Listening To Shame is a talk by Brene’ Brown. (www.ordinarycourage.com). I’ve linked to it, because this is a talk I took notes on. Sitting at my dining room table (when I should have been making my family a fantastic dinner) I took notes on her talk so the words would be on paper for me to refer to. Dr. Brown made a number of points that had me bouncing off of my chair with excitement, one in particular being that as a culture (and I’m paraphrasing here) we numb vulnerability. She also talked about shame, and links were made between shame and vulnerability. I don’t know when I came to believe that being vulnerable was shameful. As Dr. Brown says in one of her talks (I listened to several last night ) vulnerability easily gets confused with weakness, and weakness is not seen as a virtue in our society. Dr. Brown speaks about how we try to numb our vulnerability, saying we are “the most in debt, obese, medicated and addicted cohort in history.” (“cohort” being a reference to the group she studied) Why? Because many of us try the above, we try to numb our vulnerability, and “you can’t selectively numb,” according to Dr. Brown. When we numb vulnerability, we numb everything.
Dr. Brown gives a definition of blame as “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” That definition was like an arrow hitting a bull’s eye in my heart. Blaming myself for my son’s genetic neurodegenerative condition (and pretty much everything else that is “wrong” or not good in our family’s life) has been a way for me to discharge some unbelievably painful and uncomfortable emotions. It’s also slowly been killing me; at least the me I want to be.
It goes against all of our biological programming (fight, flight, freeze) to stay vulnerable, like you’re constantly exposing your underbelly to the world. It doesn’t seem like great advice for someone to tell you to stay that way, from an evolutionary standpoint. That’s if you equate vulnerability with weakness though, and Dr. Brown isn’t doing that. She equates vulnerability with courage, compassion, and connection. Those are things that prolong life; things my Mother is an expert at, and that she tried to teach me. They are things she learned from her own mother and from losing her only sibling, her brother, in World War II.
She learned it from seeing the vulnerability we ALL have, and when she was hurt in that excruciatingly tender spot we know as our heart, she allowed it to make her stronger. She didn’t build walls around herself, she flung herself open to life and said, “See?! I’m still here! I’m still standing, and loving, and laughing.” My Mom knows vulnerability inside and out, like a dear friend. I aspire to her example, because all of the things Dr. Brown suggested at the end of her talk as essential to our survival are things my Mother lives every day of her life (and my siblings do too): 1) Let yourself be seen. Deeply seen. 2.) Love with your whole heart even though there is no guarantee. 3) Practice gratitude and joy in moments of terror – fiercely. 4.) Believe, “I am enough.”
I know my Mom has struggled with the fourth principle or piece of advice. I think a lot of us do. She has told us, her children, over and over again that we are enough – even more than enough. Dr. Brown’s talk served as a stirring reminder of so many moments in my Mother’s life. Standing on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea she could throw a wreath over the rail in memory of her brother, whose body was never found; helping deliver a baby on a moving train in India around the 1950’s; GOING to India with my Father, oldest sister and having two more babies during their five year stay in the 1950’s…the examples go on and on. She’s a tough act to follow but she’s never indicated in any way that she wanted to create more of her “selves.” As I wrote in my last blog post, she’s a pro at letting go. She worries like crazy, and I don’t want to make her sound too perfect, but she’s an amazing woman. Her life has really made a difference to a lot of people, many of whom she has never seen again.
My Dad was amazing too, and my intent is not to slight him in any way. Somehow though, whether it was because she was a woman at a certain time in history, or because she preferred to let my Dad shine to the outside world while she was his emotional support, she received much less attention for the remarkable life she lived (and continues to live) than he did. She’s okay with that, completely. She inspires me more than I can express, because despite all the pain in her life, she has allowed herself to stay vulnerable; and she’s one of the strongest women I know. She never chose the easy path, never shied away from any challenge, spoke her mind even when people didn’t necessarily like her politics. That’s how you end up with a gay, Jewish man, who survived the concentration camps in WW II. as your best friend and call him your “soul-mate.” It’s no wonder so many of the guys my sisters and I dated came back to visit my Mom. She knows how to listen, her heart is completely open, and her strength is like that of a Goddess.
Thank you Mom, for planting the seed that allowed me to hear Brene’ Brown and still (at my age) have the possibility to bloom. You’ve blessed the earth in every spot you’ve placed your delicate foot. The hardest challenge you’ve given me, and it started at conception, is how the hell I’ll ever live without you. It’s a challenge you’ve been preparing me for, and one you’ve tried your damnedest to protect me from, but one we’ll face nevertheless. Bless you for bringing so much beauty into my life, and the lives of all those around you, especially your family. I bow to you Margaret Eunice Hartley Hills; to your wisdom, to your beauty, and most of all to your completely open and vulnerable heart. Thank you for teaching me that vulnerability is the key to resiliency, and strength. I love you Mom.