My son, now 13, is dyslexic. I knew it when he was quite young. He'd do incredible things like write everything backwards, even the letters, from right to left — as if to be read in a mirror. But it became obvious to everyone else, including himself, in second grade that he made a different sense of the world. (For those who care, dyslexia is incredibly interesting and is not just a "dys"; it's a nonlinear mode of making sense, of seeing the world, and hence has incredible advantages — it's a pro- or metalexia or some such prefix.)
His class was learning how to read. And, suddenly, he went from being a socially comfortable, charming, happy, bright little boy to being utterly confused and alone and, worse, filled with a deep distrust, even loathing, of himself. He had no idea what the other kids were doing, what they were seeing, how they were behaving with these books. The look on his face, which lasted months, devastates me to this day.
This: The world giving way around you. The structures and tethers fraying, collapsing, breaking. And there you are, presumably part of it all — but an all that doesn't want you, where you don't fit, where you don't belong. But you're still there. What do you do?
Well, he does what most people do: he defers, deflects, lashes out defensively: "I know how to read! I just don't want to!" Which isn't untrue per se; he can read, it's just a huge drag for him — it's a lot of work to put all those letters in the proper order word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page.
But it's the tone that betrays him, belies his claim. The anger, the distress: it's aggressive. When I approach him softly with "Everyone feels weird about some things" or "Imagine if film were the dominant language — everyone else would be dyslexic!" But this only makes him bristle more, become more defensive, more aggressive.
He is afraid to be left standing there as the world gives way and he doesn't know what to do. He can't just say to me, "Dad, this is scary and weird and makes me feel bad even though part of me knows it's irrelevant." Which is to say, he is afraid to be vulnerable.
We experience this with drivers — not to mention bosses, coworkers, parents, friends, lovers — all the time. Someone does something dangerous and stupid — runs a red light, turns into a lane without looking — you honk in terror and what does that driver do? He flips you the bird! This is not just a question of culpability — although it's that, too. But I'm not talking about ethics; I'm talking about a human posture of standing in the world, with others, when it feels like the world won't have you. Part of that driver is scared — for his life, for his humiliation, for leaving the social contract so blatantly and being seen. But rather than risk exposure, rather than risk fear and the horror of operating outside the social contract, he lashes out. As a culture, we defer to violence over vulnerability.
I, for one, fear vulnerability. This comes to light in romance more than anywhere else. A woman leaves me for another man and my first reaction is: Fuck you! Good! I'm happy! I'll get a better girlfriend! A better one! You did me a favor! That initial reaction is like a lion found sleeping belly up who, upon waking, growls menacingly at the shapes in the dark. It's to put up structures of defense and strength rather than just slumping and quivering and abandoning oneself to the world. I'm in control here! I'm the winner! my petty soul declares.
But I'm no lion about to be killed by a hunter or hyena. So why wouldn't I, why couldn't I, just say to the woman who's left me, "Oh, no, I feel terrible and sad and unloved"? Why not just be exposed? The will to be in control, to be the winner, is strong. We love winners — even if we root for the underdog. We still want the underdog to win! Nietzsche knew this all too well. It's a symptom of ressentiment.
What is vulnerability? Well, let's begin with what vulnerability is not. To be vulnerable is not to be sad. When my sister was dying, I was sad. I cried everywhere, in front of anyone and everyone. I was flying back and forth between San Francisco and New York for six months and dealt with cabbies and stewardesses and barristas and waiters and, well, I wept to and in front of most of them.
But I wasn't vulnerable. I was sad. I was located — socially and existentially. In a very real way, my sadness even had a power — a power to influence, to inspire (guilt, mostly, but also affection and kind words). In reality, my sadness in that instance made me socially strong — a winner.
Vulnerability has no such structures. By definition, it is to be exposed. To be at risk. To not have a place within the discursive, existential, and material structures of society. To be vulnerable is to be naked before the elements, both visible and invisible. Sadness is not necessarily exposed; sadness has a sure place, a buttress of the social edifice. Vulnerability, however, is without buttress. It is to stand within the social without structures of support.
In fact, vulnerability need not be sad at all. It is to be exposed, bared. It is to be open to assault, physical and/or existential.
But to be vulnerable is not just to be open. I've been open to all kinds of things from a position of great power and control: Bring it on, says master me. Openness is a necessary but not sufficient condition of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be open but, to paraphrase Nietzsche, not to be equal to the events. To be vulnerable is to not have a ready remedy — claws or witticisms — to handle the events, to be incapable of parrying or possessing them. The event tears you asunder.
Recently, someone I've known for 15 years — but, for the sake of context, is considerably younger than I am — asked me if I've ever ached for a lover. I was flabbergasted by this question. My only reply was, Of course. I don't blame her for asking me. I was flabbergasted because I realized that I use my social resources to cultivate the stance of a winner — someone so detached and cool (well, in the jewish sense) that she actually believed that I've never been gutted, never been so at the mercy of someone else's mere glance, that I've been a stammering, desperate mess. Which of course I have. Of course I've felt useless, at the mercy of the world without tools or shelter. Of course I've felt helpless, exposed, desperate, evacuated.
Oh, but what I've missed in trying to be so detached! I now see that vulnerability is the only way to joy, the only way to affirm this life here and now. Because vulnerability is not just to be open, not just to be exposed: it is to sit before the world without ego, without position, and still be part of the world! To be vulnerable is the ultimate strength — perhaps the only strength — in that it needs no defense, needs no place, needs no ground other than its own quivering. To stand there quaking and mute is still to be alive, still be part of the world, still to be the world happening. There is nowhere else to go. And so to stand there utterly naked, without ego or language, without the trappings of strength, is to be all powerful.
And yet I see the fear of vulnerability everywhere. I see it in my exchanges with women — her refusal to stand there exposed and weak, choosing to lie and cry and yell and posture instead. I see it in my refusal to lose — to lose ego, to lose face, to lose words, to lose control, to lose my grounding. And, worst of all, I see it in my son, in his desperate clinging to the language of winner as the words and world refuse to align. If only he would let go. If only I could help him let go.