The Strength of Vulnerability

When I was around 9 or 10 years old, my brother and I played a video game called “Fighting Force” together. It was one of the coolest games we got to play. I could not tell you what the premise was, what the story was, or even who the main characters were. In fact, the only thing I can remember about the game was that we got to choose between 4 playable characters. Whenever we would start the game we would pick our characters and start at level one. Always. I don’t ever remember us being skilled enough to get past the first stage. Then one day, after months of playing this game, we found out that video games had “cheat codes” that you could input into the game to, well, cheat your way into an easy gaming experience (oh don’t judge, we were kids). We looked up the cheat codes for Fighting Force and we found that there were a few we could use. I admit, I don’t recall all the ones that were available, but one does stick out in my mind. There was a cheat for invulnerability.

That was the first time I ever saw the word “invulnerable.” In fact, the first time I saw it, I read it as “invisible.” I know this detail because when we had input this code into the game, our character did not turn invisible. It took a while for us to realize what the effect was. An awkwardly long time later (in hindsight) we figured out that it wasn’t a cheat to turn our characters invisible, but rather invincible or for the sake of this post, invulnerable. That evening my lexicon grew by one word.

For the past decade, I’ve always had a desire to be invincible. Whether I was a child and my desire of invincibility came in the form of wanting to be like the character I controlled in Fighting Force, or now, as a 24-year-old adult, desiring for invincibility to come in the form of being emotionally undamaged. This was because I had always strongly associated invulnerability being the epitome of strength, physically or emotionally. I grew up believing that nothing could hurt me. I let my 9-year-old self’s desire to be invincible grow and take over until I started actually believing that I was invincible.

On my 17th birthday, August 3, 2010, I was diagnosed with diabetes. That was when I realized I was no longer physically invincible. I was diagnosed with a disease that could kill me if it wasn’t properly taken care of. I’m reminded of that every year on my birthday. Talk about a reality check. I can remember every moment in the last 11 years where I have been upset to the point of tears. That Tuesday afternoon was one of those moments. Because that was when I realized I was not invincible after all. My body could not go through this life unharmed. I would, eventually, be returned to my sender. I was not like my character from Fighting Force, drugged on a cheat code, with a health bar that would never reduce. Me, and the rest of humanity, all have a health bar above our heads that slowly depletes and there is no cheat code to stop that.

And so, I had accepted my fate. To be physically invulnerable is quite literally, impossible. However, physicality is only on aspect of life. If I couldn’t avoid being physically invincible and incapable of showing off my strength via my body then I still had my emotional well-being. I could still be invulnerable by making sure I never let my guard down and showing emotional vulnerability.

Don’t get me wrong. This transition wasn’t like a turning on or off a light switch. I didn’t suddenly just choose to turn off my desire to be physically invulnerable and turn on emotional invulnerability. I wish it were that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have experienced a lot of what I did in my past few years. No, unfortunately, I used to be emotionally naïve which, mistake after mistake on my part, led to emotional exhaustion and emotional hurt which, come to find out, I despised.

This is when the opportunity to rear my desires to be invulnerable arose again. I had gone through a break up and I recall being almost incapacitated in all aspects of my life after that. It was one of the worst experiences I’ve lived through. I think what I despised most was the feeling completely at a loss of control over my life. After months and months of healing and finally returning to myself, I made a vow to never put myself in that situation again. I made a vow that I would never give myself to someone, friend or family, platonic or romantic, to the point that I would be temporarily disabled if they were to “turn on me” if you will. Thus, began a 5-year journey of building a persona on the foundation of cynicism and pessimism camouflaged as humor and indifference for the sake of emotional invulnerability. In the past half-decade, so much as happened and my venture into emotional invulnerability has been immensely successful. I can successfully say that I have never experienced something like that hurt again. I had won.

Which leads me to this past year.

The one thing you really don’t pick on until after the fact is how accurate the phrase “hindsight 20/20” is. One of the things I’m most grateful for this year is the friendship of a couple I had met through church. Funny story, I had the pleasure of meeting this couple, the Newhalls after being reached out by them a second time. Let me explain.

