As you might guess from previous posts, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about vulnerability. The other day, I read a blog post that spurred me to think about it even more. The author talked about the emotional power of sharing ourselves with others, citing the work of writers like Maya Angelou, whose stories reflect intense vulnerability. The blogger wondered if she could have the same impact. Would her story measure up? When it came to vulnerability, did she need to “go big or go home?”
When I think about this, I think about the encounters that have shaped my life. Many of these would be classified as “going big.” The moment a friend of the family told me he’d just come from the doctor's office, where he’d been diagnosed with AIDS. The day a favorite teacher shared with us her experiences in the Manzanar internment camp, where she was involuntarily interned along with 110,000 other Japanese Americans. Another teacher’s description of her family’s harrowing escape from Castro’s Cuba, with only the clothes on their backs and a handful of bills, hidden in her shoelaces.
These peoples' choices to be vulnerable in a big way impacted my life in many ways, huge ways…but to the question my blogger friend asked, does a what a person choses to share about themselves need to be this big in order to be meaningful? Do ordinary everyday vulnerabilities have an impact as well? I think that they do.
I remember an encounter a few years ago. As part of a department-wide project, my manager and I were called into a meeting with a member of upper management. She was known to be tough as nails. As part of the agenda of the meeting, she presented me with a document, and asked me to mark it up. It was something I dreaded because, like many people on the autism spectrum, I have fine motor issues that affect my handwriting. In short, it’s atrocious.
It’s something that I remember dealing with most of my life – from my school days, when I was told, “You must work on your handwriting. How will you ever get a job, if your boss can’t read the messages you leave him?” Unfortunately, for the all the work I did, I never could replicate the graceful, girly handwriting that was the staple of my peers. But, my parents raised me to believe that my career prospects weren’t limited to taking other peoples’ phone messages
When it came to handwriting, I’d tried as hard as I could, and still struggled. So, my best bet was to make peace with that and work with what I was given. I did my best to find my ways around the issues. I taught myself to type. For the times when I couldn’t avoid handwriting, I bought fountain pens. Because they generated much less friction against the paper, they minimized fatigue, thus making it easier to write more quickly.
When I entered the workforce, I did whatever I could to maximize technology. I typed messages. I used e-mail, word processors and computers. But every now and again, like this time, I found myself faced with a situation in which I had no choice but write.
When I turned over my notes, an awkward silence descended on the room. Seemingly struggling with how to respond, the executive just stared at the paper. Recognizing her discomfort, I decided to be direct. “I know.” I said, laughing to break the tension. “My handwriting is atrocious. As much as I’ve longed for girly handwriting, I’ve just never been able to manage it.”
At this, she relaxed and responded in kind, talking about some of her own challenges. Finally, she made a suggestion – why didn’t I sit with a member of her team, and give him my changes orally? This way the changes would get made, but the indecipherability of my handwriting wouldn’t be a problem. Problem solved. With a simple, small, act of vulnerability.
I see this time and time again – sometimes the vulnerability benefits just one person. Other times it has wider impact. I think of a man I worked with some years ago. We had many similarities – so much so that the leaders of our respective teams assigned us to collaborate on certain tasks shared between the groups.
We never really talked about our similarities, or the reasons for them. We touched base when we needed to collaborate, shared best practices and cool tricks of the trade. Beyond that, we didn’t really socialize much. Until one day, when I came to see him regarding one of our joint projects.
He was uncharacteristically agitated, and I asked him what was wrong. He told me a story. He’d been asked to take notes in a meeting. Like me, he tended to prefer typing to writing, so he took his laptop to the meeting. The meeting had gotten a little heated. A lot of crosstalk and spirited debate. It got loud.
In response, my colleague did what felt natural to him. While typing away, he closed his eyes. Now I knew what was coming. It had happened to me many times. To me, this was also natural behavior, a way to reduce sensory overload, stopping one form of sensory input in order to redirect resources to deciphering another.
But it’s a behavior commonly misunderstood, as it was in my colleague’s case. A co-worker immediately next to him turned to him and burst out: “What’re you – SLEEPING!” This outburst stopped the room cold, and suddenly all eyes were on my colleague. His response to this co-worker was direct, and immediate. “No, closing my eyes helps me to hear better.”
I imagine the co-worker’s shock at this reaction. No doubt, he expected my colleague to respond with shame and embarrassment. Now, suddenly, he was the one in the spotlight, and none too favorably. My colleague’s response had highlighted his judgmental attitude, and opened a dialog about the way my colleague processed the world.
In my colleague’s group was a woman who would later be promoted into senior management. The executive I mentioned above. While in his group, she witnessed several of incidents like these. In the process, he’d won her respect. Many times since, I’ve wondered if my confrontation would have gone as easily, without his influence on her. How much did his honesty affect how I was treated?
What this experience and many others have taught me is that each choice we make to be honest – to be who we are with no apology – is a choice that has possibility to impact others in countless ways. Many ways we wouldn’t think to expect.
My conclusion? I don’t think we need to “go big, or go home.” Sometimes, it’s enough to just have to have the courage to go. The rest takes care of itself.
“I think of writers who have come before, who tell the world their stories, and who have made us better in the telling. Briefly, off the top of my head as I write this, I think of Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Temple Grandin (Thinking in Pictures), Luis Carlos Montalván (Until Tuesday), Sidney Poitier (The Measure of A Man), and Antwone Fisher (Finding Fish).
Am I able to do that? Do I need to do that — to “go big or go home”? That is the question, isn’t it? Is our “one amazing thing” good enough not just to share with others but also to satisfy ourselves?”
“Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief, this is my twelfth year doing this research, that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. To be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen. To be honest.”
Lynne Soraya is the nom de plume for a writer with Asperger's Syndrome.