Week 3

Encountering Vulnerability

by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

What do you choose to do even though it makes you feel vulnerable? Do you speak up in class or in a meeting? How about if you’re not entirely sure you have the right answer? Do you tell the truth to a friend or family member when you don’t know if they’re going to like what you have to say? Do you point out statements that you think are racist or sexist or otherwise unfair? Do you ask questions in situations where everyone else seems to know more than you do?

When you create something special, do you share it with people you care about, or are you too worried that they won’t think it’s very good? When you’ve made a mistake—broken something, or hurt someone’s feelings—do you go directly to the person you have harmed to name what you have done and ask for forgiveness?

It would be nice to think that all of these were things that everyone did all the time, in just the natural course of events. But it turns out that for far too many of us, that feeling of being vulnerable and exposed is something that we will do just about anything to avoid.

What if people laugh at me if I’m wrong? What if they don’t like me if I disagree with them? What if they think I’m stupid? What if my mistake means that I’m actually a bad person—or at least means that someone will think I’m a bad person?  Often, we don’t even get as far as even recognizing that we are asking these questions; we just feel that squirming, sinking feeling inside and then head the other direction.

Which is why the story of Jonah is one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible. Maybe you know it. In this story, God tells Jonah to go to the town of Nineveh to tell the people there to shape up, and stop behaving so badly—or else. God sends Jonah to be a prophet. But Jonah has that squirmy, vulnerable reaction. Why would the people listen to him? Isn’t he just going to sound like an idiot running around telling people that God sent him to tell them to mend their ways?

Nope, Jonah doesn’t like that vulnerable feeling at all, so he jumps on a ship headed in the opposite direction, toward the town of Tarshish.

Well, God causes a big storm to come up, and the sailors on the boat figure out that Jonah is the source of the problem, so they chuck him overboard. But before he can drown, Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish, and carried around in the fish’s slimy, smelly insides for three days and three nights until finally the fish burps him up on the shore—the shore right by Nineveh, the last place that Jonah wants to be.

But there he is, dropped off by a giant fish, so what is he going to do? Reluctantly, unwillingly, feeling squirmy in every last bit of his body, Jonah starts talking with the people of Nineveh, telling them that they are doing wrong and what they need is to get right with God. And to his utter amazement, the people of Nineveh, just like that, repent and change their ways.

Well, you’d think Jonah would be happy, but no. Things didn’t turn out the way he feared, but now he’s vulnerable in a whole new way. Now he has to think of himself as a prophet, a job that he most certainly does not feel qualified for. This was not the safe, in-the-background life that Jonah had in mind for himself. So he goes and sulks under the shade of a gourd vine. But then God withers the vine, leaving him vulnerable to the sun as well as his own feelings.

People have understood the story of Jonah as being about a lot of different things, but I think it tells some important truths about vulnerability. We all are tempted to run away from the hard things, the most meaningful parts of life that take real effort. Much of the time we don’t want to risk being seen, especially if we’re not sure people are going to approve of us. But in running away from our feelings of vulnerability, we run away from our power and our possibilities.

And more than that, running away doesn’t actually make us safe anyway. We will always be vulnerable to the wind and the sun, not to mention accidents and illness and all the things that can happen to bodies. There is no place where we are invulnerable, guaranteed safety and comfort.

Better, the story suggests, that we step forward, as uncomfortable as that might be, putting ourselves and our truths out there for all the world to see. It might just be that we have exactly what other people need. But more than that, if we attempt to hide from our vulnerability, we end up stuck. Maybe not literally in a smelly, slimy fish gut, but the feeling of hiding from our truth and our power can feel a lot like being squished into some place too small and nasty for us to flourish.

We’re never going to be totally safe. Life just doesn’t provide for that. So if we can’t be safe, we might as well learn to walk through the squirmy, uncomfortable, vulnerable places in the direction of what most deeply calls us.