligating others to behave in a certain way.
How freeing it would be to look at it another way, to consider that when we decide to be vulnerable, we are only making an agreement with ourselves, trusting that in opening ourselves in this way, we are welcoming whatever good may come of it. And if there is pain, or sorrow, or rejection, we welcome that too, not for the hurt itself, but for the growth that comes from it.
How kind it would be to those with whom we seek connection to let them off the hook, to not have any expectations of reciprocity.
How loving it would be to invite them into our worlds, offer them that roadmap, and then, simply be. Be there when they get there. Be understanding if they got lost along the way. Be joyful if they are delighted for the opportunity for connection and welcome us with open arms into their headspace and heartspace.
Maybe trust should not be about what we hope for from one another. Maybe it should be about what we are offering, and why.
We are never in control of outcomes that are tied to the emotional responses of others, and that is a beautiful thing. Maybe it is about trusting ourselves to know what is best for us, trusting ourselves to offer our world to those we love, to those we seek connection with. Our vulnerability lies in our willingness to do that, regardless of how we will be responded to.
Our lives are so full of uncertainty, in so many areas, professionally and personally. It is understandable that we want to control an outcome here or there, understandable to think that we actually can. At the novel retreat, participants were invited to read from their work to the other writers present, participants and faculty members alike. As a group, we discussed this as an act of vulnerability, this offering of our art in a public way, when we know all the ways it could be misunderstood, deemed unworthy, when we know that our physical performance too is under scrutiny. At the time, I looked at this endeavor under the dual lens of vulnerability and trust, and I told myself that it was my ability to trust this room of writers to be open to me that allowed me to be up at the podium reading my work. They did not let me down. They were kind and generous in their response to me and to my work. Yet, I could have entered into the reading in another way, trusting my desire to share my work, trusting that regardless of how it was received, this was what I wanted for myself. Audiences will receive us how they will.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that this way of looking at trust is anything but experimental. It feels sort of revolutionary to me to consider that trust perhaps has, or should have, little to do with the other party. But what right do we have to obligate others, however obliquely, to respond to us in a certain way? If I expose thoughts and emotions, my true self, to others in a vulnerable way, and I do so because I trust both my instinct and my willingness to accept the outcome of this particular exposure, it is a gift to bear witness to how this act of exposure is received. Consider too how miraculous are the gifts offered to us by others, when those we love are expressing themselves in a space free of demand, obligation, or expectation. Perhaps being vulnerable and being truly trusting work quite differently than we thought.