This past weekend, I had the opportunity to join just over 30 youth from our community for a weekend retreat at the shore. The time spent walking alongside them as they learn to live out their faith was so blessed, and the conversations so rich – I’m truly excited to see what God does with the seeds that were planted there.
While I know that sounds lovely and spiritual and idyllic, the reality is that it was also a church retreat for middle-schoolers, so in a 48 hour span, I observed, overheard, or participated in more games of ‘truth or dare’ than probably the rest of my life combined.
It was amusing to me, both as I watched and played, that 9 times out of 10, the girls chose dare over truth. Time after time, they would choose an unknown dare, risking potential embarrassment and shame, over voicing a yet unspoken truth. Honestly, I think this has as much to do with 12-year-old girls wanting an excuse to walk around with mismatched shoes all day as anything, but I can’t help but wonder what it says about our cultural aversion to vulnerability.
Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who has been studying shame, fear, and vulnerability for 15 years. She describes the phenomenon of this aversion as “armoring up”, an attempt to protect ourselves from the things that hurt the most: ridicule, shame, criticism, judgement. In the daily practice of putting on armor, not only are we protecting ourselves from the negative, but we keep guard over the positive, that is, the belief that we are worthy of love and belonging. We all armor up in different ways, but we all do it, many of us conditioned by pain. But Brown’s research reveals that this conditioned response is something of a catch-22. She says, “We can only love and be loved as much as we are willing to get our heart broken.”
The more we do to protect the fragile flame of our worth, the more likely that we’ll snuff it out altogether. Fire needs oxygen to grow and be sustained and truth is the oxygen of our souls.
Choosing to live with vulnerability is to step back from the tender flame we’ve been harboring and letting the wind catch it, which can often feel scary and risky, even weak. Last weekend, the girls gave me a hard time for choosing truth every turn (I’m practicing wholeheartedness, ladies!), and I’ve been criticized pretty harshly in life for not being adventurous enough, for erring on the safe side of risk. But I’m beginning to believe that the most daring act of all is living vulnerably, that the risk of speaking truth far exceeds that of any stunt or show of bravado.
Dr. Brown says that “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” And I think she’s right. Truth is the dare.
“I don’t mean to overstate what is yet unknown, but part of me believes when the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it. And all the rest, the distracting noises of insecurity and the flattery and the flashbulbs will flicker out like a turned-off television.”
– Donald Miller, Scary Close