The Courage of Vulnerability

–Daniel S. Ferguson

When I was eighteen years old, a sophomore in college, I briefly worked at a Walgreens in Knoxville, right off the University of Tennessee campus. This was by far the closest convenience store to campus, so a lot of our shoppers were college students. Beyond the obvious chips and sodas and candy, we sold an above average number of, shall we say, college-related items. I still remember the scores of fraternity pledges who would come in to buy the exact same four item set: cigarettes, dip, condoms, and a candle. Over and over and over again, the exact same four items. I never asked why, but their purchases were a commitment to form that only a haiku could rival. Because of those pledges and just the normal consequences of being on a college campus, we sold a lot of condoms. I also remember one time when a young man bought both condoms and a pregnancy test–at the same time.

But one event regarding these items really stuck out to me. There was a young couple who walked in one day. They couldn’t have been older than 20 or so, basically my age. They went straight to the “family planning” aisle, picked up a pregnancy test, and walked it to my counter. The girl tried to show with her body language that the pregnancy test wasn’t for her, but she quickly found out that it’s impossible to show that with body language.

Just out of habit, I asked them if they wanted a bag. The woman gave me a look like, “Seriously?” Of course she wanted a bag! It wouldn’t fit in her purse, and she almost certainly walked about four blocks to get to this store. She’s not going to walk back across campus holding this thing and getting looks from everyone the whole way. What if they ran into someone they knew?

She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes communicated the whole thing.

But here was the problem: I didn’t have any regular sized bags. I just happened to be out at that particular moment. I only had giant bags that would fit very large items (like pillows and huge stuffed animals), and I had tiny bags, basically designed to hold greeting cards and candy. Out of instinct, I grabbed the smaller one. The pregnancy test barely fit inside it. And the bag was so thin that anyone could still see right through it and tell what was inside. The couple was just as exposed with the bag as they would have been without one.

I was just about to wrap the little bag in a giant one to protect their privacy when the boyfriend did something that has stuck with me for over a decade. He took the pregnancy test out of the bag, lifted it up high, and began to speak–loudly. He said, “This is our reality right now. Hiding it won’t change it at all. This is our reality, and I’m here to share it with you.”

I promise that is word-for-word what he said. I can still hear him say it in my memory. It was startlingly vulnerable and refreshingly courageous. This was the first time I had ever stopped to consider that vulnerability and courage might be linked.

Sadly, the lesson didn’t stick with me. It would be another decade before I learned its full value, but this 20-year-old college kid whose name I don’t know (and whose last name, I found out later, the woman with him didn’t know) seemed to have learned it early. Somehow, from somewhere, or maybe just by random chance in that moment, he knew and lived out the truth that I want to talk about today: that vulnerability is not weakness.

Let me say it again, Vulnerability Is Not Weakness (Click to Tweet).

There’s something hardwired in us to avoid emotional vulnerability. We all do it. Therapists will spend weeks upon weeks trying to show you this, but it’s always a hard lesson for us. You see, what happens is that there’s always some point in our lives, some uniquely powerful moment when we were at our most vulnerable, and we got hurt because of it. And we don’t want to feel that way again. So we create barriers and boundaries and barricades against the same kinds of situations, people, and circumstances, so that we never have to feel that way again. We get better and better and better at it over time, with each painfully vulnerable moment teaching us exactly where the holes in our defenses are. When someone or something gets close to penetrating that shield, we thrash out in anger. We change the subject. We numb ourselves with drugs or alcohol or food or a Netflix binge session. We retreat back inside ourselves. We cut off people entirely. We do anything and everything to avoid returning to that moment when we felt most vulnerable and most hurt.

Therapists get paid a lot of money to force us to identify that moment. And it’s absolutely crucial that you do. If you hear nothing else from me today, even if you ignore all the Jesus stuff I promise I will eventually get to, hear this:

Professional counseling is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something that can honestly save your life. (Click to Tweet)

You see, a while back, I was making some extremely bad decisions with my life. I was sabotaging my career, my marriage, and my finances on purpose. Things got so bad at one point that I tried to deal with the pain by harming my own body and spending stupid amounts of money at a strip club. That, of course, blew up in my face and nearly imploded my marriage. I had already been in counseling at the time, but it wasn’t going well because of some medication issues, and I was definitely afraid of going back.

