In aidspeak, ‘vulnerability’ is almost always a negative word. It denotes weakness, fragility, a heightened possiblity of something or someone being in danger or at risk, unsafe or unprotected. It is something to be guarded against, mitigated, planned for; we often talk or (moreso) write about how our programs will ‘target vulnerable populations’ or ‘reduce vulnerability.’ We show donors and security officers how we recognize existing vulnerabilities and have made plans to keep ourselves and our staff safe.
This is not the fault of the aid world. Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as meaning “easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally” or “open to attack, harm, or damage.” A quick scan of other online dictionaries did not turn up any indication of vulnerability as something powerful, a source of strength, something to be acknowledged and even tapped into.
In this TED talk — and come on, who doesn’t like a good TED talk? — Brené Brown talks about coming up against vulnerability in her research on shame, and how she hated the thought of being vulnerable and wanted to use her research to “beat it back.” She talks about the original meaning of courage, and how it’s necessary to be compassionate to oneself in order to be compassionate to others. She talks about about connection. And worthiness. And blame. She talks about numbing things out by drinking a few beers and eating a banana nut muffin.
I don’t want to give too much more away. Or make her talk sound like a new-agey hugfest, which it most definitely is not: “You know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, they kind of surrender and walk into it? A, that’s not me, and B, I don’t even hang out with people like that.” But I am going to get into some virtual hugginess of my own.
Ok, you’ve been warned…
Her message is important for everyone. But I suspect that aid workers, and others engaged in helping professions, have an intimacy with this concept of how powerful vulnerability can be. We step into these fields knowing that it’s going to hurt, knowing that we will come to care for people who we will see hurt or unable to care for themselves. There is an innate vulnerability to walking willingly into disaster and despair. This is not a weakness or something negative, it is something to be protected and maintained. It’s also something that can and will be bruised, battered, (temporarily) hidden, even lost or shattered if not cared for by ourselves and the organisations in which we work.
In some small way, my hope for this blog is that it helps the helpers connect with each other, to know it’s possible and sometimes even necessary to take a break from this difficult work and to be honest with each other about the shame, fear, and resistance that may be associated with doing that. To nurture the softer sides of ourselves, aka the parts that make us stronger and more resilient (to use one of my favorite fuzzwords). And to feel supported if or when we decide to take a break, or decide to go back to work after one.