How Vulnerability Weaves Natural and Human Communities

By Madronna Holden

“There’s a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Shortly after World War II, as the Japanese economy surged ahead, a survey set out to discover why the Japanese management style was so successful. One finding was surprising to those with a Western worldview:  successful Japanese CEOs characteristically revealed their personal vulnerability to others, including their subordinates. Once such vulnerabilities were revealed, the organization could work as a team to address them.

In his little gem of a book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree observes that managers that cannot weep are not intimate with their work: “these people must not be trying to live up to their potential. They must think they cannot fail.” DePree is not speaking of tears of “chagrin or frustration”, which he finds particularly useless.  But tears resulting from care, from responsibility, from involvement—from understanding that the best “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain”.

Indigenous peoples knew the value of such leadership as well.  Among some Plains peoples, there are joking stories of how one could barely find anyone to be “chief”– since one who assumed that status also assumed such vulnerability.  If there were hungry, they would find refuge in the leader’s tent, where the chief’s family went hungry until all others were fed.  And if there were disagreements, those involved would find both refuge and arbiter in that same tent.

This ancient idea of leadership not as dominance but service is something we could use more of in today’s world.  Under DePree’s leadership, Fortune 500 Company Herman Miller, a family business begun in 1923, excels in craftsmanship, personal care for its workers, creative physical design—and economic success.  DePree knows what he is talking about when he describes successful management.

His approach, however, is different from most CEOs in the US.  In the survey above, US CEOs felt that revealing their vulnerability would negate their power to lead. They worked to present themselves as strong – which they understood as invulnerable.  The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.

These corporate executives were enacting a key component of the Western worldview: the idea that vulnerability is dangerous and must be guarded against at all costs. This is what the athletic competitions that  hold the attention of millions of us on television annually tell us:   one should never expose a vulnerability.  Instead, one should exploit the vulnerability of others.

One problem with this approach, as indicated in the recent prevalence of head injuries in professional football, is its lead up to violence. Another, as analyzed in Michael Messner’s, Power at Play, is that young men who often go into athletics to honor their bodies are tragically taught to dishonor them instead:  to use their bodies as instruments as they learn to ignore their vulnerability– as they “play through the pain”.

It is not just athletics that teaches us this, but the mechanized environment of modern industry.   As psychologist James Hillman puts it, an environment composed of “plastic, Styrofoam, cold metal” creates a “slow anesthetizing”, such that we “become brutal”. There is, after all, nothing vulnerable about plastic, Styrofoam or “cold metal”—no need to exercise our moral concern in such an arena.

The effects of our actions on others is ignored as their vulnerability becomes irrelevant, as in the case of the chemical company CEOs who viewed x-rays showing the bones of their workers dissolving from exposure to toxic chemicals— and saw this only as a problem to be hidden lest it detract from  their bottom line.

This is the same kind of  “psychic numbing” Robert Jay Lifton found in Nazi doctors who numbed their physical sensations lest they feel empathy for the pain they inflicted on others. Lifton gives examples in which professionals in the contemporary US today also exhibit “psychic numbing” as they carry out experiments on other lives.   Lifton suggests two remedies for the moral danger involved here:  that we become fully present in our bodies and that we focus our actions on empathy for other lives.

As eloquent Central American poet Daisy Zamora puts it, to be truly present in our bodies—to love our bodies for their uniqueness and their vulnerability– is to assume our place in the “unending chain of other bodies”.   It is to experience empathy for all the lives that inhabit a body as do we ourselves.

Vulnerability itself shapes human culture.  It is the reason why the developing brains of human children do not settle into their final physical configurations until a child reaches the age of ten or eleven.  Up until that, the child is dependent on adults to care for him or her.  And in those years of dependency the communication of culture takes place.

At the other end of life, the physical vulnerability of the elderly closes the circle of culture. As their community cares for the elderly who become physically dependent, elders give back the experience of their lifetimes, cached in stories,  to their community.  Vulnerability, at the beginning and end of life, creates the condition for the passing on of culture that makes humans unique among species.

Or at least it is that way in societies that keep their vital cultural heritage alive. If we see time as an arrow in which the past drops away from us—and the knowledge of our elders as useless, this link between physical vulnerability and intimacy is broken—and we come to the end of our lives as an abrupt wall, with no circle of legacy to re-enter. In this context, Madison Avenue has a heyday hawking youth culture.

But on a global scale, the youth culture is not always faring so well either. If we send children to work in factories at an early age–a capitalist tradition still followed in African chocolate plantations run by multi-nationals—or we allow them to go hungry (the greatest proportion of the hungry in the US today are children) — we also break the cycle that honors the children who depend on us as the carriers of our future.

I worry about a nation who can only see vulnerability (the hunger of children, the woundedness of returning soldiers) as a bit of red ink on a ledger somewhere.  We have nothing to hold us together as a nation if our impulse to care for one another is labeled as “socialism” (as various FOX news pundits characteristically label it) and thereby dismissed. If we cannot design ways to listen to one another, to learn from one another, to meet one another’s needs together– by what right do we call ourselves a nation?

To an isolated individual, a disabled veteran or hungry child on the streets, vulnerability is no asset.  In the context of “every man for himself”, one can understand why  some might wish to dump the “useless eaters” from the rolls of community support.  But I hope that their memory is not so short that they forget the origin of this term.  “Useless eaters” was the phrase used by Hitler to decide whom to send to the gas chambers.

By contrast, the society that understands and cares for the needs of its most vulnerable is also resilient.  When an individual  fell ill, mentally or physically, among many long enduring societies, that illness was a barometer of the health of the tribe. Among many such societies, an individual illness signed a way in which a family or whole community needed to change its behavior.

Such a culture would not have to wait to hear that their pregnant women carried toxins in their umbilical cords to do something about the toxins that currently pervade our environment.  One individual who came down with the cancer absent in ancient cultures would be enough for society to read oncoming disaster and change its ways.

We would need neither the demise of the renowned canary in a coal mine– or the pollinators of our crops– to expose the parallel vulnerability between humans and other natural lives. Just as the fabled canary was once used as a barometer of the health of mine air, colony collapse disorder among honeybees and other pollinators shows us what we are doing wrong–and what we need to change quickly.

The honeybee–and native pollinators like the bumblebee– illustrate stunningly the ways in which the lives of natural systems are interwoven as vulnerable to one another. These insects are covered with fine hairs that trap pollen as they visit the flowers from which they gather nectar as they fertilize them.  However, those same hairs now trap chemical pollutants.  Penn State researchers found that samples of bees from 23 states carried remnants of 98 different pesticides in their bodies.

The sticky hairs with which the bees clung to their diversity of pollen was such an asset in natural systems that the honeybees evidently did not have to worry much about toxins as they went.  A recent analysis of their genes indicates they have very few enzymes allowing them to detoxify pesticides.

In this sense, the little creatures whose brains perform complex locational and social functions we cannot mimic on any computer as they pollinate billions of dollars worth of crops annually are our new canary in a coal mine.

The fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together. That is the thing about vulnerability:  it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.

The vulnerability we entrust to one another as we express our highest purposes:   the vulnerability that arises from a vision yet to be made real, a mistake for which we take responsibility, a need to lean on another for a time, from being present to the wondrous gift of a body that also ages and gets ill—points the way to creating stronger community.

As Thomas Berry has observed, not a one of  us nourishes ourselves.  Just as we depend on other lives for our own survival, our vulnerability to one another teaches us to treat with tenderness the vulnerable natural systems that provide us with clean air, fertile growing land, drinkable water and climate control.

These are things we can only protect together.   Just as we must protect together the social commons that provides us with learning from the past– with family, community and legacy—the commons that is as fragile as it is precious.