But I eventually did go back. And I’m so glad I did. Because it helped me to finally find the moment of vulnerability that has been plaguing me my whole life. When I was born, I suffered from a very peculiar type of brain damage due to oxygen deprivation. My family immediately started working with me, even as an infant, to help me overcome this disability, but I always felt behind. I was already the youngest child trying to catch up to my older siblings, but when Kindergarten started, I honestly felt very behind the other students. I remember distinctly one lesson in Kindergarten. It was something color-based. I didn’t know at the time, and neither did anyone else, that as a result of the brain damage, I couldn’t see colors correctly. It had simply never come up before. I think we had a substitute today, I can’t really remember, but I can still hear some adult’s voice telling me that day, “What are you, stupid?”

I didn’t really respond to it that day. I guess I just buried it and moved on. But by the next year, by first grade, I must have really reacted to it, because I had forced myself to learn to read substantially better to overcome some of the deficits I had. But I was convinced I was still behind the other students, and I didn’t want to be called stupid again. At the beginning of first grade, they gave us a placement test. I didn’t understand what the scores meant, but they divided us into color-coded groups based on how we did. I remember them calling off the names. Mine was the very last name called, and I was in a group all by myself.

I had no idea that the reason I was alone was because I was actually quite far ahead in reading and math. All I knew was that I had to learn alone for an entire year, and I suspected it was because I was, in fact, stupid and always would be, no matter how hard I tried.

So I pushed and pushed and pushed even harder so I could always be another step ahead. Just one pace faster than everyone else. I churned out work more quickly than my teacher could provide it. I learned to overproduce, and, eventually, how to steer conversations so that they only regarded topics that I knew things about. I never wanted to be left out again; I never wanted to be separated again; I never wanted to be in that classroom, by myself, at the corner table alone again. And I never wanted to be called stupid ever, ever again.

That’s my vulnerable moment. When you meet me and I seem dazzlingly intelligent, that’s not natural. I am manipulating you into believing that. It doesn’t matter to me one bit if you are actually as smart as I am; I have perfected the art of making you believe you’re not. This has meant that I’ve mastered meeting new people for the first time, but I’ve oh-so-intentionally never let too many people get particularly close. Because then you might know. Then you might realize that I’m just churning as hard as I can under the water to make you think I can outswim you. Then you might look right through to my Kindergarten, five-year-old self and be able to say, “What are you, stupid?”

And of course I sabotage myself when things get hard. I can’t stand failure. I can’t stand being alone in that classroom again, all by myself because I was born broken. I can’t stomach not getting it again. I can’t go through one more conversation where I don’t fully understand what’s going on and have total control so that I look the smartest. I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t want to feel that pain ever again. So when it looks like I might fail, when it looks like there’s a chance I might lose, I blow up the whole thing. On purpose. Because at least then the failure is on my terms and under my control. Then I’m not the kid alone in the classroom.

I tell you all this for two reasons. First, GO GET COUNSELING.

I’m not going to say “if you need it.” If you’re anything like me, you’ll say you don’t and just move on. So no If’s. I’m not saying get counseling if you need it. I’m saying get counseling. Because you’ve got to deal with the stuff in your past. It’s affecting your day-to-day life in ways you don’t even realize.

That time you snapped at your wife when she just asked you a question? That time you blew up at your kids when they disobeyed? That time you followed a link you shouldn’t have at work when you knew you could lose your job? Those things so often come back to us not dealing with painful moments of vulnerability in our past, usually our childhood. Therapists are trained to help with that so that you can deal with your stuff and live a healthier life. So go get some.

But wait a minute. Some of you are thinking, “Daniel, didn’t you open up by saying that vulnerability isn’t weakness? But that whole story was about a weakness that came from your vulnerability. How does that jive?”

I’m so glad you asked, because that’s the second reason I told you this story: Vulnerability Doesn’t Cause Pain.

You see, I made a mistake when I was five. And I kept making that same mistake for twenty more years. I still sometimes make it. I made the mistake that I experienced pain because of my vulnerability. After all, that was only logical, right? I had the vulnerability of this intellectual disorder, and I was hurt because of it, right? Totally logical.

But I made the same assumption about vulnerability and pain that statisticians beg us all not to make about anything. I assumed that my vulnerability caused my pain. In reality, my vulnerability was merely correlated with my pain. And those are not the same thing.

