Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Embracing Vulnerability

I was wandering and so were my thoughts, slowly following an all but invisible path through the forest, when I saw a duck take flight from a small pond. I paused for a moment, following its trajectory across the sky, before I sat down on a tree stump, surrounded by birds chirping.

Most of my days are good, but some are not and today has not been a particularly good day. At least not until I met that duck amongst the trees.

I don’t mean this in any big or dramatic way, there is nothing fundamentally wrong, I remain happy and hopeful, but I am just less capable of dealing with things today than I was yesterday. Today, I’d rather just get lost in the woods, staring at ducks, listening to birds.

I have been raised well enough by the powers that be to understand this as an individual problem, to instinctively blame myself. If I am not productive enough, if my thoughts are a mess, something must be wrong with me. I try to resist this narrative at every turn, but it haunts me, nonetheless.

I don’t want you to worry about me, but I also really don’t want to conceal the bad days. I’m growing increasingly weary with all our rosy stories, our incessant efforts to perform and sustain these narratives of success and achievements (and I’m aware that this is easy enough for me to say, by all accounts I have achieved something). Nothing interests me less than the smooth surface. It is in the flaws and cracks, in our doubts and insecurities, it is where we almost fall apart that something beautiful can grow between us.

I’m not really talking about pretty photos on Instagram or wherever, though they may be one small symptom of our predicament.

I am missing something else – the fundamental legitimacy of vulnerability. I see us all, the entire human race, as small, confused and vulnerable critters roaming the earth, but as Joan Tronto has argued, ‘the capacity to see oneself as vulnerable is not highly valued in our culture’. In contrast, everything changes when I think of the purpose of my very existence along the lines of care, as if everything I do I do ‘to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible’ (Tronto, 2013). In that light, I believe that compassion and care should be built into the fabric of society and our organizations, it should be present in every single encounter.

But this is not quite the case. We are still building on a foundation of Western Modernity and neoliberal capitalism. We are all surrounded by technocratic systems and structures, we are all measured by metrics that are financial at heart.

One might say that we are talking more about wellbeing than ever before, that we deeply are concerned with ‘mindfulness’ and other efforts at finding peace, and that more people are given medicine to even exist in the wretched world we have created.

But that is not what I’m after, exactly.

My question is this: do we meet each other, human and more-than-human, with love? Are we generous with our love, generous with ourselves and each other?

And further, do we allow ourselves and each other to have good and bad days? Do we expect that the good days must make up for the bad, as if we are in some kind of race we cannot lose? If I am slow today, must I be fast tomorrow? If my efforts at the conveyor belt (to borrow an image currently favoured by our prime minister) are unacceptable one day, must my hands work until they bleed the next?

Can we accept that our energies ebb and flow, rise and fall, that we are unpredictable and sometimes unrecognisable, even to ourselves? Or do we perpetuate the ideal of the rational, autonomous individual (an insidious myth imposed on the world by white men) who works more like an efficient machine than a fragile bundle of flesh and emotions? In the world today, it is undoubtedly easier to operate as a robot, programmed to pursue triumphant victories and just push on despite everything.

But is that what we really want? Is that a life?

As two geese keep circling me by the pond, loudly sharing their secrets in a language I do not understand, I think of all the infinite we’s – we who are humans and we who are something else; we who are family, friends, colleagues, distant acquaintances, and we who are mere strangers to each other, we who will never meet. We who are privileged because of the color of our skin and the place of our birth, and we who are less fortunate.

Whatever our fortunes and misfortunes, we are all involved in the making of worlds, the making of lives, we all bear responsibility, and we all require care.

I don’t know how to answer my own questions, I don’t know how we can overcome the obsession with competing and winning, or how we can turn the tide of despair, I don’t know much about anything, really.

But as I get up from the tree stump by the pond and continue my meandering walk, I know that while today was not my best day, I will neither try to hide or make up for that. Even if tomorrow might be better, I will do my utmost to avoid making it bear the responsibility of today. This is just how some days are and that’s ok. As I arrive back home, I have Audre Lorde’s beautiful words echoing through my head:

‘But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us, by expecting a little less from her gargantuan efforts to excel. We can love her in the light as well as in the darkness, quiet her frenzy toward perfection and encourage her attentions toward fulfillment’ (Lorde, 1984)


One response to “Embracing Vulnerability”

  1. Jim Bowen avatar
    Jim Bowen

    I love your wandering and wondering about what is real and true for you.

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