How to Live with Vulnerability
When I was a child, I had a sense of invulnerability. I remember seeing how fast I could ride my bike down a hill without worrying about what would happen if I hit a rock and was thrown over the handle bars. I set fires in our milk box. I didn’t wear suntan lotion to protect me from getting skin cancer someday. I ate lots of sweets not worrying about what that might do to my digestive system or my teeth. I imagined I had a cast iron stomach.
I did eventually grow up and discover that my digestive system was quite sensitive to a lot of foods. It took years of intestinal pain and misery to figure that out. Now I’d rather make my own food and control all the ingredients that go into a dish. I’ll bring my own casserole to a potluck so I’ll be sure I have something I can eat. And I feel quite vulnerable eating the foods other people make. It is quite difficult to cook for me as there are many ingredients that might cause a problem for me, like black pepper or curry powder.
If an awareness of vulnerability doesn’t dawn on us by our 20’s and 30’s, it will happen as the aging process begins its slow health degradation process. Middle age can be a time of crisis as bodily systems we didn’t need to think about start to misbehave and break down.
COVID 19 was a big dose of vulnerability in the spring of 2020. Suddenly staples like toilet paper weren’t on the shelves. Stories of horrible lung damage came at us from New York City. Tractor trailers were being used as morgues for all the dead bodies. We were facing a new disease that was causing significant harm to people, even the ones with milder cases that didn’t put them in the hospital. Could we get it from touching surfaces? Light switches? We sheltered at home not knowing what the future would bring. It is easy to forget how frightening that time was here only three years ago.
Thankfully, the Omicron variant moderated the damage COVID can cause, and most cases today are easily controlled with vaccinations and drugs like Paxlovid. Now, many of us have relaxed our hypervigilance. Yet the potential threat of serious disease hasn’t abated. Just ask Anny Lapinski. And RSV, flu and colds continue to be serious threats to the very young and old. And as we age, there are a host of diseases lurking around the corner like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, bone density loss, joint failure, chronic pain and other sources of human misery to worry about. I’m keeping a careful eye on my prostate, meditating, exercising and doing the Times Union sudoku every morning hoping to keep my brain in shape.
And even if my family and friends and I stay perfectly healthy with the occasional mild cold, there are vulnerabilities all around us. Crossing the street, driving a car, riding a bicycle in traffic, even shoveling snow or slipping on ice are often unappreciated vulnerabilities. And now today, though statistically a small probability, we hear daily about mass shootings.
I thought our democratic form of government was secure until a recent President was elected who seemed to have callous disregard for the checks and balances built into our governance structures. The war in Ukraine entering its second year is no less dangerous for global peace than it was when it started. Worrisome escalations might come with the current tensions with China. And the current government in Israel could mean a rupture of that part of the world. The terrible devastation in Turkey and Syria might initiate political unrest. And let’s not forget the Chinese spy balloon hysteria.
In the Southwestern United States, the diminishing flow of the Colorado River and the emptying dams will create great vulnerability of farmers who will not have water for their crops and livestock. Everyone is vulnerable to the massive global changes anticipated with climate change initiated by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Rather than pulling together to solve these big problems that are making us vulnerable, political parties are polarizing and looking for wedge issues to divide people from each other. The governor of Florida seems to be skilled in this process. He attacks the teaching of a truthful history of slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow that might make white students uncomfortable – a false claim of vulnerability for a privileged class of people. Anti-transgender legislation in Republican controlled legislatures across the country is threatening the gender affirming care that transgender youth need to help them find inner peace.
And beyond these nationwide political fights are the vulnerable people falling through the increasingly tattered social safety net. Many of us are one illness or hospitalization away from financial ruin. Inflation is squeezing incomes. The expense of rent and now mortgages with increasing interest rates are continuing to make housing less and less affordable. And for the elders among us, if you don’t have long term care insurance, it is likely too late to get it.
All this is just a build up to remind everyone what vulnerability feels like. It isn’t pleasant.
How do we cope with it? A favorite strategy that is easy to recognize is denial and suppression. Just don’t think about it. It will not affect me or my family. I’ll just ignore it until I can’t anymore. The human brain seems to be wired to deny problems until they reach a crisis and then respond. In the case of climate change, that will be too late.
A better strategy is to organize in community and respond. Pick the concerns and issues that are personally motivating to work on and offer support to others on their issues and concerns. Alone we can do little to resolve the massive problems of the world. Joining together to face adversity eases the pain of being vulnerable. In solidarity with networks of other groups we can have a collective impact.
There isn’t any perfection in the muddle of advocacy, but change can happen. Our congregation can be one place we can network together for the benefit of the world. It can’t erase our vulnerability, but it can make a positive difference.
May we share our vulnerability in a way that is mutually beneficial.