———————————-

Thanks to dear friend Leia Hart for reminding me of the great line by Leonard Cohen that begins this essay.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

104 Responses

  1. Vulnerability is a built-in asset found all over in nature. In differing degrees, juvenile creatures are often vulnerable to their environment, to potential predators, even to their own kind. The last, to their own kind, seems to be where vulnerability is often considered a weakness in humankind. Even in humans, the vulnerability of a child brings forth the maternal instinct in some of the most hardened souls. Kidnappers will frequently release women and children before men, same for evacuation from a sinking ship. So, vulnerability is a useful tool in staying alive, if only to gain protection from someone stronger.
    So how does this apply to a leader? A leader showing honest vulnerability may be more apt to receive aid from his/her subordinates who feel that instinct to protect. At the very least, subordinates will feel they are more on an equal plane to their senior, and more likely to support an equal. A leader who is able to acknowledge their own vulnerabilty is more able to empathize with their subordinates, able to understand how someone else may feel.
    Overall, vulnerability is distinctly an asset to anyone who wishes to be able to connect with the rest of the world, to feel empathy.

    • Hello Rebecca, thanks for the very thoughtful reply. I appreciate the examples from the natural world and the perceptions on the way in which vulnerability helps create equality among a leader and others in a social group. It seems that you have done some serious thinking on this topic.
      Such examples give us reason to contemplate how far off track the “dominator” approach to things is.

    • I have to agree with most of your posts. I do disagree with your feelings towards leadership. Like most social animals the subordinates will exploit the leader’s vulnerability to become the leader. If they do help the leader that vulnerability will be exploited at a later time. Not saying everyone is that way, but you would be surprised.

      • Can you see that the exploitation of vulnerability might be a cultural artifact of “dominating” societies–and not very useful in the long run? I don’t think you can argue with the success of the leadership expressed by the Japanese CEOs or Max DePree.
        Not all scientists see social animals in this way: see “Misusing Darwin” here.
        Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  2. We need vulnerability for many things. As humans we need it for trust with friends and allies. We need it to try to improve one and other, work on your weakness. We are social beings and I feel that we need it for groups and communities to come together for support, a sense of security. As a leader for me to lead folks I kneed to know peoples strengths and weaknesses and work on their weaknesses and exploit their strengths to have an effective and efficent group.

    • Thoughtful comment– I answered in context of your next comment.
      It also seems to me that real intimacy consists of trusting others enough to be vulnerable to them. Part of the issue I hope to raise in this essay is how we can construct a society in which that kind of trust prevails.
      And is vulnerability quite the same as weakness?

      • I would say yes it is.

        • I think that some of these examples indicate it may be linked to strength–at least community strength instead. That is, physical weakness may have other trade-offs– like creating interdependency/bonding that are more important to survival of a species than pure physical strength. This is why numerous social species (e.g. lions and wolves) will sometimes follow and support an elderly leader who is not actually physically strongest. Species that throw away the knowledge of experience are not set up well for survival.

  3. Robert, do you agree with Prof. Holden’s assessment of the social order of wolves and lions? I believe we can add bees to that list. The queen of a hive is extremely vulnerable, yet the drones protect her and meet her every need. Back to the Japanese model discussed in the original article, I do hope more CEOs can learn from this, as domination behavior harms more often than it helps.

    • Thanks for offering these points to consider, Reb. And just a small point about bees: it is worker bees (who are female) not the drones (who are males who mate and do no other job in the hive) that protect the queen. But the point here is well taken–as the queen’s physical vulnerability is compensated for her contribution to the hive as a whole- not only in mothering the colony but in releasing hormones that help bond the bees of a given hive to one another.

  4. I related to this article for many reasons, but the comparison of sports teaching us and our children to exploit other people’s vulnerability really hit me while reading this article. I played 3 sports for about 13 years from a very young age, and I was taught this exact thing. I once was told by my high school football coach that I didn’t have the ‘killer instinct’ to play defense because I didn’t ‘attack’ the offensive players enough. I learned as a kid to exploit the other team’s weakest player and out perform my team’s weakest player to earn a starting spot, but I think that as this article points out, the exploitation becomes irrelevant to the person acting. I think the better way of looking at things would have been that the team is only as strong as the ‘weakest’ player and that it is all of our responsibility to help the weakest player to improve. This type of teamwork could be an example of how to deal with the environmental problems we face as a world everyday. In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot if I drive a fuel efficient car if we continue to manufacture and sell gas guzzling SUV’s around the world, and ship our waste to other countries that need to deal with it. The world’s environment is only as strong as its weakest country, state, or even community.

    • Your comment adds important perspective to the “exploit the vulnerability ” of others approach and the alternative perspective you offer– that we are only as strong or sustainable as our weakest links, Brad. Messner’s book offers some tragic examples of young men who set out to honor their bodies by playing sports and learn the opposite lesson-not to listen to them. I have to think that if aren’t listening to our bodies, we aren’t paying much attention to the natural world either. Congratulations on not quite learning this lesson yourself!
      Thanks for sharing your particular personal insight and experience. If we understood the perspective you offer here, perhaps we might even learn to work together on large issues like climate change for the sake of upcoming generations!

  5. What struck me about this article is the general lack of empathy our species has as a whole. We see it in the example of the CEO’s trying to hide weakened bones of their employees. We see it in the way we treat other species. We see it in the way we treat ourselves.

    Psychic numbing is a huge issue. We are bombarded with advertisements telling us to buy more and more, and so most of us live treading water. Between busy work schedules and the consumerism some of us only find the time to worry about themselves and their loved ones. When a story is told about another’s misfortune we may think; “well that sucks for them, but it couldn’t happen to me”. Altruism and empathy are much needed traits in our culture, and I’m afraid that the more our population grows, the less of that we will see.

    • Hi Tiffany, I think you have a good point about general lack of empathy, but I would attribute it to modern industrial culture that distances us from one another rather than a trait of our species in general. In fact, empathy seems to be a trait that allowed humans to survive as a species (in the face of our rather puny physical presence in the animal kingdom, we were able to work together in communities and pass on culture by linking bonding with vulnerability, as this essay notes).
      The thing about the human species is that we are very adaptable–and we can adapt ourselves toward cooperation (and many cultures have) in the same way we can adapt ourselves to the opposite.
      Having said that, I think you have some important observations about modern culture–and psychic numbing. If we truly understand that natural systems are interdependent (and we are part of natural systems) we may learn that being altruism is linked to our individual and community well being.
      Thanks for your comment.

    • I liked how you pointed out in your comment that this issue of power, in our sense of the word meaning dominance, to be an issue that effects the employee, employer relationship, the relationship man has with nature and also the relationship man has with himself. I think that is an important aspect to take away from this essay. Knowing that the characteristic of vulnerability can be applied in many aspects of our lives and the lives of others can benefit us the most.

  6. Thanks for the Thomas Berry reference.

  7. This article gives me a lot to think about, but mainly I feel the pressure of the selfishness of current society. Money is power now and there is no place left for compassion or understanding. If there is a weak link in the chain (the elderly, sick, mentally challenged etc.) then they must be removed or in many cases ignored. Sickness, death and general bad things happening to people are so common that they are often brushes aside or made light. When there is a giant accident on the highway and a fatality occurs, many people may only think that it’s a bummer. It happens so frequently that unless we know the people or are connected, it’s not our issue. This is a big reminder of the NIMBY attitude. It seems that as long as we aren’t directly hurt by it, it doesn’t effect us. It is a sad way to think.

    • It is a sad way to think, Samantha-and also not a particularly effective one in terms of survival. The irony is that those who think they are doing well for themselves by thinking of themselves first and above others, may well be running an anti-evolutionary course to their own demise. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Leadership has always meant to me that the person that is willing to stand up for the community, or his friends should be the one they go to when they are in trouble or need advice. not that the person who is most willing to exploit the other workers and destroy the competitors should be the person in charge. its interesting to think about how other parts of the world work hard to save our world. And chose who should watch over others.

