The Face of Vulnerability

Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage. — Brene Brown

Ten years ago on Christmas Eve, armed with a cat trap, a long duster mop, and Burger King hamburgers, my family and I rescued a little Jack Russell terrier from a drainage ditch. He was feral and had been on the lam for quite some time. The rescue represented both an ending to his life on the streets and also marked the beginning of his next chapter.

We called him “Ollie,” short for Oliver Twist, a character in a Charles Dickens novel who is orphaned and roams the streets begging for food. Since Ollie was so used to running, he was a flight risk, and I kept him in a room where he could eat and sleep and feel safe.

As days turned into weeks, the one thing he wouldn’t let us do was touch him. No way was he coming anywhere near a human. Each day, I would sit with him for hours on end as his body shook violently. The minute he saw me, he would shake from head to toe — a convulsive, seizure-like shake that prevented him from walking or moving naturally. His fear was palpable.

I realized over time that the fear in him was anchored at a cellular level, deep within his body. The fear of being touched, of intimacy, was so great that he would do just about anything to avoid it. Intimacy meant death to him. In this little room, his emotions were “out of control,” and he was vulnerable. So he stayed plastered in the corner, the farthest point in the room, shaking.

How many of us have felt that way — vulnerable and exposed? Hardly any of us cozy up to vulnerability, much less take it home with us. We like our control and our distance; we like our space.

“Don’t come too close,” we warn. “I’ve got my protective cloak on — it keeps me safe from scary emotions, and it keeps me from being seen by you.”

Brene Brown, in her book Rising Strong, states: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

Ollie shook for three months. Then one day he stopped. Just like that. He learned that he could shake, and nothing terrible would happen. I didn’t try to stop his shaking, nor did I feel sorry for him. I simply held the space for him to experience whatever emotions came through. He could shake and be loved. He could stop shaking and be loved.

Isn’t that the way it is with us? All of our defense mechanisms, once exposed, turn out to be as flimsy as the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the one who pulls the strings but has no inherent power. Feeling our own vulnerability and embracing our falls, even shaking and quaking in our boots, allows us to show up as our brave selves in the arena of Life — vulnerable, exposed and courageous.

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