The title is a paraphrase of a sentence from Forrest Gander’s novel, As a Friend. It tells the story of Les, whose impact on those around him initiates intense love and friendship and not a little pain.
Says Les, “I know every step I’ve taken has had repercussions, has hurt people I love . . . Even if I try to weigh it all out ahead of time . . . I can’t be sure of the immediate effect of what I think I set into motion . . . Maybe the best we can do [and give] is try to leave ourselves unprotected. To keep brushing off habits, how we see things and what we expect, as they crust around us. Brushing the green flies of the usual off the tablecloth. To pay attention.”
An educated sentiment surely. One that has its rewards and its perils. We are instinctively self-protective and the last thing these instincts want us to be is vulnerable. Wary of being judged by others, our instincts drive us to try to hide flaws that we fear would make us undesirable. And they drive us to hide from ourselves what we judged to be our moments of failure and irresponsibility. This defensive positioning would seem to make sense but it requires the maintenance of rigid, narrow boundaries and button-down sentiments that pretty much exclude any real intimacy and friendship.
In order to forego this isolating vigil, we must be willing to reveal to ourselves, let alone to another, what we’ve chosen to forget and to remove the masks of character we employ. Said another way, we must come out from hiding behind our pride, our rationalizations, our anger, our resentment and our heroic self-images, however we define them.
It is worthwhile to note that it will require considerable effort to locate what it is we have been hiding or even to recognize the masks we wear to compensate for what we dare not reveal. However, to avoid vulnerability and to anchor our being in pretense is to bear the living experience—our finitude—as a cowardly figure, if only in our minds.
Vulnerability is a gift to ourselves and to another that we muster and extend when we learn to represent ourselves authentically and when we remove boundaries that justify our desire to dominate or possess another and that inhibit our spontaneity.
It is the removal of protective boundaries that creates the space for love and friendship. It is an intimate space that enables us to appear to ourselves and have our friends and lovers appear to themselves. “Love solves nothing but your love made me appear to myself,” says Sarah of her lover Les.
But it is a wry space too: We accept the fact that we can’t govern ourselves perfectly or control the outcome of every move; moreover, vulnerability is by definition risky. We can’t be sure it will be a bump-free ride. Of course not.
A final quote from Les: “What we can do is approach each other and the world with as much vulnerability as we can possibly sustain. To open out. With all our mind and body and imagination, to keep opening out.”
* Forrest Gander (born in 1956) is an American poet and novelist as well as professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.