    • I very much like your idea of what leadership should be, Arnulfo. We certainly need this type of leader–who is willing to watch over and care for others. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  9. This essay really challenged me to define what I thought the term power to really mean. As I thought about this, I realized that I too had been taught that vulnerability meant weakness which is the opposite of power. This is one of the first essays I have read that actually has had a direct impact on my life and how I view the world. The points in this essay that vulnerability can lead to more successful ventures through allowing teamwork really make sense and should be taught instead of the current egotistical view of power that is of dominance. Vulnerability in the for of leadership does not mean weakness but it is service for those that you lead for. This is a topic that can benefit individuals as well as communities as a whole when working together.

    • Thanks for bringing yourself to this topic with some deep thinking, Emily-and for sharing that process with us. I also think that we cannot be truly intimate with others unless we realize that we are vulnerable to them.
      As you indicate, we need another definition of power– power that would enable rather than conquer.

  10. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, eco-feminism, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” “locavorism,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.

    • Dialogue is always good. I appreciate your comment. That said, I think you may have painted all the movements you critique with a bit too generalized a brush. You might want to take a look at the issue on Ecofeminism edited by Ariel Salleh in Capitalism Nature Socialism. You might also like to look into Eleanor Leacock’s historical work on the Montagnais. .
      Ecofeminism is more complex than a simple form of “lifestyle politics”: though I might note quality of life is a central concern of Marx’ thought as well. I do understand problems with an extreme individualism that withdraws into its own self-satisfied world. But working for indigenous rights and honoring values that created sustainable and egalitarian communities for thousands of years (Engels based his work on the analysis of native communities in Northeastern North America) cannot be dismissed as “romantic”. Particular values are interwoven with particular action and social forms, as they have been throughout history. I see hierarchy as a central value in the creation of oppression everywhere: and I have not seen any society which treats the natural world as an occasion for domination and oppression that does not treat other humans in parallel ways.
      My own problem with Marxism (and Murray Bookchin’s revision of it in his social ecology) has to do with assumptions about “progress” and evolution, which seem to me to need much more definition.
      Those things I think we do agree on include the importance of social justice, the need for a clear-eyed assessment of the harms of our economic system, and the necessity to assume responsibility for the results of our actions on the international as well as the local level.

  11. This is interesting to me. I never considered vulnerability as a positive quality. All of these example of when it could be helpful to utilize vulnerability, such as the business managers, I thought was a very different view of thinking. What I thought was the most interesting, was the example about the athletes and how they “play through the pain”, and how they are actually dishonoring their bodies by ignoring the vulnerability. Its interesting to consider why does our culture view vulnerability as a negative quality? Shouldn’t wanting to help others be a good thing? Just as you mentioned, when our society wants to help others, its termed negative as “socialism”. This gave me a lot to think about.

    • Thanks for indicating things we might think about as we step back from our society and develop a bit more perspective. Some very thoughtful responses here, Michelle.

  12. It is interesting to think that people are often not “intimite” with their work, that they are at an emotional disconnect even with something they deal with on a daily basis. It is a strange thought that people continuously do things that they don’t like or care about, and even sometimes do things that they don’t approve of for more money. With the caring for the job and striving to be better at what they do, there is in turn, that showing of emotion and even vulnerability. Without being open to the fear of failing and doing wrong, we cannot be happy with what we have accomplished. It’s interesting to consider.

    • Thoughtful point that we cannot be happy with what we’ve accomplished if we are not open to making mistakes–and certainly, if we are not emotionally attached to what we do. It is a sad situation (and a dangerous one for society) when what we do for money contradicts our personal values and ethics. Thanks for your comment, Sami.

  13. We are participants in a dumbing down. By allowing ourselves to ignore small breaks in the link of the chain we are participating in it’s snap, and cannot say that we were unaware of the problem. We as a culture are addicted to convenience and will trade our health and sanity for a quick bite. If time does not exist, as Einstein discovered, then only our actions matter. If our every breath is concerned with quality, quantity will soon follow.

  14. I agree that leaders should reveal their vulnerability to their followers and act more as servants rather then top dogs. This way the people that look up to the leader can show some empathy and work more as a team. This issue is that our society looks at power as not having many flaws when everyone has flaws.

  15. I really like how this essay relates leadership with vulnerability. One thing In the beginning that stood out in my mind is how he talks about how leadership is service and how those who cannot weep tears resulting from care, responsibility, and involvement are not in fact good leaders, coming from understanding that the best “leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain”. Then as I read on, another thing that I really liked was his discussion of the honeybee and how “we are all in this together” including the non-human amimals that live among us. He goes on to say “that is the thing about vulnerability: it does not privatize well” (just like in the beginning of the essay when he talks about the Japaneese and their vulnerability to others) — “it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.” That last quote is the most important (to me) because I agree that we must all take responsibility, including the animals that live here on earth with us!

    • Thoughtful summary response to this essay, Courtney! You have done a good job of hitting the highlights– and coming to an insightful conclusion about the responsibility that flows from our interdependence.

  16. I found this article very interesting – the way in which it integrated vulnerability into society and how it can affect it. We, as human beings, are particularly vulnerable. One of the most beautiful things about life is that we are, in fact, in this together. We rely on plants for oxygen, plants rely on rain for watering, rainfall relies on condensation, and so on and so forth. So many things on our Earth depend on each other, that it makes sense to “Partner with the Natural World” (to quote another article) – because we living things ARE so vulnerable that we depend on one another.

    To be vulnerable is a scary thing – it is something that requires trust and an ability to “let go.” This could apply to another person in that being vulnerable to another person means that you trust them not to hurt you. Being vulnerable to the natural world could mean trusting in your fate and not having to control every aspect of your life and surroundings. I think that it is particularly important for a person in a leadership role to display a level of vulnerability. People like to work for and follow someone human – someone who can they can identify with on a personal level, not a superhero. I know that I have appreciated and respected bosses more when they were able to admit their mistakes and displayed a willingness to improve their own work. It makes them more approachable and communicable. Vulnerability in this setting allows for more communication, which, in a work place, often means success.

    • Nice point connecting our vulnerability with our humanity and our wanting to follow leaders who express their humanity to us, Amanda. I like your connection between vulnerability and communication– as well as the our vulnerability reminds us that we live in an interdependent world.

  17. This article was a wonderful read. I’d never thought of vulnerability as a positive trait that should be embraced or that it had the potential to be beneficial. I never considered the pros: the service it does for others and how they can relate, its ability to make one intimate, how it can actually help instead of hinder, the way you can see something in a new light if you are open about your flaws. People generally don’t like to feel vulnerable.

    I was always told being vulnerable meant you were weak just as I was always told showing your emotions meant you were portrayed as fragile and unreliable. If you were so susceptible to attack, you clearly weren’t stable and therefore it was unlikely you could be trusted to endure the burden of leadership.. supposedly. Besides, bullies thrive on vulnerability, right?

    Then there are so many people swayed by feeling — these people are an easy target for manipulation, so how would it be possible for them to properly maintain in a group? Teamwork or not, could they manage? Could they accurately see through deceivers?

    Either way, you need a lot of trust in people as a whole to lay out what makes you vulnerable, be proud of it and recognize it is not necessarily your Achilles’ heel. While I still do not believe it is wise to share everything, this article has proved being vulnerable can also be worthwhile.

    Also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o this may interest you.

    • Thanks for this link, Jessica– I had not known there was a TED talk on the power of vulnerability! All in all, perhaps we need to change the idea that “people” in general don’t like to feel vulnerable to the idea that many people in our society are taught that vulnerability is dangerous– when in fact, it is an essential mechanism for connection and creation of community, as the talk you give the link to indicates. Thanks for sharing this!