As I have discovered through therapy, when I get frustrated and feel like I’m behind the curb, my mind returns to that first-grade classroom and begins to panic from feeling alone and unwanted, so I do anything–anything–to stand out, be noticed, get a little bit ahead so that I don’t have to feel that way.

But you know what that does? It alienates people. It keeps me at a distance. I wind up alone, on purpose. In my desperation to stay safe, I create the very result I was fearing in the first place.

But if I’m honest about what I’m fearing, if I face it head on, if I take the risk of opening up, if I become emotionally vulnerable, then I can form a real connection.

And connection is what we all want, isn’t it? I mean, is there a single human being you know who doesn’t want to feel connected to other people? I don’t care how introverted you are, how independent you are, or how much you can take care of yourself. You want connection. You may claim you’re a loner, but you want connection. You’re a human being; you’re hardwired to want connection.

You see, we all start like this: Little hearts just going through life looking, hoping, for other hearts to connect to. At some point, someone or something smashes into our little hearts. So we put up little shields, and we say never again. We wrap our tiny, little broken hearts in layers and layers of protection so that we can never get hurt again.

But then we can’t really love again. We can’t really connect. We can’t really feel the person next to us. We might not even be able to feel ourselves. Our hearts can never really collide with another heart in a healthy, loving, wonderful way because we’re so busy protecting ourselves that we never let it happen. How else do you explain a country of adults so privileged, so educated, so literate, and so successful, yet so addicted, so numb, so exhausted, and so worn out?

Listen, it’s scary to be vulnerable. I get that. I get that more than most. You have to risk losing the image of yourself you’ve spent so long perfecting that it feels like an identity. You have to risk reverting from your competent, capable adult self back into the lonely, damaged child you want desperately to avoid. You have to risk opening yourself up and getting hurt again, just like you were the first time. Being vulnerable is a huge, huge risk.

But it’s not a weakness. It’s actually the source of our greatest strength. Because our connections with other people, our real connections, the ones where our hearts actually touch, they don’t just connect us with other people. They reconnect us with ourselves in ways we can’t imagine and awaken strengths and virtues we didn’t even know we had.

If I hadn’t been vulnerable with my wife about some of the true causes behind my misdeeds, if I didn’t open up and let her into the world of pain and loneliness I was trying to avoid, I don’t think our marriage would have survived. But even if it had, we wouldn’t have anything like the strong, amazing marriage we have right now.

Because she knows my deep vulnerability, my long-seated fear that I’m not good enough, she sees things coming that I can’t. She helps me realize my own patterns and see clearly. She helps me be honest and caring. She forces me to exercise truth and grace on myself, not just on others. Honesty and vulnerability with her has brought out my passion, my love, and my self-confidence in ways that would not have otherwise been possible.

I am stronger because of that vulnerability, not weaker.

Because I have been vulnerable with her, I can stand in front of this room full of strangers and the entire internet and tell you my deepest vulnerability completely without fear, knowing that I am loved and worthy of being loved by a heart my heart has collided with.

That’s the power of vulnerability.

That all sounds good, but it’s incredibly hard work. Don’t think that you’re going to go home today, vomit your guts out on somebody, and accomplish it over lunch. That’s weird. Please don’t do that. It takes time. It takes intentionality. It takes repeated, persistent effort. It takes sacrifice. It takes crying. It takes money (in the form of quality counseling). You have to work at this. But I promise you it’s worth it.

It may have crossed some of your minds that I’ve not talked about the Bible or Jesus yet, and you may be wondering whether you’ve gone to a self-help seminar instead of church. I get that, and I’ll get to Jesus in a minute. But before I do, I want to recommend a book by Dr. Brené Brown called Daring Greatly.

It’s an excellent book on this subject, and I’ve downright stolen a lot of the material for this post from her. I recommend the book, but I understand that you may one of those people who’s just not got time to read it. While I would normally prove you wrong by showing you your Netflix viewing history, I thought instead I’d provide you with an alternative. Here’s a link to a TED Talk by Dr. Brown on this subject. It’s 20 minutes. If you don’t have time for the book, I don’t believe you, but I guarantee you’ve got 20 minutes.

But I’d like to finish up today by looking at just two verses of Scripture, Matthew 4:16-17. Matthew is one of the four Gospels; it’s a biography of Jesus that shows us who He was, how He lived, and what He said. In the section we’re about to read, Jesus is just beginning His ministry. He’s just getting started. Matthew writes that something Jesus does reminds him of something from an older Scripture, which says this:

“The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:16, NIV).

