The Courage to be Vulnerable

by Nathan Chua

Life is full of paradoxes. It takes a lot to believe that the more vulnerable we can be, the more courageous we become. If you are wondering how this applies to our lives, here’s my best attempt to explain it.

In the words of a 20th century philosopher, “Man is a creature whose project is to be god.” The first thing we shed after exposure to emotional pains, is our vulnerability. No caretaker is perfect. We are all bound to experience different degrees of abuse, neglect, or invalidation from them. We learn early on, that the only way to get the results we want, is to turn ourselves into super heroes or demigods. We can either become subhuman or superhuman creatures and hide our helplessness behind a veneer of defenses, that protect us from emotional pain.

To illustrate this, here are some ways we try to be our own gods. We believe that we should be exempt from traffic issues. We believe our prayers save us from the catastrophe or won us the game, because we somehow have a better relationship with a supreme being than others. Our lack of vulnerability keeps us from taking risks in relationships. We mask our desire to meet someone or show a romantic interest, in our fear of being rejected. Hence having never really taken greater risks, we live with a number of unfulfilled aspirations. We look invulnerable in our predictable and yet ultimately, uneventful existence.

Living courageously is quite the contrary to what we think it means. In our culture, there is still pressure to conform to expectations in society. Our decisions are more often swayed by public opinion, face-saving options, and stereotypes that keep us safe and part of the crowd. We live in fear of being outcasts if we show our true selves and our authentic desires in life.

Living courageously is living vulnerably. Whatever we do in our pursuit of self-actualization, we have to accept that there is a commensurate level of courage required to face the challenges. For many of the good things or aspirations that we harbor, are gained only through our efforts to achieve them. Avoiding challenges to our fears can result in comfortable, but also stagnant lives.

Let me end this post with a couple of quotes from some of the thinkers that I admire. Friedrich Nietzsche tells us to, “Live dangerously,” and Rollo May says, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”