  18. In Western cultures leadership is something sought as a status symbol, campaigned and worked for. I often wonder how different our society would be if our understanding of leadership was more Native, where the leaders are chosen because their path looks like one that would lead to success for their people. Can you imagine an election in the US if the President was chosen by nomination? Campaign videos, made by volunteers, would highlight their candidate’s responsibility for their own actions, and the awareness paid to how that would impact the most marginalized (or vulnerable) populations of people or the environment. It is certainly interesting to think about!

    Something that struck me as especially noteworthy about this article stemmed from this quote “the fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together…that is the thing about vulnerability: it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.” Unfortunately, contrary to Faux News commentators (I am afraid even in academia I cannot bring myself to call them Fox “News”), we do not live in a society that equally shares responsibility for our actions. I believe that the most marginalized people are impacted more broadly and more often by the actions of our society’s elite. In today’s capitalist society, in the “every person for themself” mind-frame, truly leaves the most marginalized disempowered, least able to create change and “help themselves” (as many suggest that they do). Their agency is removed, leaving vulnerability as their only option. It is interesting that we value vulnerability of those at the top of the hierarchy, but not those at the bottom. It might serve our society well to allow those vulnerable populations to choose our leaders, like many indigenous peoples (including your story of the Plains’ peoples) do.

    • I think your reference to Fox News is pretty close to home, Anna. There is so much corporate control–and outright manipulation of the truth on that channel.
      You bring up an important point about the relative vulnerability of those at the top and bottom of the hierarchy in a hierarchical society. In such a competitive context we are taught that we must not express vulnerability (or even accept our own) since it is liable to set us up for attack– or make us lose our social positions. A sad state of affairs indeed.

  19. I see way too many politicians tearing up and crying as a way to manipulate the public. The obvious insincerity of their actions is so disgusting that it makes me physically ill; how can anyone believe that those tears are real? With that said, I agree that showing weakness can be a strength, particularly when the person in question is sincerely looking for help and support.

    As far as the interconnectedness of everyone and everything on our planet is concerned, it saddens me that so many people ignore the obvious dangers in our current environment. Pollutants are everywhere, and they are causing damage in so many ways. Unfortunately, our country and culture seems to award people who preserve the bottom line over the health and safety of the beings who are being poisoned by those pollutants.

    • In a society fraught with hierarchy as ours is, we are often looking for people to reveal themselves with their authentic feelings– not the politician image. In such hierarchies, it is often the case that those in truly vulnerable positions with no other compensation try to gain what power they can through manipulation. A sad circumstance. I think each of us can tell what is authentic and what not…and you have a good point about pollutants and the idea that we are in denial about their harm (if we saw our tender and vulnerable bodies as they are perhaps we would respond more quickly to this?)

  20. It is interesting to hear about Max DePree’s Leadership is an Art book. I always thought I was a ball bag (cry baby) for getting emotional at work when a client is going through trauma. It’s true though when you think about it, the clients who see you cry and care about their life confide in you and trust you with their needs. You would think that agencies would not frown on this kind of emotion, simple tears of concern or empathy. But they do. “You can’t be that involved…it’s a boundary issue”.

    So it’s good to be vulnerable!? I bring a list of my caseload home with me and post in on my wall in the bedroom where I pray. I believe that my prayers help them. I can’t share my faith with them, but I can pray for them on my own time.

    I love this article. I always felt like a door mat because being the second oldest in my family of 8, my home is always an open door policy. I often have my struggling brother and his kids staying the weekend when they don’t have food, or my husband’s brother in the guest room when he’s evicted. Certain persons have labeled me the door mat of the family. But now I feel like a leader.

    The bible calls us to take care of our elderly and our widows. So it makes sense that it keeps our vital heritage alive. Our nation would be so strong if united we cared for and listened to the needs of others more so than our own.

    • And at the very least, your prayers may release creative and empathetic sources within yourself in dealing with those you bring home in this way. Thanks for the empathy you express in this essay– and obviously in your work. One thing acceptance of our vulnerability might show us is that we all share the same life-community– so working for others is working for all of us.

  21. In a society that is competitive, where people are fighting for their share of the pie, the vulnerable are likely to be taken advantage of. But in societies that value cooperation, the vulnerable are more likely to be protected because the members recognize that what happens to one or some happens to them all. Unlike weakness, which I view as more of an inherent quality, I think vulnerability is a choice. It is a choice that a person makes to be human, to connect, to say, ‘Hey, I’m just like you. I have fears and insecurities. But I also have wisdom and fortitude and am willing to stick this out and take responsibility.’ I think there are many leaders who appear to be strong but are weak at their core. And I think there are those who might be called vulnerable or weak but can lead more effectively because of the intimacy they create in their relationships.

    • Great perspective here, Staci. I like your description of accepting our vulnerability as a way to show that we are all human-and isn’t that not only a part of our authentic presence but the way we might learn from one another?
      I like your distinction between vulnerability and weakness. Of course, children and the elderly do not choose their vulnerability and need to be cared for– though they the elderly do choose what they can pass on to the next generation if we are ready to receive it.

  22. When I think of vulnerability I think of a quote from one of my favorite books. The main character is talking about war and he states “ It was always the children who suffered- the children and the animals” (Kay). This quote has spoken to me since the first time I read it because it’s poignant in its naked truth. The most vulnerable of our communities suffer the greatest. As mentioned by the essay, if pollinators and canaries in coal mines can be benchmarks of health and well being in a system, the state of a communities children and animals provides another measure of societal health. Having worked in the veterinary field for some time, I have witnessed the disposable attitude taken towards creatures whom we have bred and fostered to be dependent on us. Our society’s cracks are showing via our treatment of animals. Incidences of animal abuse and neglect demonstrate dominance over the weak and the disposability of life. Often animal abuse can be a prelude to violence against others. Cases of animal hoarding are even more telling. They offer a glimpse into the underlying psychic and emotional vulnerability of an individual. These cases are a commentary on a community in terms of how we perceive ourselves, what we fear, and what we desire.

    (Quote taken from Susan Kay’s “Phantom” pg 339)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience from working in the veterinary field, Lindsay. I think it is true that the quality of our ethics is shown by how we treat the most vulnerable lives among us.
      Moving on to your other points, I want to ask a question about something like “animal hoarding”– how does this relate to the community-weaving aspects of vulnerability.

    • You make a great point about how our society places such little value on the most vulnerable (i.e. animals, children). Crimes against animals and children seem to be punishable far less than crimes involving money and theft, which begs the question; Do we really value our children and our pets less than our wallets and possessions? What a sad state of affairs that our society is in if this is indeed true. Thanks for sharing your post and for your insights.

      • It is a “sad state of affairs” if a society little values its children: I think we see another expression of this in how little industrial society shows ethical responsibility for the long term effects of its actions– and thus for future generations.

  23. One thing that struck me in reading this article is how too few corporate leaders and managers understand that showing their vulnerabilities and accepting they are part of a bigger team that must work together will only help them be more effective leaders. I personally have had far too many managers and leaders that feel intimidation and aloofness is the best way to accomplish what they want in a workplace, when in fact the opposite is true. This article would be a wonderful addition to any workplace human resource manual and should be required reading of all new employees, especially managers. We can learn so much for one another if we only open ourselves up and embrace that fact that we all need help sometimes and working together makes us a stronger team.

    • Great perspective, Jamie, about what we miss– perhaps in society as a whole as well as the workplace when we attempt to avoid the connection with one another entailed in accepting our vulnerability.