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent so much of my life in the darkness, a darkness of my own making. Those shields I built that kept me “safe” from other people just left me alone in the dark, hopeless, waiting to die. I couldn’t get out of the shadows I had created in my own life. I needed help.

If that’s you today, if you feel alone, if you feel like you’re trapped in a prison of your own making. If you are lost in the darkness of your own life, know this: Jesus wants to save you.

Jesus wants to save you from that. Matthew reminds us that we are the people living in darkness, but now we have seen a great light! That light is Jesus, the hope of the world! He died and rose from the grave to live forever to show His love for us. And He sits on the throne of Heaven, praying for us. Jesus wants to save us from this darkness; He wants to show us the marvelous light.

And Jesus tells us just one verse later how to start.

“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 4:17, NIV).

That verse, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” sounds scary. It’s been used by manipulative preachers and scam artists forever to scare people into faith. But I want you to put whatever memories you have of that aside right now, because judgment is not what this passage is talking about. Repenting is not some scary Bible word filled with fear and loathing and pain.

No, repenting is the first step toward a relationship with Jesus. It’s not just the first step because you need to admit you have sin in your life and commit to fixing it. That’s true, but repenting is so much more than that. It’s not just a recitation of your sin designed to maximize your guilt.

Repenting is the first step to a relationship with Jesus because repenting is you deciding to be vulnerable with Jesus. It’s saying to Jesus, “I’m not perfect. I have pain and scars and problems and issues, and here they all are. I’m laying them out on the table. I’ve messed up, and I’m going to mess up again. But I want to love you. I want my heart to be close to your heart. I want to be in a real relationship with you.”

Repenting is just vulnerability to Jesus. Not to make you feel weak, but because vulnerability is the first step in any real relationship. (Click to Tweet) And that’s what Jesus wants with you: a real relationship.

If you’ve been to church before, you may have heard us say, “Give your heart to Jesus,” or “Open up your heart to Jesus,” or something like that. And we church people haven’t always done a great job explaining what we meant by that.

A lot of you may have completely rationally thought it there was a cult going on inside a church building that looked like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. “Kali ma! Kali ma!”

But no, that’s now what we’re talking about. I’m sorry if we confused you. When we say, “give your heart to Jesus,” vulnerability is what we’re talking about. The Bible calls that vulnerability ‘repentance.’ Being open with Jesus about your mess and your pain and your joy and your hope. Jesus wants all of it.

Not just the bad stuff because He’s not about guilt. But not just the good stuff either, because Jesus isn’t about bunnies and unicorns. Jesus wants a real relationship with you. And just like with anyone else, that can’t happen unless you’re vulnerable to Him. (Click to Tweet) That can’t happen if you don’t open up to Him and repent.

But listen, repenting isn’t just for new people. This isn’t just for beginners. This is for everyone. The same thing is true in our human relationships. No matter where you are, if you’re just meeting someone or if you’ve been married for fifty years, the way to grow a deeper, more meaningful, more real relationship is always to open up and be vulnerable.

Right? I mean, pretty much every therapist and relationship book says so. If we accept vulnerability as the path to a better relationship with people, then it’s also the path to a better relationship with Jesus. (Click to Tweet)

Even if you’ve done it before. Even if you’ve done it a hundred times. No matter where you are, whether you’ve been baptized in the last year, or if you’ve never been to a church in your whole life, or if you were basically born in a pew singing Amazing Grace, it doesn’t matter. If you want a closer relationship with Jesus, the first step is always, always, always opening up and being vulnerable to Jesus. (Click to Tweet)

The first step is repenting. That’s not weakness. Listen to me, men especially. Vulnerability is not weakness. It’s strength, and it’s hope.

Notice what the verse says. It’s not “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven will smite you otherwise.” This isn’t about judgment. It’s “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

This is about hope! Heaven has come near. Jesus has come near. He wants a relationship with you, so He has come near! Other translations say “the kingdom of heaven is right at hand.” That’s how close Jesus is to you today. He’s not some far off God who will leave you alone in your pain and darkness. Jesus is the great light, and He is right at hand! Just reach out to Him with your open heart.

Take the risk. Be vulnerable. Let Him in. And let the healing begin.

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