Written by Laura Anderson, WLLC 2015-2016
When I moved halfway across the country to live on my own in college, I thought that being independent was what I wanted more than anything. I was so excited to jump into opportunities and figure things out as I went. I ran 5 miles to the grocery store on my own, found a job on my own, and felt like I was doing pretty well for myself. After a few not-so-pleasant events, though, I began to feel trapped by my freedom. I was all alone; I had no one to turn to when my choices and the choices of others came to haunt me.
A couple of weeks in, I was sitting in worship put on by a few people from CRU (Campus Crusades for Christ), a time in which we all soak in worship music and silent prayer. In that hour of time with no one but God and myself I was forced to acknowledge my loneliness and need to reach up to God and out to my peers. At first, I thought I was just asking for a ride, but within minutes I was spilling my guts to a person that I barely knew at the time, but who is one of my closest friends and mentors now. Contrary to my fear that she might judge me or simply dismiss me, this person was so supportive in prayer and in action. Ever since that moment, I have been overwhelmed by the vulnerability and kindness that I have encountered in almost everyone I have interacted with in CRU, and have constantly craved to spread that same pure honesty throughout all my interactions.
Unfortunately, though, I am quite the black-and-white thinker as well as somewhat of a bleeding heart. I got caught up in this honesty that I allowed myself to enter a very dangerous codependent friendship that was starting to suck me dry. I felt guilty every time I couldn’t be there, and constantly full of shame that I couldn’t be a better friend. When I read Brené Brown’s study on Shame Resilience Theory, I really related to the participants’ feelings of being “trapped, powerless, and isolated” (Brown 45).
I finally realized that while it is wonderful to embrace vulnerability and climb down into that cave with someone to empathize with them; you can’t stay there forever, and you can’t let them drag you down at all hours of the day and night, at the expense of your own wellness (Brown). My response to the situation was all wrong, though. I started building my walls back up and trying to remove this friend from my life, slowly closing myself off to vulnerability.
That’s when God stepped in. He used this moment in which I felt more confused and alone than ever to teach me a valuable lesson about the balance required for vulnerability and empathy. As Omid Safi clarifies, when practicing vulnerability, we have to keep in mind that “it’s not about foolishness and being reckless with one’s hearts, but with knowing that no one is an island unto themselves.”
I think that when we try to embrace the virtuous qualities of vulnerability, and especially empathy, we can often take them too far; sacrificing our own wellness in an attempt to help others. But these qualities are about more than just trusting your peers and allowing them to trust you; they’re about trusting God to speak through you and through the people around you in order to heal and empower everyone involved. Only then can vulnerability and empathy fully succeed.