  24. In Western cultures leadership is something sought as a status symbol, campaigned and worked for. I often wonder how different our society would be if our understanding of leadership was more Native, where the leaders are chosen because their path looks like one that would lead to success for their people. Can you imagine an election in the US if the President was chosen by nomination? Campaign videos, made by volunteers, would highlight their candidate’s responsibility for their own actions, and the awareness paid to how that would impact the most marginalized (or vulnerable) populations of people or the environment. It is certainly interesting to think about! I believe I would certainly prefer a campaign like that, rather than the mud-slinging that goes on in current campaigns.

    Something that struck me as especially noteworthy about this article stemmed from this quote “the fate of such creatures shows us– as our vulnerability has always done– how we are all in this together…that is the thing about vulnerability: it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.” Unfortunately, contrary to Faux News commentators (I am afraid even in academia I cannot bring myself to call them Fox “News”), we do not live in a society that equally shares responsibility for our actions. I believe that the most marginalized people are impacted more broadly and more often by the actions of our society’s elite. In today’s capitalist society, in the “every person for themselves” mind-frame, truly leaves the most marginalized disempowered, least able to create change and “help themselves” (as many suggest that they do). Their agency is removed, leaving vulnerability as their only option. It is interesting that we value the vulnerability of those at the top of the hierarchy, but not those at the bottom. It might serve our society well to allow those vulnerable populations to choose our leaders, like many indigenous peoples (including your story of the Plains’ peoples) do.

    • I think your reference to Fox News is pretty close to home, Anna. There is so much corporate control–and outright manipulation of the truth on that channel.
      You bring up an important point about the relative vulnerability of those at the top and bottom of the hierarchy in a hierarchical society. In such a competitive context we are taught that we must not express vulnerability (or even accept our own) since it is liable to set us up for attack– or make us lose our social positions. A sad state of affairs indeed.

  25. I loved the idea that the Native Americans who lived on the plains had a system in which if there were any hungry people, the family of the chief did not eat until everyone else ate. This reminds me of my idea is that if people think that a family can eat on the amount of food stamps that they get, then they should eat on the exact same amount of money. If I had my way, U.S. senators and representatives should be mandated to live on the minimum wage.

    Since I am so inquisitive, I looked up the article about cancer. There is very little evidence of cancer in early humans, non-human primates, and in animal fossils. The gist of the article was that “Cancer is a modern, man-made disease caused by environmental factors such as pollution and diet.”

    • The recent (two years ago) President’s Cancer Panel came up with parallel findings in their conclusions about the overwhelming percentage of cancers being caused by environmental toxins– though that report has come under fire from chemical companies.
      Never hurts to be curious and follow up on sources, especially on the internet, where anyone can say anything they want!

    • I completely agree that cancer is caused by environmental factors. Cancer has only shown up in my family in the past few years and just this year alone, six family members have been diagnosed with various forms of cancer. We are putting toxins in the air and into our foods without doing the necessary research to find out what the long-term results will be.

      I also agree with you that lawmakers and all politicians should live on minimum wage. They need to experience first-hand what it’s like to live on such limited resources.

      • I am sorry that your family is suffering in this way, Cheryl. Environmental justice dictates that the toxins put into the air to create profit for some should not affect the health of others.
        It could not hurt, as you and Leonore both indicate, to have those making economic–and chemical- choices should live with the consequences of their actions. It seems to me that could only led to less labeling and more compassion.

    • Hi Lenore,

      I’m glad you looked up the article about cancer. The idea that what we eat effects us in dramatic ways is something that isn’t taken serious enough. There are stories of people who get diagnosed with cancer or other health problems, these people then go on raw diets or more organic based lifestyles. There are then dramatic improvements of erasing of these conditions. While I am aware that there are cases where the severity is passed a diet change. There is always a significant chance that it will make at least a positive impact on the quality of life, whether it be twenty more years of life or two months.

      • There are indeed many stories of cancer cures that are not understood by modern medicine. I also think, on balance, that whereas we would like to feel in control of such a health scourge, especially when it hits the lives of those we love or our own lives, we must be careful not to take this to the extreme that we “blame the victim”. Having reached the age I am, I have a number of friends who have died of cancer who lived nothing but the good life in every way. It is important that we empower those with this disease rather than giving them the sense they are causing their own problems– too much like the argument that the poor have caused their own unemployment. Yes, it is possible to get out of poverty– and there are a few who have done it– but in a society in which there is such a large gap between rich and poor and in which there are so many limited opportunities for those without means, we cannot blame them for their situation.
        That being said, there is so much clear data on pesticides and cancer, it seems only prudent to try to avoid them personally as well as working to support their control on a nationwide level.

  26. What James Hillman says about the “slow anesthetizing” result from “an environment of ‘plastic, Styrofoam, cold metal,’” makes me think of the QUOTE OF THE WEEK by Masanobu Fukuoka in that if we “[g]o to a place where nature has been disturbed…disturbed emotions will arise.” Fukuoka and Hillman are saying that by disturbing the environment through destruction and plastics and Styrofoam, it causes the environment to become negative, which in turn also affects us. As you say so succinctly, “The effects of our actions on others is ignored as their vulnerability becomes irrelevant.”

    The lack of empathy we’re experiencing in society is only getting worse. The recent comments by Mitt Romney where he stated that “47% of the country think they’re victims” and he really doesn’t care about them is a prime example of this. As a leader, he doesn’t have any interest in those he may eventually lead. And it’s not just leaders who lack empathy; we’re also seeing it in our children, especially among teenagers, who are being taught that being vulnerable is a bad thing and to bully those who do show their vulnerability, including plants, animals and other people. It’s incumbent for us to turn this around and teach our children empathy and the best way to do that is by example.

    • Thanks for sharing insightful connections between these ideas here, Cheryl.
      As an added note, Fukuoka is author of the seminal One Straw Revolution, about his reclaiming of formerly pesticide-laced land in his native Japan.
      You make a strong case for the necessity of both accepting our vulnerability to other lives and teaching empathy. After all, certain indigenous societies who have stressed empathetic connections with other lives a priority are the most long-lived.

    • Hi Cheryl,

      I think what you said about our lack of empathy is spot on. This lack of empathy has to come from somewhere. I do not believe it is something humans are naturally prone to. I think that teaching by example is the perfect way to help make empathy more of a normal emotion. I think the lack of empathy is directly related to the idea that being vulnerable is unacceptable. As a child growing up, I cannot remember my teachers showing empathetic tendencies. The idea that to remain in control of a group of people requires complete authoritative behaviors is something that needs to be phased out of the school system.

      • I was fortunate to have some teachers and other adult role models that taught with an emphasis on care–and still managed to have a well-organized classroom/family setting– indeed, likely more orderly than the atmosphere that was “controlled”. As one who came into the schools to tell stories for a number of years, I was continually impressed by the ways in which stories captured the attention of students to such an extent that the classrooms became instantly “manageable”– in fact, some teachers would schedule me on days when activities could be predicted to make the students especially rowdy in order to calm them down.
        True attention and absorption in something– a sense of wonder as well– seem to me to be the best learning devices as ancient stories– which were after all primary teaching devices– indicate.

      • Odessa, the only teacher I remember as a child who showed empathy was my 2nd grade teacher who pointed out to my mother that I was sick, with a similar ailment as she, too, suffered. Up to that point, my mother thought, being the only girl in the family, that I was “different.” Shortly after her phone call to my mother, I was hospitalized and the ailment, although not deadly but a definite reduction in quality of life, was treated. To this day, I remember everything about that teacher and believe I learned to care about others mostly from her.

        • Thanks for sharing this story, Cheryl. I hate to think what might have happened to you had you not had this observant teacher.
          This story also brings to mind how important our connections to others are. We can be the ones who make a difference!

