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.

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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.