Ted was one of the few people of color in the small Midwestern town where he grew up. He was also gay, and was targeted because of it even before he was old enough to understand what the word meant. He was beaten up badly a few times as a child, but the most emotionally damaging experiences were the constant racist and homophobic ridicule and rejection he had to endure on an almost daily basis.
In his early twenties he metamorphosed from a skinny kid to a big, muscular man; and he also experienced an intense personal awakening in which he realized that he was a man of worth and dignity with an inherent right to be treated with respect at all times. He made a commitment to himself that he would no longer live in fear, no matter what the cost to him, and that he would never again tolerate bullying or abuse from anyone. He began to work out daily, learned self-defense, and acquired a black belt in martial arts. When he visited his hometown in his mid-twenties, he had a couple of (very satisfying) experiences in which local bullies spotted him and tried to target him again — and wound up running away bloodied and bruised. Today, in his late thirties, his external bearing is one of quiet confidence and self-assurance, and people on the street instinctively know not to mess with him.
He is justifiably proud of having overcome the traumas of his youth, but he’s not at peace with himself. He cannot shake a lingering suspicion that, despite all the evidence, he’s really a coward. He is intensely ashamed whenever he experiences a twinge of fear. Whenever he is confused or awkward in front of others, is embarrassed in social situations, or doesn’t feel completely in command of himself, he torments himself with shame and self-reproach. He has all the courage he needs for dealing with the world: his task now is to come to acceptance of the reality of his own vulnerability.
Children often imagine that, when they grow up, they won’t feel vulnerable anymore, and that an adult is a fundamentally different kind of person from a child. But growing up is really about learning to accept vulnerability rather than make it go away. Here’s a simple experiment that can help drive home the reality of how much we’re all dependent and vulnerable in every moment of our lives. Stop breathing for a few seconds, or a few dozen seconds if you can, and see how it feels. Within thirty seconds without air, most people are uncomfortable; after a minute, they’re panicking, and after four minutes, they’re brain-dead. Second by second, your life requires oxygen, the plants that exhale it, the sun that drives photosynthesis, and so on. In every moment of our lives we’re dependent for our well-being on the world around us, and vulnerable to the slightest changes. Imagine what would happen to you if you were suddenly transported to a planet where there were no other human beings. How long could you keep your emotional equilibrium if you were completely deprived of all the little moments of touch, affection, encouragement and support from others that keep you going every day?
Ted won’t ever be completely independent and self-sufficient. He’ll never completely eliminate loneliness, fear, doubt, confusion, unsafety or insecurity from his life; and he’ll always need the love and acceptance of other people. He’ll sometimes make mistakes, and he’ll experience remorse over some of his decisions. He’ll sometimes behave badly, and have to apologize and make amends to others. He’ll always be vulnerable.
As a boy, he didn’t have, and couldn’t have had, the resources to fight back against his oppressors. As a man he’s developed those resources; now his job is, not to be ashamed of who he once was, but to embrace, love and protect that sensitive child who still lives within him. Fortunately, he has a loyal partner who respects the strong man that he has become, but deeply loves the vulnerable and tender little boy who Ted allows him to know when they’re alone together. Most of us, in one way or another, are in the same situation. Often it is the vulnerabilities with which we’re most uncomfortable that others find most lovable in us.