  27. The idea of being vulnerable and a leader has come up in my life numerous times over the past few months. The example of a chief being selfless and being the one who has the best interest of his/her people at heart is directly related to Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. In this book he discusses the need for dialogue; that the only way to be an oppressed persons ally is to put yourself in the same position to better understand the world you are trying to improve. This article also made me think about how feminist teaching is strongly using and based on a story telling method. That feminism wasn’t a discipline until people, mostly women, started sharing their stories and becoming aware of the several forms of oppression that united them.

    Instead of ignoring the fact that most of these diseases are our own fault, we have to start talking about why they are happening. We also need to make more conscious decisions about our impact on the environment and essentially our own health. For me the ability to tell our communities health by those who are sick is very telling. When anyone of us gets sick, we need to think about our own personal choices that led up to this “cold”. Have we been eating well, working out and getting enough sleep? For most of us the answers to these questions are no, it is such a shame though, this is our only body and it is vulnerable. But vulnerability is also a gift since it is our bodies way of telling us something is not right.

    • Thanks for bringing Friere’s classic work into this discussion.
      I also want to emphasize that whereas we each have some responsibility for our vulnerability in terms of physical health, environmental concerns are community rather than individual issues– or at least both. I just got an email from a health care professional who works with farmworkers in a community continually exposed to pesticides where their asthma rate is one third of the population. Obviously, eating right and exercising is not going to help these workers. They need our support in working against the use of particular pesticides nationwide, as in support for a new Toxics Chemicals Act that the EPA has supported for the last few years, but lobbyists for toxic chemicals (can you imagine this job description) have managed to stymy. (See “Your Choice Matter” list here for potential actions in support of this act– there are of course many options, including support for some of the organizations working for alternatives to pesticides on the links page here).

      • I completely agree with you on toxic chemicals and that it is a social issue. The problem comes for me when a particular “threat” occurs in one’s urban yard? For example, this past weekend, I opened my little patio storage unit and discovered a very large brown widow spider and a couple of egg sacks. Freaked me out, I must admit. I didn’t want to spray it with bug spray, nor could I since I don’t have any, but I also didn’t want to kill it, although it is poisonous. I gently lifted the item it was sitting on and tried to shake it off…that didn’t work so I got the hose out and watered it down. I have no idea what happened to it and that alone freaks me out. I destroyed the egg sacks. Now, all I can think about when I enter my patio is how many more are there and what am I supposed to do about them? Please keep in mind, it was not your typical little house spider. My grandchildren will be visiting next month and I don’t want that to be a problem. So, in the context of ecofeminism, just what exactly does one do in this situation? I’m sure the nasty little bugger has a purpose but just where does the line get drawn?

        • You made a conscious choice in this regard– to deal with these creatures without harming other parts of the environment. The point is that we make conscious choices and take responsibility for those. It seems apt to make a choice to kill a poisonous spider that wound up (with egg sacks) on your patio.
          I have never heard of a “brown widow” spider– though I have heard of a black widow with its telltale hourglass and a brown recluse, which is very dangerous.
          I don’t know where you are located, but if you had spotted, say, a poisonous snake (there are many useful non-poisonous ones), there would have been services to come and collect it and put it to some use.
          In the case of the Kalapuya, a pioneer story tells how they were upset that pioneers seemed to declare war on ALL rattlesnakes. They saw the rattle as a contract that told humans when to get out of the way. Native peoples only attempted to kill those that bit without rattling a warning, which they considered a violation of this contract.
          And over the generations (this is just supposition), who knows how this activity shaped the snake populations. What is true is that rattlesnakes in the Willamette Valley are among the least toxic of all rattlesnake species.

        • In regard to the brown widow spider…I have a picture of it but don’t know how to upload it here. In my research on this “not so little in my eyes” creature, there are four types of “widow” spiders. The type in my place seems to be located throughout the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, and various other locations throughout the world. The black widow is the most venomous; however, the other three (which include the brown – of the variety I found – the African, and forgive me but I don’t remember the other) still are considered venomous but not deadly but bite a nasty punch. And, all four types have that tell-tale orange hour-glass on their undersides! Believe me, I saw it!! If the size of the creature wasn’t enough to make me back away, that orange spot definitely was!! It’s interesting you mention the rattlesnake in your post. When I was in high school my family lived in the mountains of New Mexico and we dealt nearly on a daily basis with rattlesnakes. They didn’t scare me nearly as much as the spider because they DO warn you upon approach.

        • Thanks for the follow up info on the spider. The black widow is not very big– I have seen several when I lived in Tucson many years back. But the brown widow evidently is– interesting.

  28. Vulnerability is something that we can find in all of nature. I believe that is a necessity, however the article brings a great point about how in sports, athletes are asked to not show that vulnerability. Being vulnerable in sports is just not allowed. Showing vulnerability shows a sign of weakness and defeat. However, the example of the CEOs who did not show their vulnerability brought up some great points. “The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.” It is true that we learn from our mistakes and that is when we are the most vulnerable. That is why I believe vulnerability is a quality that is necessary is every living thing.

  29. When I read this article I think of one phrase that I hear a lot and that is to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. When corporate bosses treat there employees with disrespect it gives them the sense that they almost control how and what is to be done. It gives them a dictatorship over the workers. Similar to that with Russia and when Stalin was in rule. People there couldn’t do certain things or if they did or spoke back then they could disappear and never be seen again. Now obviously it’s not as tragic today, but if it’s someone’s job on the line especially in the era in the economy where finding a job is almost impossible. Employees in a sense are probably fearful that if they say something then they will be fired and so it makes them seem like the vulnerable one and that’s why all these CEO’s can get away with treating their employees like crap is because they know that their job is safe. In sports though vulnerability is something you try not to show for showing pain only gives your opponent the upper hand. A simple example is that I’m playing basketball and the person I’m guarding can dribble really good with his right hand, but not good with his left. So as an opponent i see that he is vulnerable and for me trying to beat this person I am naturally going to drive him left which gives me the better chance for a steal or him to turn the ball over. We are all human so we can’t hide that we are all vulnerable at some point in our life. It’s whether we can hide it when we need to the most.

    • Hi Jason, thanks for your examples of the ways in which people in positions of dominance can use the vulnerability of others to maintain power over them, or to take advantage of our “enemies” or those below ourselves on a hierarchical scale (like CEOs to employees or players on an opposing ball team). That is the standard approach to vulnerability in our contemporary society. Can you see how this way of relating causes us to create barriers between ourselves and others so as never to show our vulnerability– since in our culture that might be used against us?
      This essay asks you to look at things in a very different way: how might vulnerability in others might help create community and intimacy with them, and how vulnerability in children and elders is an occasion to pass on cultural wisdom? What can vulnerability in others teach us about ourselves? Can you give us this other type of example?

  30. I think that our society definitely disparages vulnerability. Instead of using vulnerability and mistakes as a learning platform we try to hide them, or criticize people for them. In the essay it is mentioned that CEO’s in corporations want to be seen as invulnerable. It reminds me of something I read in the headlines yesterday. The CEO of JcPenney is being fired, because his ‘no sales’ idea flopped. Instead of admitting that it was a mistake and working through it, they are simply going to replace him with someone else. I worked at JcPenney for five years, and it is apparent that the value of teamwork is not something that they actually cherish. They try and pass it off as such, but in reality the bottom-line is top priority. I think that it is important to realize that everyone has vulnerabilities, and it speaks to a persons character when they can admit to theirs ask for help.

    • Good points to ponder, Aryn. It is ironic that the priority of the profit motive — along with the ideas that mistakes are so shameful we can never learn from them– might cause bad management that in terms undermines business success.
      On the other hand, our economic system also rewards those who fail without taking the consequences for this– such as those bank heads that the government bailed out after their management practices took their companies down. Not only were these banks bailed out, but their CEOs got their bonuses. It is my contention that we ought to reward those who not only do well, but produce the results we want as a society– which results definitely do not include ill health and environmental destruction.

