If there is one theme that I have followed in my personal and professional and philosophical life, it is that of vulnerability. Being open and willing to be imperfect, to be dependent on and affected by others, to recognize that we are shaped by our experiences and that we close ourselves off to those experiences when we seek to control everything, especially in the effort to avert “difficult,” “hard,” or even painful emotions–this is the stuff of life.
For the past few months, I have been reading philosophical texts on embodiment, phenomenology, and affect. I am studying notions of intercorporeal existence, authentic love and radical generosity in the face of alterity, and psychosomatic examples of aphasia as not just a refusal to speak, but a more existential refusal of the ontological relations we have with others and the world. In other words, we are not independent, autonomous, isolated beings who can be characterized as pure minds or mechanistic machine-bodies. Rather, we exist–in body, mind, psyche, and even biochemically–in relation to others, history, culture, nature, and the world. When the conversation turns to ethics, many philosophers suggest that this leads us to notions of freedom, responsibility, and forgiveness.
All of this reminds me of my thought process during the summer before coming to graduate school. As I was familiarizing myself with theories in feminist philosophy and more “Continental” thinkers like the existentialists, there was a distinct moment when I thought, “Hasn’t all of this stuff on interrelationality already been said, like thousands of years ago?” I was pretty sure that it had been, at least by one person (Seriously, though, I know there are many more).
Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha’s key insights were that nothing is permanent and all things are interdependent. This means that there is a transitory nature to reality and everything that *is* comes out of a conditional, dependent arising. There is nothing eternal, independent, or separate–no soul, no essence, no simple “I” to be found. Once again, I will say that I am grateful that I was assigned to teach “Asian Philosophies” this semester, in part because I am able to have conversations with my students about what these insights mean for us in terms of our daily lives. We’ve talked about reframing our values, our participation in global economic markets, and even our conceptions of mental health by way of non-attachment, compassionate understanding, “seeing more clearly” the nature of things, and bearing witness to the parts of life that often lead us into dis-ease, anxiety, fear, and unhappiness–the hard facts like sickness, old age, and death. We talk about alleviating “dukkha,” which is very roughly translated as “suffering,” through compassion, wisdom, and non-attachment. Through practicing a bit of mindfulness and meditation, we have tried to recognize when we are motivated out of fear, aversion, confusion, or craving, even as students who need good grades to get good jobs, or boyfriends and girlfriends who might get cheated on, or (like me) food lovers who have to face that the key-lime gelato simply can’t last forever. It’s been a good class. I’ve learned a lot.
And now, I finally had time to watch this video. Some of my more “whole-hearted” friends and family members were passing it around a couple of months ago, but the delay in my viewing is not important. The message is still a good one. She’s not a Continentalist philosopher who speaks with impenetrable language, and she’s probably not enlightened like the Buddha, but I do think that she, as a social worker, is touching on something very fundamental about our human experiences. Turns out there may be many paths to some basics of life.
As Dr. Brene Brown notes, we live best when we feel loved, worthy, and connected to others. And yet, this is hard because it requires that we also make ourselves vulnerable. In fact, we have to face that vulnerability with an honest, courageous authenticity. And when our vulnerability enables us to feel gratitude, joy, and love in life, it also means that we must risk feeling other emotions as well, including disappointment, rejection, and being misunderstood.
Maybe there is some comfort in knowing that almost all of the people who think on this theme seem to agree on one thing: Ironically enough, it is by making oneself vulnerable that one finds the strength to deal with more difficult experiences. And more ironic still, if one’s strength stems from vulnerability, one might actually be met with even greater love, belonging, and connection with others, which in turn might make even the most difficult experiences in life more manageable, or less difficult.
As great as this is, I wonder how much the less “whole-hearted” get it? Especially after trying to talk to a room of thirty 19-21 year olds for the past thirteen weeks about these ideas and frequently having to myself admit that I have hit some brick pedagogical walls when they admit that they just don’t get it, these insights seem less like the kind of stuff that can be taught. We can talk about it, but that does not mean that it will be heard and understood, although I wish it would. I have the sense that these sort of things have to be figured out and experienced for oneself. And that might take some time. Probably more than a semester. Perhaps even a lifetime.
So, here’s to the practice and the journey!