In August, Clark Writes administrator Tyler Sirokman and I were discussing our writing project ideas for the semester, and we discovered that both our interests were centered on a single concept: vulnerability. We’re excited to begin presenting the result of our combined efforts, “The Vulnerability Series.”
Tyler will be addressing vulnerability as a theme by exploring its relationship with power and personal growth, and I’ll be attempting to unmask my own vulnerability through creative writing, hopefully learning to fully embrace it along the way. We want to make you think, make you feel, and make you a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Read Tyler’s first entry, “Powerful Vulnerability: The Bigger Picture and the Interpersonal Application” below.
Powerful Vulnerability: The Bigger Picture and the Interpersonal Application
I promise this isn’t going to be a boring analysis of a particularly well-known literary work. That being said, allow me to begin with the following example from the ever-famous epic, Beowulf.
In the famous Old English epic poem, Beowulf, the poet vividly describes the scene in which Beowulf — a strong, admirable warrior — prepares himself to battle the seemingly-impervious Grendel, his viciously antagonistic, monstrous opponent who has killed countless Danes time and time again out of cold blood. Taking place just before the battle, the poet offers the following description:
“[Beowulf] placed complete trust
in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor.
He began to remove his iron breastmail,
took off the helmet and handed his attendant
the patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece,
‘So it won’t be a cutting edge I’ll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no idea of the arts of war,
of shield or swordplay although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.’” (Lines 669-673, 679-687).
The passage above displays Beowulf’s conscious decision to rid himself of his armor and his weapon an unconventional, and arguably disadvantageous strategy of combat, especially when considering the ruthlessness of his seemingly-impervious opponent. In making this decision to bring himself to the battle as a body — an exposed, fallible body without weapons and armor — the author presents Beowulf in a way that suggests something considerably anomalous about the relationship between power and vulnerability. The typical, surface-level understanding of power and vulnerability is one that dichotomizes the two terms, rendering them the antithesis of each other. However, in this instance, by shedding himself of the most practical tools that are specifically designed for his protection and triumph, and deciding to “trust in the strength of his limbs and the Lord’s favor” (669-670), Beowulf essentially brings forth a unique demonstration of, what can properly be defined as, “powerful vulnerability.” His opponent, Grendel, bears a reputation of ruthlessness, merciless power, and a clear lack of humanity (in both appearance and behavior) — a characterization that serves to contrast and magnify Beowulf’s.
Thus, in Beowulf’s victory, the author depicts a battle between two very different types of power: the one that recognizes, incorporates, and fears not its own human limitations and vulnerability successfully triumphs over the one that lacks humanity altogether.
From a “bigger picture” perspective, this battle between Beowulf and Grendel has the faculty to challenge us to think critically about the different types of leadership and demonstrations of power seen all throughout the human narrative. Images come to mind of various leaders, both good and bad: the “Caesars” (those who seek empire, absolute power, and the exaltation of themselves) and the “MLK’s*” (those who seek justice, the redefinition of power, and the collective empowerment of those who have been forced to the margins of society). It seems as though these two types of leadership, with their very different ways of demonstrating power, have always been in contention with each other. Any history textbook could give you a timeline of Caesars, and any textbook could give you a roster of MLKs who rise out of the depths in opposition to their respective Caesars.
Thus, if we choose to construe Beowulf’s willingness to embrace his vulnerability as a symbolic event in which he is really choosing to fight the embodiment of merciless, powerful inhumanity (aka Caesar-like qualities) with his raw, limited, yet powerful humanity, then we essentially find ourselves encountering the very blueprints that allow us to transform the relationship between power and justice, as well as the way we use our own vulnerability as the impetus for growth and the achievement of holiness**.
On a more individual and interpersonal level, the question we are left to wrestle with is how to apply this lesson from Beowulf in our day-to-day life (without ripping arms off of our enemies, demonstrating violence, and all that jazz). For starters, perhaps this means being a bit bolder within the walls of the classroom. As Beowulf sheds himself of his armor and weapons, let us shed our anxieties of being wrong or construed as stupid. Granted, it may appear to be just a class discussion, but in the eyes of many, education and the pursuit thereof is a significantly, if not an inherently political endeavor. You know, the whole “knowledge is power” concept? By Beowulf’s standards, to achieve this power is to first take a risk and make yourself vulnerable to criticism, and ultimately, the inevitable truth that you don’t know everything.
Another idea, perhaps, is redefining the nature of our interpersonal relationships — how we engage with the people around us. It seems like the trend for liberal arts students to “rally” behind social movements and campaigns (ie the number of politically-correct language committees, the feminist movement, other equality groups regarding race and socio-economic status), but like most organizations in the world, there seems to be a gap between the ideology and the practice thereof. Clark students are always “challenging convention,” but some, if not most, only do it when it is convenient. Perhaps we should adhere to the call for us to walk the walk and actually take our practice and ideology off of the ever-convenient campus green and begin “shouldering” the real world.
Even simpler than that, perhaps we are simply called to treat our peers, the coffee shop barista, the janitors, and the seemingly average person as if their character has an immeasurable amount of depth, as if they are an embodiment of humanity that needs to be appreciated and challenged in order to grow. Perhaps we’re too scared, indifferent, fill-in-the-blank-adjective-that-describes-our-inabilities-and-insecurities to really KNOW someone for what they possess intrinsically and qualitatively. It’s easy for us to engage from an arm’s distance — assessing people by what they appear to be on the surface or by how sound their ideological convictions are with our own. Thus, as Beowulf sheds himself of his armor, shed yourself of the superficial masks that prevent you from engaging with the world around you authentically, for your chances of planting seeds and impacting those around you are much greater. At face value, this “challenge” (as I call it) might not appear to be so bold, nor rooted in grand empowerment, but beyond the surface, an authentic relationship is one that constantly fosters reciprocal, symbiotic growth, and it takes a great measure of courage and vulnerability to embrace that very growth.
As a benediction, go about your days embracing your vulnerability: use it as the impetus of growth, the proper counterpart for power, and the reminder of your humanity.
* By no means and I trying to tame the prophetic fire of MLK. Just using him as the paramount example of selflessness and the human devotion to justice. ** You ain't gotta be religious to value holiness. Get that mind, body, spirit unified, you feel me. Holiness, to me, is a bifurcated concept: (1) the contentment with/unity of oneself (mind, body, spirit) and its natural, continual growth; (2) a relational, beyond-the-self idea, in which a person attempts to live peaceably and symbiotically with everyone.
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