    • Interesting story, Aryn, thanks for sharing. I work for a nation-wide company and, having just returned from our national conference, am realizing I am very lucky to work for a company that upholds the value of teamwork. In fact, one of our core values is “Relationships are everything,” because each of us realizes we would not have the success we have if it weren’t for someone else getting there. Personally, I would not be where I am in my career if it weren’t for the open relationship I had with my District Manager/Mentor last year. She not only coached me on the textbook aspects of our job, but she helped me grow into a better person. For this to happen, I had to be completely open and honest with her, which resulted from her being open with me as well. Teamwork is a two-way street (or more, obviously) that can only be successful–I believe–when there is vulnerability in the mix. How can we expect to grow if we aren’t open to our failures?

      • You are fortunate in your job situation indeed–and your workplace is fortunate as well– since they understand how to receive the best efforts of their employees by encouraging and supporting them.
        This is also an example of reciprocity in action.

  31. Reading this really made me think back to my youth when I was told by my family members, “don’t cry it only shows weakness.” What was I being tough? To hide my vulnerabilities, to not allow others access to my inner thoughts and feelings. Sadly this way of thinking caused me much pain, I spent so much energy trying to hide my vulnerabilities that I could not learn from them. Luckily for me over time I learned that this way of thinking was not good for me, and I learned to share my vulnerabilities with others to help others learn from my mistakes and learn and grow from my own mistakes.
    Thinking to what was said in this essay about how one case of a disease was enough to result in action to prevent the disease from accruing again, was a interesting concept. If we were to do this now we would be able to cut back on so many preventable diseases, but our mentality is “it does not effect me so why should I help you?” We have had preventable diseases take over our population. Every person on our planet has toxic chemicals stored in there fat, but all we do to “prevent” this from accruing is by establishing a “relative risk.” Sadly this does not help the problem at hand.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal responses to being told not to show any personal weakness, Laura. It is great that you outgrew this stance. Our failing to honor vulnerability too often means– as you indicate here– means that we also fail to recognize our interdependence with other humans as well as other natural lives.
      Risk-benefit analysis laid out in dollars is a poor ethical substitute for compassion and shared responsibility.

      • I agree with your statement that dollars are a poor substitute for compassion. I think we can all tell stories about how an exposed weakness was exploited for someone else self interest. When our daughter died, my husband was laid off from his job when he asked for more time than 1 week to grieve because his small company didn’t have to provide him with any leave. In my mind, that action was so far from the right thing. In general, our society reinforces all the wrong things.

        • I am so sorry this happened to your family, Sarah. I am glad that your husband asserted his love for his daughter and the meaning of her life in his right to grieve for her– obviously this isn’t a company he wanted to be contributing his skills to in the long run, though I am sure it caused your family economic hardship.
          We have society in which small businesses don’t have the best time surviving– and yet there are some who manage to combine care for their employees and other ethical values with economic success. Indeed, such care spreads connections and a kind of free advertising in their communities.
          It is hard to conceive that we will remain a society if we continue to make choices on a larger scale that place money over care.

    • I’m sorry that you had bad experiences like that when you were young. My childhood was rather the polar opposite of yours and it is interesting to see how ours compare. My parents encouraged me to express my emotions, but only if I wanted to. It taught me to know when it is appropriate to cry or feel a certain way and also when it is not normal (depression for example; I learned how to recognize that feeling and voice how I was feeling to my parents) i was never told to hide my feelings unless they were ones that would hurt another person. I grew up knowing that it was okay to cry but never really did cry, because I was just not a cryer. I find that now I cry too often, to the point where I can watch The Voice and just start crying because Adam Levine just commented that someones singing was phenomenal. I really find though that I agree with your thoughts on the inability to learn from things without being able to be vulnerable, that is so very true.

      I also agree that we should intervene when a disease pops up. I think that it is ridiculous that nothing substantial is really done until a disease becomes or nearly becomes an epidemic, because by then it is too late to really do anything about it.

      • Your last point is especially important with respect to the roles that toxics play in our current cancer epidemic and the fact that Congress has failed to pass a bill updating our Toxics Release Act which is now several decades old.
        Very thoughtful comparison of your childhoods here! My opinion is that no child is served by being told not to express their feelings.

  32. It seems to me that leadership and vulnerability are two prominent pieces in this discussion. I feel that there is no possible way to really have effective leadership without at least some form of vulnerability. For example, you referenced Nazi Germany and the going’s on of that nature and I feel that vulnerability played a large role in who won and who lost in that instance. Hitler was a man who refused to show vulnerability, he was a hardened leader and he felt that because he was so non-forgiving with his betrayers, people would be more loyal to him but that is not the case, he had a great many people betray him. America though had and still has a vulnerability, and that is we can’t stand to see people unjustly punished or persecuted. So we went to the aid of the Jewish people and defeated Hitler and his armies. In the end I think that Hitler did show that he had a vulnerability and that was losing. He saw that he was going to be defeated and so committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in his bunker. I think that vulnerability is strength rather than weakness. It is weakness when you can’t admit that you aren’t perfect, but when you can admit flaws in yourself that shows how strong you and your character are. This is a really inspiring piece.

    • I would agree with you that effective leadership entails some form of vulnerability, Kelsey.
      I also agree that vulnerability is a strength rather weakness. Good detailed analysis of the failure of the “hardened” leader in Hitler’s case.
      I also concur that you can be an effective leader by expressing who you really are.
      Thank you for your kind as well as insightful response!

  33. I really enjoyed the beginning discussion in this article in which you discussed how “. . . successful Japanese CEOs characteristically revealed their personal vulnerability to others, including their subordinates.” This topic is current in my life because of the kind of job I have. I work in a company where it would be very easy for our CEOs, President and Vice President to simply delegate tasks, track results and give feedback. However, I’m lucky enough to work within a company that is full of passionate leaders. Leaders that are okay with tell us that we’re doing poorly, that the division is doing poorly, and that they appreciate everything we do. I’ve had many in-depth conversations with some of my executives and have always been blown away when they come near-tears in their explanation of why they love their job. I 100% agree that leaders should express their vulnerability, and that it leads to a more successful business, because I have witnessed it first hand–and continue to do so daily.
    I’ve never really thought about how vulnerability relates directly back to the environment, especially within businesses. I like the concept of a vulnerable society being one that will go to great lengths to protect its citizens. Not only that, but that they will go to great lengths to protect the environment as well, knowing that without it they would fail regardless.

    • You are fortunate indeed, Kristian. Perhaps you would also enjoy Max De Pree’s classic Leadership is an Art, for a view of the compassionate and successful CEO (of a Fortune 500 company).
      He has a whole section on the good leader’s being vulnerable and just what s/he must be vulnerable to.

  34. I think this belief that we must hide our vulnerability and maintain a facade of strength stems from the Western mode of dividing the human whole-being into parts: the body, the mind, the rational mind, the emotional mind. Assigning value to these facets of ourselves and establishing a hierarchy with those values places us in a much more vulnerable state: we must hide our true selves from the world to maintain a projected image of strength. This division and compartmentalization of the whole-being is reflected in the way we see our environment and ecology. Instead of viewing farming ecology as a whole system (pollinators, pests and plants, the land, animals, the weather, etc), we only look at one part or another. The issue with bees being poisoned by pesticides could have been avoided if the farm system was viewed as a whole: the benefits provided by the pesticides would not be great enough to outweigh the potential damage done to the pollinators.

    • The implications of such divisions and hierarchy is an essential point to consider in reviewing the dynamics of modern industrial worldview– which see mind as OVER body– and controlling the body as an indication of strength.
      There are many tragedies we might never have faced had we looked at systems, as you note, as a whole. And can you say a bit more about how acceptance of vulnerability plays into our sense of interdependence within whole systems?

