Embracing, not evading, vulnerability

Several weeks before Christmas break, the front of Knights of Columbus building, the squat building east of Coleman-Morse, lit up with a blaze of lights. White lights rimmed the arches, crisscrossed the columns, and spread across the bushes while a single strand of colored lights circled the shrubby tree out front.

Despite the simplicity, the lights accomplished their purpose, celebrating Christmas, and inadvertently led to an influx of students stopping by to ask what the building was. One conversation with two visitors was particularly memorable. After I explained what the Knights do on campus, how we are a faith organization founded on charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism, they, not satisfied with my explanation, asked, “But what exactly is the Knights of Columbus organization? Like technically.”

“Technically,” I explained, “we are a fraternal benefit society.”

“You’re a frat? Notre Dame has a frat house.”

After several minutes of clarification, I managed to convey that no, the Knights are not a frat in the common sense of the word. To be fair, we do have ceremonies, events, and even a building one could argue is our “frat house.” We watch sports, play darts, and shoot pool. Yet, no matter when you come by, whether a Wednesday afternoon or a Friday night, raucous frat parties are nowhere to be. What will you find? What are we working to build inside our building?

Recently, I have shared an office in the building, a place with a desk at which to work, a bookshelf for storing the multitude of books and folders I accumulate through my coursework, and multiple couches for relaxing or for grabbing a quick nap. It is at my desk that I was recently contemplating this question late at night while taking a break from paper writing, trying to put my finger on what exactly I have found so meaningful about this building and this community.

At that moment, a friend walked in, searching for his pipe tobacco, and my office-mate asked from the couch on which he was working, “Are things going okay?” The answer was simple, yet relatively uncommon—“Not really.” With that, my office-mate got up, stepped out to the porch, and talked with my friend while he smoked. I have no idea how long the ensuing conversation lasted, though I can confidently say it lasted much longer than it took my friend to smoke his pipe.

At that moment, I realized that, in that exchange, I saw what I was trying to name. So much was contained in that exchange; a question, an implicit request for help, and a sign of friendship. But my friend did something that happens far too uncommonly: he expressed vulnerability.

That choice, to admit that no, everything was not okay, is a bold one. It requires faith that my officemate and I would respect that vulnerability and, perhaps, walk with him through whatever the struggle is. It required trusting we would respond caringly, without ridiculing his weakness or belittling the problem. In leaving his work and stepping out onto that porch, my office-mate was also being vulnerable. He was exposing himself to a situation he knew nothing about; all he knew was that a friend was hurting. He was stepping out into a conversation through which he knew he would be sharing in another’s burdens. He was loving his brother Knight and thus being vulnerable.

Vulnerability was key to both individual’s actions. Yet, as a culture, we are so afraid of vulnerability. We are taught to reduce it, to be independent and self-sufficient. We conceal it as much as possible, answering “I’m fine” when, in all honestly, things are as far from fine as possible. We seek to avoid vulnerability, reducing the number of areas in our lives where we can be hurt and insulating ourselves from ways that our friends can hurt us.

Avoiding vulnerability is natural. Frequently, it is beneficial and appropriate. Yet, avoiding vulnerability entirely is not possible, no matter how hard you or I try. Even if we were to succeed, if we managed to wall ourselves off from all possible hurt, it would mean we have isolated ourselves from every other person. It would be a great loss, for “to be human,” as my Foundations of Theology professor drilled into me, “is to be related in love.” It is not to be isolated.

C.S. Lewis writes in his The Four Loves, “[t]o love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” It is the latter part of his quote that we frequently focus on. We all are well aware of the hurt that can come from being vulnerable. We frequently lose sight of the benefit of loving one another and do not pursue it. When we run from love and vulnerability, we lose practice, making it harder for us to pursue.

So what are we to do? We should work hard to become comfortable with being vulnerable. That might mean responding honestly when a friend asks how we are doing. We do not have to share our deepest secrets with one another. But, perhaps, when a friend asks, we can respond with a simple “not so great.” If we don’t want to talk about it, then we can say so. “Not so great, but I’d rather not talk about it” is a more genuine response than “fine,” and it helps to establish that admitting that life is not going well is socially acceptable.

It also means that, if you happen to be on the opposite side of the question and be the one asking how someone else is doing, be ready for an honest answer and be ready to be vulnerable. Be ready for an uncomfortable situation. Be ready to join with your friend, be open to share his yoke. It is not an easy task to know how to respond, whether you should join your friend on the porch or let him have some time to himself. But, I urge you, give it a try. If we commit ourselves to making an effort to grow in love, even though that means being vulnerable, we will build a stronger community. Our community will become one in which vulnerability is acceptable and where we will be more united in love.

If you stop by the Knights of Columbus Building, I hope you find what I have found it to be and what we strive to make it. We are a group of young men striving to build a community of love, learning how to be vulnerable, and trying to love one another as best we can.