Vulnerability: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

By Beth Huppin. Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity the Jewish education program at JFS. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

When I asked a group of adult students at a recent JFS lunch study to say a word they associate with the word “vulnerable” the responses came in two categories.  The first included words like:  exposed, aging, fearful, insecure, paranoid, marginalized, targeted, homeless, afraid, traumatized.  The second included words like: transparency, growth, intimate, brave, insight, strength, in relationship, liberating.

The Hebrew word for vulnerable, p’gee’ah, comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to contact, usually in a harmful way.” The Latin root for vulnerable is vulnus, which means “wound.”  Both roots point to an understanding of vulnerable as defined by the first group of words.  In those cases, vulnerability is related to lack of power, either physically or emotionally. It is not a choice that one would willingly pursue. This type of vulnerability is not liberating.

It is worth noting, though, that the Hebrew online dictionary that provided the root meaning of “wound” adds another dimension: “But getting hurt is not the only thing that could happen to someone vulnerable. On the contrary, vulnerability has been singled out as the gateway to creativity and connection.” This alludes to the meaning of vulnerable as defined by the second group of words. Brené Brown speaks and writes extensively about this type of vulnerability.  “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” We choose this second type of vulnerability in order to connect with others.

We all yearn for human connection. This deep need is itself a source of vulnerability. The challenge is that one must feel safe enough physically or emotionally in the non-choice meaning of vulnerability in order to be willing to choose the vulnerability of connection.

To connect in meaningful ways with others, we must decide to bare our vulnerable selves with them, trusting that they won’t harm us. There are limits to how often we take this risk, especially if we don’t feel physically or emotionally safe. The paradox is that even though our vulnerabilities can only heal through connection, those same vulnerabilities often prevent us from doing so.

Elie Wiesel addresses this issue through a story. “David, on his way to fight Goliath, was given the king’s armor. For a battle this unequal, with life-and-death stakes, armor made sense. But David removed the armor, for it didn’t fit him. This image has stayed with me as a symbol of a key concept: that vulnerability is the greatest weapon if you are brave enough to use it.” (Witness, Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, pg. 65)

Wiesel goes further: “When evil threatens the weak, we must fight back.  And yet it is true that sometimes the only way to disarm a threat is to be vulnerable, to share our common humanity, in hopes of awakening the humanity of the other.”  (Ibid, pg. 67)

It is legitimate to protect ourselves when we feel unsafe.  Exposing our vulnerabilities is not always a good idea. Wiesel is asking much of us by suggesting that the brave and liberating vulnerability of choice is the best way to move beyond the vulnerability caused by lack of power.

He acknowledges that this isn’t easy.  Still, he challenges us to create a community with spaces that are safe enough to for us to connect both despite and because of our human vulnerabilities.  During fearful times, he asks us to consider when and how might we “fight back” by exposing our vulnerabilities. In situations when we have power, perceived or real, how might we expose the vulnerable parts of ourselves to produce a safe place for true connection with those experiencing physical or emotional vulnerabilities?

Wiesel’s words remind us that no one at JFS exists “only” as a client, a volunteer, a board member, a donor, or a staff person. The lines are fluid. The vulnerability of being human is proof of that truth and perhaps a window into how we might truly care for and support each other in ongoing, meaningful and transformative ways.

Exploring Dignity Classes at JFS:  Every month JFS volunteers, staff members, board members and friends discuss Jewish texts related to the work of JFS.  A recent class focused on the topic Vulnerability: What is it and Why Does it Matter? The above is a taste of the issues discussed in that class. 

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