One of the symptoms of my cynicism was my insistence that I did not need to be in a relationship to thrive. I saw relationships, whether platonic or romantic, as luxuries rather than necessities. I had firmly believed that if everyone in my life quit being a part of my life, I’d be perfectly fine (which remains to this day, a lie). The other symptom was me looking down on people in relationships, regardless of what stage they were in. I painted individuals in relationships as being foolish – one of the parties involved would ruin the relationship. I perceived individuals who were married as hypocrites – they claim to be in love with each other, yet the slightest examination of their marriage and we can see the obvious cracks in their relationship.

Due to this view on relationships, I rejected the first time the Newhalls reached out to me. That was on October 2016. Fast forward 4 months and on January of 2017, every plan I had laid out for myself was turned on its head. I needed to get my life together, and I needed that to happen quick. I was finishing up my graduate school, I needed to find a job, and I needed to make sure I kept my sanity while figuring all of that out. One afternoon, while I was grading some papers for my class, I received a text from none other than Mr. Newhall. I had to chuckle to myself when I saw that recalling that I had turned this down the first time, but at this point, I was so desperate for community that I figured, I’d at least go spend an evening with them, scoff at it, and move on.

Without going too much into detail since the details don’t matter as much as the realization I had felt. The Newhalls weren’t foolish or hypocritical. They were the antithesis of everything I had trained myself to believe for the past 5 years. They were two people so in love with each other, with the people in their lives, with God, with their desire to want to do good in the world, that I didn’t believe they could be human (which, they are – but I’m trying to make a point here). Having my curiosity piqued and wanting to lift the curtain off of what I believed to be a charade, I stayed (I’ve shared part of this story with them, but this is the first time I’ve explicitly shared the details behind the whole story).

And so, 2017 continued. I had established myself as the coffee drinking cynical humorist every Tuesday when we would all get together. I remained honest, never shying away from how I felt about the world. I was fondly given the title of “the optimistic pessimist.” But eventually, after committing the time to them, I was also growing closer to them. They had, weirdly enough, committed to me. In time and energy and love and friendship and everything that falls under that umbrella. And then, the curtains were lifted up, the charade was over, and reality finally hit with the force of a battering ram. There was one slight problem.

I did not end their charade. They ended mine.

Turns out, there is no such thing as emotional invulnerability. In the 5 years where I had claimed to have mastered it, I wasn’t protecting myself at all. I was playing a corrupted version of hide and seek. I was hiding from the reality of the world. I was, to put it bluntly, a coward. In fact, the irony of the whole situation is, in claiming “emotional invulnerability” and claiming complete control over my life, I was not in control over my life. Fear was.

In the years of claiming to be invulnerable, I had let fear of hurt, fear of uncertainty, fear of heartbreak, fear of sadness, take control over my life. I missed out on a lot of good moments because of that fear. There isn’t any other way to describe it. A lot of good moments were never given the opportunity to grow because fear had me locked in solitary confinement.

I had so strongly believed that strength, true strength, came from being invulnerable. If I never get hurt, then I’ve mastered what it means to be strong. As it turns out, being invulnerable is the most cowardly act there is. It is, in fact, cheating. Much like my character in Fighting Force, he wasn’t invulnerable. He was cheating. He wasn’t risking anything when drugged on the cheat. Where is the strength in that? Where is the strength in not being vulnerable to others, your friends, family, and companions? How can you claim to be strong if you are unwilling to ever risk anything? If there never is danger, how can you prove your strength? You can’t. Opening up to people, risking getting hurt, risking loss of control, being vulnerable… this is strength.

Look, I’m not saying I have it all figured out. I spent 5 years building a wall around my heart and refusing to let anyone in. I would be lying if I said now the wall is down and everything is peachy. It definitely is not and there is a lot to work through. But at least the hammer has been put to the wall. In my life, the Newhalls were the first ones to do that. Now, I’ve picked up my hammer. I’m coming from the other side of the wall. I have begun and will keep bringing the hammer to the wall. As long as there is at least one person from the outside who will keep bringing the hammer down against this wall, one day, all will be well again.

One thought on “The Strength of Vulnerability

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m I. Tears. I feel my husband, although, older than you, having felt deep hurt and rejected this year from his family, is going into this journey you are explaining of putting safe guards up around him. He already had walls up from childhood hurts that he has up. So I’m gonna read this to him and pray that he will let our community really invest in him like they desire to.

    Like

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