ACCEPTING VULNERABILITY: A (hard) WORK IN PROGRESS
by Jennifer Harvey
I sat in the front lobby of my 4-year old’s school while she enjoyed her weekly dance class three days after the horrors of Newtown. Every time the door opened I looked up. My heart didn’t skip a beat and I didn’t feel scared. But a consuming sensation went through me nonetheless.
The faces of other parents hanging out in the lobby suggested they felt something too.
I can’t quite describe the sensation really. Words are so inadequate this week. But, it had to do with an overwhelming awareness of vulnerability. The awareness was physical. I felt it in my bones, which haven’t stopped aching since I heard the news. The vulnerability is of course about that of my children, but it’s also about mine as a parent.
In his Newtown speech President Obama said that having children is the joy and anxiety of having your heart live outside your body. In other words the most tender and vital part of you—the place that holds the mystery, beauty and fragility of life itself—walking around, doing its own thing, jumping off couches, running across the street without looking, getting sick, sometimes very sick and…going to school each morning. Doing all of these things while being exposed to the whims of this vast world in ways you cannot control and from which you cannot protect it.
I have heard the kids-as-heart-outside-your-body analogy before and know it to be true. But this week it has made me want to scream.
I’m struggling. I am totally on board with this nation finally getting angry and serious about the proliferation of guns. I’m on board with loudly pointing out that neglect of our collective obligation to support families dealing with mental health issues is not only immoral but shortsighted. As if such neglect won’t negatively impact everyone.
But when I’ve chimed in on those debates this week or vigorously nodded as I read the latest arguments, I’m pretty sure its been part of my manic effort to push that feeling of vulnerability as far away as I possibly can. It’s been part of my desperate attempt to tell myself I can exert some control over reality—a reality that, at the end of the day, is mostly beyond my control.
It’s terrifying to say that aloud.
Life is so fragile. Just because I love my kids more than life itself (when our first child was born I thought “so this is what it feels like to be willing to throw myself under a train for someone else”) doesn’t mean I can protect them or save them.
What does it mean to accept a truth that literally takes my breath away?
A truth that was already true, even before last Friday?
Last year the 4-year old niece of my midwife tragically and unexpectedly died during her young cousin’s birthday party. Several months later the woman from whom we bought our first (and, I’ll be honest, last) round of cloth diapers had a baby born with renal failure. This tiny boy and his amazing family have been through it, and his prognosis a year later remains uncertain. I’ve recently been back in touch with a high school friend whose 2-year old is valiantly battling leukemia right now. Her son has been through more painful and invasive procedures—including eleven rounds of chemo—than most adults endure (or anyone should have to endure) in a lifetime.
I wouldn’t begin to imply I know what it’s like to be any of these parents. But I suspect the grief and fear that engulfed so many of us this past week is something they already knew a lot about.
Every story has its own contours that should be honored. But the senseless and incomprehensible reality that children suffer terribly and sometimes even die didn’t suddenly become a new possibility last week. And it won’t stop being a possibility even if we completely destroy U.S. gun culture.
So, yes, yes, yes I’d love to see our nation destroy it—let’s do it(!) (and let’s work tirelessly to find a cure for renal failure and every form of childhood leukemia too). But there’s something else in this whole experience about admitting that as beautiful and joyous as life is, it always holds the capacity—perhaps precisely because it is so beautiful and joyous—to devastate us beyond belief.
I don’t want that admission to make me stop being politically active. Don’t misread me. Two days after the NRA’s “meaningful contribution” I’m so furious I could spit. But, I also don’t want political action to serve as my attempt to avoid that scary but truthful admission either.
There’s a christmas cactus sitting in our living room. Its flowers are so very fragile. Just turning it or bumping into it when it’s starting to bud, even a wee bit, can make the baby buds fall right off. (I’ve learned this the hard way more than once.) The blooms themselves are translucent. Their color is brilliant, but you can almost see right through them. Their fragility lies at the heart of what makes them so gorgeous.
The potential for unspeakable suffering to erupt in our lives is a constant. I suspect this is harder to accept when little ones become part of our living—at least it has been for me. The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary make me desperate to run away from, deny, or think I can exert enough bravado to defeat life’s inherent and unavoidable fragility. But I’m afraid if that’s how I respond to this tragedy I’ll also end up cut off from the possibility of experiencing deeply the wonders of living. Life’s fragility lies at the heart of what makes it so gorgeous.
I know just enough about Buddhism to really appreciate its teaching that the connection between attachment and suffering describes our human predicament. I know just enough about engaged Buddhism to know that trying to practice non-attachment as a response to this predicament doesn’t mean we have to roll over and accept guns in our schools. (I don’t mention my own tradition here, because the loudest voices presuming to represent it this week have managed once again to be completely obscene—but that’s a whole other blog.)
When it comes to my children I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the idea of non-attachment.
Accepting vulnerability doesn’t make a whole of sense right now either.
But if I ever want to fully embrace the simple joy of listening outside the room during my daughter’s dance class again, trying to figure out what that means is where I have to start.
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.