  35. This essay reminded me of the book “Two Old Women” by Velma Wallis. In short, a village in Alaska was struggling to survive and decided they had to find a way to have fewer mouths to feed. So, it was decided that the two oldest women would be left behind as the rest of the village migrated on. I won’t say more as I would love to encourage others to read it, but it speaks to this idea of vulnerability. In situations like this, is it right to sacrifice one for the greater good? That is how we often view animal testing in the US, especially when the good that comes out of the testing is new medicine or therapies to cure an otherwise hopeless disease or ailment. Those opposed to animal testing are treated with disdain, and their opinions are never truly considered valuable. BUT, those opinions and voices against animal testing, keeping quiet about head injuries, hiding toxic waste, etc. are becoming louder and more common, and I hope harder to ignore. That is the message – inform, persuade, act, and speak until we live through respect and gratitude for all.

    • Whenever we are tempted, as you phrase it, to sacrifice one person for the “common good”, we might do well to remember stories such as the one you mention–and some other things as well.
      For instance, who gets to decide what the “common good” and those “sacrificed” for it are? It is too easy to introduce tyranny by those in power to decide (in a dominator society those at the top are not likely to nominate themselves as those to be sacrificed).
      Beginning with an idea of unequal value is not likely to lead to an ethical decision.
      Moreover, there is a tendency in hierarchical societies to tell those in lower classes that something is done “for their own good”– Barbara Ehrenreich has a book by this title that indicates just how damaging the advice to women supposedly “for their own good” has been to them over the last century.
      And on a pragmatic level, the notion that we can make this kind of exchange (one life for many) is based on the idea that we are not all somehow interdependent– and may not need one another. I like to contemplate the word, “tender”, which on the one hand means vulnerable or soft — and on the other, means caretaker, as when we tend something.

  36. “We have nothing to hold us together as a nation if our impulse to care for one another is labeled as “socialism” (as various FOX news pundits characteristically label it) and thereby dismissed.”

    I cannot agree more with this sentiment and the questioning of our notion of “nation” that followed it in the text above. Labels serve as dividers: Black and White, Man and Woman, Nature and Industrialism, Human and Animal, Republic and Democrat, Socialist and Capitalist, the list goes on and on. When we utilize labels, we take the focus off of the individual. When we lose focus on the individual, the cultural contexts in which our species thrives are vanquished. As members of communities we have a responsibility to focus on the individual, especially those who are more vulnerable than the rest. The saying “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” comes to mind here. As your reading highlights, “the society that understands and cares for the needs of its most vulnerable is also resilient”. I believe that societies that place focus on the individual will end up placing a higher importance on the world around them as well. Just like the bees and their interconnectedness with our natural systems, our roles are just as resilient in the natural world. We have the ability to diminish her health OR to support endangered and degraded systems. Our choices and thus our focus impact more than just ourselves. We are indeed all in this together—with our world, its climate, animals and plants, and other members of our shared community. Understanding our vulnerabilities as well as the vulnerabilities within each of these factors will enable a more responsible and environmentally conscious worldview to be had.

    • I would make a distinction here–as you seem to do– between an individualistic view which sees individuals as those in competition with others, as better or worse, more or less valuable, etc. in assessing them according to labels–and the view that sees unique persons, each of which have something to contribute to our communities.
      A society that sees certain of its members as worthy only of being excluded or thrown away has serious problems in holding together as a community, even IF the excluded ones have nothing at all to offer the rest of us, which they assuredly do.
      We just need to get out of our own way in terms of ego/class hierarchy enough to see what we have to learn and how we might expand and strengthen our communities.
      Thanks for your comment!

  37. This ancient idea of leadership not as dominance but service is something we could use more of in today’s world.

    The irony is that today’s world is mostly run by nominal Christians. Are they entirely forgetting the Jesus-washing-his-disciples’-feet story? Of course, they’re entirely forgetting a whole bunch of other things Jesus said–I’m particularly fond of pointing out that the Sermon on the Mount includes an admonition against being publicly devout, on the grounds that private devotion to God is done for the sake of God while public devotion to God is done for the sake of showing off how devout one is–so why should it surprise me that they forget this too?

    In the survey above, US CEOs felt that revealing their vulnerability would negate their power to lead. They worked to present themselves as strong – which they understood as invulnerable. The repercussions of this included the inability to learn from their mistakes, substantial energy siphoned off in hiding what was really happening in an organization, and undermining the ability of an organization to work as a team.

    I wonder if that has something to do with CEO compensation going ever higher? They might see taking a lower salary in order to better pay their employees as showing vulnerability, or as causing vulnerability in that the less money one has the less ability one has to skate out of sticky situations by throwing money at lawyers.

    That is the thing about vulnerability: it does not privatize well—it alerts us instead to responsibility we share and must shoulder together.

    I laugh a bitter laugh and wonder when the US is going to realize it’s not special enough to achieve at least as good overall health outcomes as Canada or the UK or Germany without adopting a universal health care system such as the one in Canada or the one in the UK or the one in Germany. (And then I look back at the comments to this one recent post on Slacktivist on Patheos, where someone is seriously arguing that we should get rid of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid and Medicare in favor of a fully privatized health care system with no way to prevent insurers from discriminating against people with preexisting conditions, in which such people will somehow not be screwed over if they can just demonstrate enough ‘healthy behaviors’, and this will neither incite people to lie to doctors about their health nor require a massive collective invasion of privacy by insurers. And then I laugh harder.)

    • Good point about what “nominal” Christians are forgetting from the New Testament. And in terms of what you just wrote about story, there is also the fact that Jesus gave his lessons in stories, thus allowing the audience to interpret them as active listeners.
      There can hardly be a stronger image of modeling humility than this one you bring up of washing the feet of his disciples. And the Pharisees and all their public devotion did not come off well in Jesus’ stories either.
      Interesting connection between salaries and CEOs exhibiting vulnerability (and/or going back on their sense of license in drawing those salaries) in paying their employees more.
      A bit of rationalizing here, yes?
      And your point on health care is underscored by the fact that the US pays more for healthcare than any other developed nation–and yet we have the worst outcomes– measured, for instance, by those dying in hospitals and overall population health.

  38. Ugh! This essay is a tough one for me. Vulnerability is something I struggle with in my own life. I see vulnerability and empathy as close siblings, twins even, cut from the same cloth. I have to wonder if society’s (and my own) struggle with vulnerability is compounded by the incomprehensible suffering taking place on the planet. When we start to open ourselves to embrace our vulnerability as well as other’s we open ourselves to the hurt and there is so much hurt. All of the pain makes individuals seem so small. We need each other like you say in the your essay. No one person, not even the minority can shoulder the pain of the suffering planet. We need to lift the burden together to begin the healing. But first we all need to admit to the injury and recognize the pain.

    • Thank you for your caring and insightful personal response, Erin. Sensitive point about the links between vulnerability and empathy.
      There is indeed, much grief in the contemporary world to be felt when we open ourselves to empathy… and this, as you also say, leads to the conclusion regarding the ways in which we need one another.
      I also hope that it moves individuals beyond feelings small– yes, there is much we need to do. Yes, we are each of us limited in what we can accomplish. On the other hand, in an interdependent and connected world, our individual actions are capable of touching (and sparking action) in others.
      And there are so very many examples in our world (a few are described on this site) of individuals who took that first step and accomplished amazing things– as in the millions of trees planted as a result of Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement– or the original outpouring of grief healed as the first step to a thriving community in Rwanda with Lily Yeh as a catalyst.
      Perhaps the world is waiting for each of us to see just where we fit in — in small and large ways– to touch another with such healing–and honor our future generations with possibility and vision.
      Thanks for your comment.

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