Kindness and Vulnerability

“A gift is like a seed; it is not an impressive thing. It is what can grow from the seed that is impressive. If we wait until our seed becomes a tree before we offer it, we will wait and wait, and the seed will die from lack of planting…. The miracle is not just the gift; the miracle is in the offering, for if we do not offer, who will?” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronPeriodically, the universe sends me a message. It’s not some disembodied James Earl Jones voice, or a bolt of lightning that rattles my foundation; more often than not, it’s a barely perceptible tap on my shoulder that says, “Pay attention here.”

I was at a conference last week where I happened to overhear two people talking about vulnerability and about Brené Brown’s TED talk on the subject. Then, last night, I was reading an article in a writer’s magazine that spoke of the writer’s need to be vulnerable, and also referred to Brené Brown’s TED talk. I felt that tap on my shoulder and heard that inner whisper, “Pay attention.”

The wonderful and sometimes dreadful thing about modern life is that we can easily and instantly access almost anything. Within seconds and a few keystrokes on Google, I was watching Dr. Brown’s 2010 talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

Wow! If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time, I promise you. This delightful and insightful talk explored a trait that whole-hearted people share: vulnerability. It described the willingness we must have to “allow ourselves to be seen,” with all our imperfections, in order to fully embrace our lives.

I can’t do justice to her words. You want to hear them first-hand. Really.

Whether we’re committing to love, or art, or business, or kindness, we must have the courage to do it whole-heartedly, with full awareness that there will always be those who find us lacking. In a way, knowing that frees us—if we can just embrace our vulnerability—for if we stop trying to please everyone, we can focus on being who we were meant to be. And isn’t that all life is asking of us?

Of course, this talk about vulnerability got me to thinking about kindness, and the connection between kindness and vulnerability. I’ve talked before about the difference between being kind and being nice. I don’t think “nice” requires us to be vulnerable. I can be nice without risk, and without exposing too much of myself. I can be nice without making a connection, or without really caring whether or not you benefit from the encounter. Nice, while often pleasant, doesn’t require sincerity or commitment.

To me, “kind” is very different. Kind means connecting; it means being conscious and intentional about the impact my words or actions may have; it means expending energy and effort and caring about the outcome. It also means suspending judgments and accepting people as they are. Kind can be messy and may take me to places where I am awkward, clumsy, and tongue-tied. Kindness requires me to take a risk. Kindness requires me to be vulnerable.

Since starting this year of living kindly, I have tried to make a conscious effort to do things kindly that I once may have done nicely. Outwardly, there’s probably not a lot of difference. In the past, if I chose to give a dollar or two to someone who asked me for money, I would do so quickly, and hurry on, sometimes wondering if the person was really in need, or if they were just lazy and saw me as an easy mark. Now, I try to pause and exchange a few words, make eye-contact, and wish them well. In most cases—though not all—I feel a connection between me and the person I am engaged with. For a brief time, we are both vulnerable, and it feels good. I don’t worry about whether their need is genuine or whether I am being a schmuck; I just hope in some way I am helping.

There is even a vulnerability to writing about kindness and to inviting people to read my periodic musings. Am I saying too much about myself? Too little? Am I pontificating (God, I hope not!)? Has it all been said before and said better? Am I missing the point entirely?

If I allow myself to be vulnerable, the answer is it doesn’t matter. As Brené Brown eloquently explains, connection is why we’re all here, sharing this planet, and it’s what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. To make that deep connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. That means having the courage to be imperfect, to expose our flaws, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

Living our most authentic life, whatever that means to each of us—for me it’s choosing kindness—requires that we let go of our shield and lower our guard, and that we embrace our flaws and our vulnerability. It’s scary, but, oh, the rewards of living an authentic life are beyond measure!

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)

[Before I close, I want to encourage you to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk. I promise it’s worth 20 minutes of your life—maybe it’s even a message from the universe to you.]