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Vulnerability and Inner Strength

This is a post in my project series, tentatively titled “Overlapping Magisteria” – which is a project to bring together old spiritual wisdom about how to live as human beings, with current scientific understandings.

One of the things I do all the time (and often regret) is read the comments on mainstream news articles. If you’ve ever done that, you know, that more often than not, the conversation is comprised entirely of ad hominem attacks and fact-free condemnations. And it has become the playground of trolls that love to bully and intimidate.

And for a while now, I’ve wanted a strategy that doesn’t necessarily stop that, but at least can cut through it. And in talking with a good friend about this, she helped me to come across a useful strategy. A comment I might make would go something like this:

I feel sad as I read the ways in which people talk to each other in this conversation. It’s painful to me that we have such a hard time seeing each other as fellow humans. Ultimately, we share so many of the same hopes and fears, underneath the rhetoric and dogma. Can we find our shared humanity?

I also came across this post, from twitter, where a woman responded to a hateful tweet very simply with love, and that changed the result.

As I thought more about this, I realized that these kinds of responses embody a willingness to be vulnerable, to express our emotions and our pain. I think that’s what’s missing in so much of our public discourse these days. We often feel that we need to show our strength, but actually, it is when we can be vulnerable that we are more likely to reach others despite our differences.

And, of course, one might say, that it’s too dangerous because there are people who take advantage of vulnerability. Or people will ignore it, or belittle it, or what have you. And it is true, this is not without it’s danger, but showing this kind of vulnerability is a hallmark of some of the most important teachings of many spiritual traditions. For example, the words of Jesus, from Matthew 3:

39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

That’s nothing but radical vulnerability, in the face of danger. But how do you get there, what makes it possible?

One of the things that makes it possible to be radically vulnerable is to have cultivated compassion, both for ourselves, as well as for others. Building deep compassion for ourselves helps us to stand firm in our own strength (be boundaried, really) even while being vulnerable. And cultivating compassion for others makes us want to open doors and let others in.  In fact feeling compassion, and acts of compassion are a very important part of most spiritual traditions. We now know that cultivating compassion through lovingkindness meditation (called Metta) actually makes big changes in the brain, deactivating our limbic systems, and strengthening parts of our brains connected to empathy.

So here’s an idea: how about instead of avoiding comments sections, or responding with facts, we love-bomb the trolls (wherever they are – Facebook, Twitter, news sites, blogs, wherever.) How about responding to ad hominem attacks and insults with love? Can we strengthen these capacities by practicing them in action? I’ll be trying.