When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…
To be alive is to be vulnerable. –Madeleine L’Engle
As a single mom, I wanted to appear that I had it all under control, which was seldom the truth. But the idea of being needy or vulnerable brought on feelings of being victimized.
This story tells of a real-life experience that taught me the value of vulnerability.
I had completed two summer sessions at the University of Texas in Austin. Damon, my 9-year-old son, had just recovered from serious surgery in June. Now at the beginning of another school year, I was overloaded with stress. As the teacher-in-service for the new school year, I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. That school year teachers were required to be on campus by 7:30 AM. That was a new policy. My heart sank, a lump formed in my throat and I stopped listening. More announcements continued, but my thoughts drowned them out. How would I make it? My young children couldn’t possibly get themselves ready and off to school. Another district policy stating that students couldn’t arrive on campus at 7:30 AM made it totally unworkable. What could I do?
I was startled back to the present by my dear friend asking our principal, “How can moms with young children do this?”
“That’s not really our problem,” was his reply. Unwelcome tears filled my eyes. Are we a corporation? I thought, or an institute that cares for and educates kids? Everything I had gone through was coming to the surface, and my emotions were raw. I froze, surrounded by colleagues in the crowded planetarium seats.
Everyone filed out for break—everyone but me. My friend sat with me for a minute. Then she left and I was alone. Finally I slipped across the hall to the restroom. Nervous and unsteady, I started to go to my classroom but quickly realized I hadn’t enough time to do that and get back for the next assembly.
I headed back toward the planetarium. The long hallway was empty. Sunlight streamed through a window at the far end of the hall, preventing me from recognizing the person approaching. As he came closer, I could tell it was our principal. I felt cornered. How could I avoid this? He had the authority to make my daily life miserable and unworkable. It was miserable and unworkable enough without adding another complication. A single mom, I had to keep my job.
What could I say to him? Why were we the only ones in the hall? Was he going to make this more difficult by trying to explain his position?
When we met, I leaned my back against the wall. It held me up as he faced me. I felt utterly and completely vulnerable. It was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life.
Not knowing what to expect, I began crying, sobbing so that I couldn’t speak. I wanted to put up a wall. Now I was embarrassed as well as humiliated. With a puzzled expression, he said, “What is … ?” but he couldn’t finish. His training hadn’t prepared him for this situation.
I continued to sob uncontrollably, as if the events of the last 10 weeks had collided in this one incident.
I thought of all my attempts to make life better—nursing Damon through recuperation from serious surgery and complications afterward, moving to another city, managing crazy schedules, attending graduate school at a major university, moving back home to face another year as a high school teacher and as a single mom with three young children. In this moment it all seemed too hopeless.
He could attempt to explain why the new policy was necessary. He could remain firm in his resolve to enforce it. He did neither.
He waited, hoping, I’m sure, that my sobs would subside. When they didn’t, he finally said, “We will work something out. Don’t worry about it.” I think he was a little embarrassed too. He smiled. I could only nod and mumble, “Thank you.”
I managed to slip across the hall to wash my face before returning to the assembly. If I had given any thought of how to handle this situation, it would not have been to break down in tears in front of my boss—not my style, way too vulnerable.
There are times when we break down and spill over in a very public way. We love to see it in the movies but guard against it in our own lives. During these times, however, vulnerability is often the best or only way to expose ourselves for others to see us as we really are.
This is not a bad thing.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ― Brené Brown