“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability … To be alive is to be vulnerable.” – Madeleine L’Engle
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
When we read these two quotations as part of our Small Group Ministry session on the theme of “vulnerability” this past Thursday evening, they hit me like a ton of bricks. For two reasons. First, they’re both from noted authors, masters of science fiction and fantasy whose works, though largely regarded as written for children and teenagers, actually address very adult questions and themes. These include the nature of good and evil, spirituality, growth, love and hate, freedom, responsibility and the quest for purpose and meaning in life. I love both of these authors. Both L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” series and Lewis’ Narnia books were constant companions of mine in my youth, treasured and read and re-read again and again. So it was good Thursday night to hear a little bit more from my two old friends.
These quotations struck me, also, because – eerily – they seemed to speak directly to me, to where I happen to find myself at this point in my life. I seem to be having some issues with being vulnerable of late. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the matter. Well, specifically about romantic vulnerability. I don’t think I really have a problem with putting myself out there, making myself vulnerable, in most situations. In fact, I think I’ve been hard at work opening up and admitting my weaknesses and needs, courting advice and aid, and trying to make space for others to do so in my presence, for almost three years now – ever since I began my current journey into sobriety and an exploration of spirituality.
In recovery meetings, I open up regularly about my urges, my worries, my stumbles, my hopes and my struggles. Here at Original Blessing, I’ve shared intimate and personal memories and experiences as part of my ongoing service as a lay minister. I think I’ve cultivated and nurtured wonderful relationships with family members and friends where I’m open and as honest as I can be, respectfully laying it all out there and trusting for the best.
In my career, I’ve come to realize that if I don’t know how to do something, or I don’t understand something, it’s best to admit it and ask for help and learn … so I can do correctly and better going forward. I find when I swallow my so-called “pride,” I get better results. So, so far, job well enough done…mostly.
But there’s one area where I’ve thrown up defensive walls, refused to open up and, well, frankly, completely closed up shop. And that’s in romance and sexuality. For me – just me — where I’m at now in my life, the two are inextricably linked …. In theory. It’s a theoretical connection, because I’ve virtually had neither in my life since getting sober in late 2012. But when I ponder a hypothetical scenario where I’m being intimate with another person, that person is someone I care about deeply. The days of casual sex are, for me, over. That’s fine for others; I do not judge. I’ve just come to believe, to learn through trial and error, that for me, my sexuality is a God-given gift not to be taken or given, deployed basically, lightly.
But I’m an adult man; I do have all the normal drives and urges. So have I opened myself up to the romantic possibilities out there? No. For the first year of my newfound sobriety, I took the advice of the fellowship I was healing in, and put off, as recommended, any major changes in life for the first 12 months. As I was single, that included, for me, any new romantic or sexual entanglements. The decision came as a relief, as I really needed to focus on myself, and really didn’t know what I wanted out of life anyway. I also didn’t have anything, at the time, to bring to the partnership table. I was learning in sobriety, you see, that a romance, and coupling, is really two whole people agreeing to share themselves with one another in a partnership of equals – not a dependency, not a reliance, not a search for completeness. As I was financially broke, spiritually broken, unable to feed or fend for myself, the worst possible idea would be to try to connect with another human being on the romantic level. I’d seen others do it, hell, I’d done it myself, and the results were most often disastrous. So I put romance on the back burner.
But it’s hard, in this society, to stay single. We’re constantly barraged with the message that we need to pair off. That there’s something wrong with you if you don’t, or don’t want to. I mean, a break is okay – but long-term? What do they call women who never marry? Spinsters? Not a good thing. There’s not similar epithet for single men – “bachelor” or “singleton” doesn’t have the same derogatory bite – but I think they’re still regarded as flawed, or only half-grown. I’ll admit I’ve over-corrected in the opposite direction, blithely disparaging – sometimes vocally – people who rush into relationships, or can’t seem to break away from unhealthy ones, or pine over unrequited loves. When I see someone hurting from a damaged or broken romance, all I want to do is take the pain from them. And at the same time I congratulate myself that I’ve shielded myself from similar nonsense. (“I mean, how stupid can you be?”)
To be honest, I don’t think you need a romantic partner to be complete, to be whole. In fact, I believe that if you rely on another – anyone but your Higher Power, whatever that might be – to complete you, you’re in big trouble. What happens if and when they’re not there anymore? A romance should be a choice, not a requirement. A want, not a need. But, I’m starting to feel, it’s a crucial choice. A brave choice. To open yourself up to the potential joys of true partnership, and risk the pain of losing it.
I’ll admit, I’m not being very brave these days. If I even sniff a hint of anything more than platonic interest from another, I shut things down immediately – either by ignoring the signals and “playing dumb,” making light of the situation, disparaging myself to counter and discourage the interest or even just plain running for the door. In the sober communities I choose to be a part of, I’m surrounded mainly by unavailable people, either already paired off, or of an incompatible gender or orientation. I avoid other gay men like the plague. And those I do permit through the chinks in my wall, I keep at arm’s length. Gay functions are a no-go zone. I mean, if I went, I might end up meeting the right guy. That terrifies me.
But I do, deep in my heart, know better. When I started getting sober again nearly three years back, I began poring through recovery literature. Many sober people refer to what’s called the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book.” In it, I fell in love with a story called “The Man Who Mastered Fear.” I completely identified with this tale of an alcoholic who, as the book puts it, “spent 18 years running away, and then found he didn’t have to run.”
Having lost everything to his addiction, this man begins to rebuild his life, step by step, but, like me, puts off the thing that he fears the most. At the end of the short story, he finally addresses his fears. Here is what he has to say:
“Twenty odd years ago, I made a mess out of my own and only marriage. It was therefore not extraordinary that I should shy away from any serious thought of marriage for a great many years after joining A.A. Here was something requiring a greater willingness to assume responsibility and a larger degree of cooperation and give and take than even business requires of one. However, I must have felt, deep down inside myself, that living the selfish life of a bachelor was only half living. By living alone you can pretty much eliminate grief in your life, but you also eliminate joy. At any rate, the last great step toward a well-rounded life lay before me.” – Alcoholics Anonymous
The author eventually does marry a sober woman also in recovery, depending upon God and their recovery program “to help us make a success of this joint undertaking.”
Wow. So there you have it. Now, I first read this more than two years ago, when I was safely wrapped in the security of my self-imposed 12 months of solitude. In two dozen months since, I’ve rebuilt every other aspect of my life. Yet I still remain resistant to even the remote possibility of a romantic partnership. “I’ve got my friends. I’ve got my family. I’ve got my work,” I tell myself. I do … and that’s all good. And maybe I’m meant to remain single. Perhaps my destiny lies in being of service in celibacy and singlehood. But I can’t be sure until I make myself vulnerable to the alternative. The ultimate answer remains in God’s hands. But I am beginning to suspect I must do my part by being vulnerable to falling in love. To keep an open mind. I’m sharing this not to drone on about my self but to spur us all to consider where in life we’re refusing to be vulnerable. Where we’re proactively, defensively and, yes, selfishly avoiding the possibility that we’ll get hurt. Even at the price of missing the chance at something ultimately better. Something potentially sublime.
Are we willing to be vulnerable? Are we willing to become the masters of our fears?