Vulnerable Strength

Looking at the tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam

Tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

On my last couple days  in Dar es Salaam, I was trying to find what one feeling I could identify from my time in Uganda and Tanzania.  After some thought the one feeling that continually rose to the top is vulnerable.  The feeling of vulnerability pervaded the 2 1/2 months, in retrospect, it seemed to invade every aspect.

The feelings lived in the fact that while, almost everyone spoke English, everyone also spoke a tribal language that I couldn’t speak or understand. I didn’t understand the cultural cues and rules that dictated the conversations and relationships that I formed. Before I left I was so prepared and warned about the “dangers” to my health, that I was hyper aware of every thing I ate or drank. The traffic and driving conditions were such, that cars frequently drove too fast, dodging potholes, pedestrians, and animals. The traffic related death rate is more than 2x that of the US.

I’m told by volunteers and expats who have lived in Africa for an extended period, that some of these feelings subside as you become used to all the cultural intricacies, and perhaps grow numb to the dangers of traffic and disease.  Its possible this alertness to everything helped exhaust me such that I was very ready to come home. My witnessing of the woman dead on the road after being hit by a car, contributed to the feeling of vulnerability.  I reflected then, and still hold, you have no idea what day will be your last day.  And when you begin to fully comprehend this, how is your life changed?

Being back in the US makes me question whether we have by necessity, culture, or technological advances eliminated the feelings of vulnerability.  In reality I could get, and have had, food poisoning here in the US, and the death rate from car accidents is still at about 90 people per day. The physical vulnerability we have here is just as real as in any country in Africa.

I think we and, I suspect, most people worldwide, have necessarily negated the threat of vulnerability from our daily thinking.  In a TEDx talk the researcher-storyteller Brené Brown began exploring the feeling of vulnerability, while trying to discern between various feelings of shame and fear.

Brown discovered that among people who described experiences of shame there were two camps of people, one that still experienced joy and strength and one that did not. Her research and talk is fascinating, I highly recommend watching the entire 20 minutes.  

The main point that I will highlight is that while vulnerability is the source of shame and fear, it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love. In the very act of revealing our true selves and experiencing the breadth of emotions, experiencing our vulnerability, we find true connection with others.

It is when our true selves are seen and held with compassion we feel true acceptance and peace. It is numbness to our own vulnerability that has created  a mask which covers our true selves and the true depths of love available to us and from us. While I know this realization of vulnerability came at the end of 2 and a 1/2 months of travel, it was really at the end of a year of upheaval and living into vulnerability.

I sat in a rooftop cafe in Dar Es Salaam with the word vulnerable and thought of the women in Liberia who threatened to expose their nakedness to men if they did not reach a peace agreement to end the Second Liberan civil war. The women were successful in getting the men to negotiate and their movement inspired the movie “Pray the Devil back to Hell.” I thought about the strength that can be gained from such a vulnerable position?  What strength can we gain in our most vulnerable selves? What strength can we gain when we realize our true psychical frailty? I wrote this poem while I sat on that rooftop and pondered these questions.

 Naked, I walk among the elephants, breathing slowly as they lead the way through the forest towards water.  Naked, I drink, letting the water drip out of my cupped hands, flowing down my arms.  Naked, I stand on the river bank watching life’s endless flow towards the sea.  Naked, I dive in,holding my breath and finally emerging from below the surface.  Naked, I float watching the clouds in their endless cycle of birth and death. Naked, my heart cries.  Naked, my eyes long for the stars, an ancient map towards Jerusalem, Mecca, and the new world.  Naked, I emerge dripping with the rains of a thousand years.  Naked, I hold my heart in my cupped hands letting it warm me.  Naked, I am lead to your warm embrace.  Naked, I hold my heart for you, for me.

My take away from the 2 and 1/2 months and from the year, is if I’m going to be vulnerable, I am going to do it being brave. I am going to live knowing I may be rejected, fail, die, but I will still be loved and will still love.  There is an abundance of love and strength available to everyone, wherever we find ourselves.