Authenticity always involves vulnerability. When we really listen to ourselves, and let our presence in the world reflect what we care about most deeply, we are making ourselves truly available and opening the way for beautiful connections with others. We are realizing our full potential. We are inviting unimaginable, transformative experiences that we can meet wholeheartedly. But there are risks. What we have to offer can be rejected; what we long for can be denied; who we are can be dismissed. When we give ourselves wholeheartedly, we can be hurt.
Several times in my life, I’ve felt this kind of hurt. I know that I’ve done my best, yet it doesn’t matter—my best is not good enough. Maybe I’ve been as open as I can be, as responsible as I can be, as caring as I can be—and someone takes advantage of the opportunity to do harm. Our politics, social dynamics, and interpersonal struggles frequently show the same pattern. But I don’t think this is a reason to shut down. Just the opposite. I believe that being authentic—and vulnerable—is my greatest strength. I believe that authenticity and vulnerability are exactly what we all need right now. Pain is a possible outcome when we are authentic, but inauthenticity always leads to even more pain in the long run.
In order to be trusting without becoming victims, we need to have each other’s backs. This doesn’t mean that we should fight off bullies on behalf of others—the more we fight, the more we become bullies ourselves. It’s not useful to see others as helpless weaklings who need us to protect them. Authentic vulnerability is not neediness: it is strength; it is courage. Like trees who grow from the same root system, we need to stand together. And standing together means being true to ourselves and one another: letting others know that they are not alone, that we see their strength and courage, that we are willing to be strong, courageous, and vulnerable alongside them.
What I try to remember when I’m feeling wounded and raw, is that sweet, familiar quote from Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” When we’re being authentic, we’re not alone. We inspire others to walk with us, to grow with us, to dance with us, to ride along with us.
Being physically vulnerable is one of my own biggest challenges right now. I’m aware that, if a situation is emotionally charged, my neuro-muscular system will reflect my vulnerability in a way that I can’t disguise or control. I’ll develop tremors; I’ll become tearful; my heart will skip and skitter; my voice will shake; I might get faint, or have sudden chills or sweats. Even—or especially—when I trust the strength of my authenticity, my body can seem terribly weak and awkward. Sometimes, I feel ashamed of my infirmities and uncertain about my own truths. In these situations, the affirmations of others who stand with me can make all the difference.
In my dreams, I see the importance of our interconnectedness. The other dream figures may be seen as distinct individuals but may also be seen as aspects of myself, so the support, guidance and companionship I get from these figures may be exactly the support, guidance and companionship that I need to give myself (as well as receive from others) when I am feeling vulnerable.
Similarly, in waking life, if I want to risk standing for what I care about, even when my knees are shaking, then the people whose presence strengthens me will show me the same inner qualities I most need to strengthen in myself. And the vulnerable strength I am showing by standing with others will inspire them to find those vital qualities in themselves, too. In our waking or dreaming lives, our shared strengths and vulnerabilities make up our authenticity.
Our dreams may become more extraordinary as they reflect the true commitment we have made to our interdependent gifts, needs and callings.
On Our Way Together: I’ve been watching a film, but I leave it and go out to join a group of people, mostly elders, who are packing up for a big journey we’ll all be taking together. They stop their hectic packing to express concern that I left the film in the middle. They’re all talking at once, giving me advice and encouraging me to go back and finish it. I politely deflect their concern (I know that it was right for me to leave the film when I did), then help them pack instead. I’m able to organize everybody so we can set off on our pilgrimage now.
As we are going out through the doorway, I hesitate because I’m having difficulty with my weak neck and stiff back—afraid I’ll lose my balance taking the big step over the threshold. A tall elderly man with a distinctive, homely, friendly face notices my hesitation. He makes a shy, respectful gesture, like a little bow, and extends a hand. When I take his hand, he draws me into his arms and gallantly dances me over the threshold, then very, very gently dips me… I give in to the movement, let him take my weight, and feel the peace and surrender of this falling backward, trusting, being held safe.
Then we are all on a bus. At first it seems like most of the people with me here are men, but then I see that there are quite a few women, mostly lesbians, toward the front. I’m toward the middle-back—maybe I should move forward? But my position doesn’t matter. I notice the diversity of faces, and how they all feel like family to me—trusted companions. I look out the bus windows, and see the cosmos: swirling galaxies of stars, and huge colorful planets. We’re on an awesome journey together.
At the beginning of this dream, my reality feels somewhat superficial to me—it’s just a film, a diversion, and something else seems more important. However, walking out before the film is over evokes a more irrevocable kind of “early departure”—the existential question that has been on my mind so much these past two years: Am I going to die before my time? If my illness causes my life to be shortened, will there be a sense of waste, a sense of leaving something unfinished? I don’t feel ready for my final journey… and my elders in the dream, who are perhaps more ready than I am, are concerned that I shouldn’t be too hasty.
But, accepting the support of others doesn’t always mean taking their advice. I listen, and value their concern for me, but I have a clear sense that I know what I’m doing. I am going with them. It’s a sacred journey, a pilgrimage, not necessarily anything final, not necessarily death. When they see that I am resolved, they trust me not only to come along with them, but even to help them prepare, and take the lead. Some of them are frail and tired, my assurances make them aware of their own strength, so it’s possible to complete our packing and set out. We work together to make the pilgrimage possible for all of us.
As we prepare to cross the threshold together [see the previous post “Howling Together,” for another threshold crossing]—I feel my own physical vulnerability and hesitate. I’m not sure I can “step up,” and fear “losing my balance.” The gentleman standing beside me shows me his authentic face: odd, individual, imperfect, kind. He is very tall, shy and apparently clumsy in his movements. But his gracious gesture initiates a dance of mutual authenticity.
Graciousness (the gesture of invitation) becomes gracefulness (the grace of the dance itself). When I accept his help, the balance I was afraid of losing is found between us—we move easily together. The dip reminds me of a time when Holly and I were first falling in love over thirty years ago: We were walking down a street late at night when she suddenly turned and tackled me playfully, so we both fell over backward onto the soft damp grass of someone’s front yard, but the fall was so easy that it was as if we’d floated to the ground. We lay there, laughing, wondering why we weren’t bruised at all… When the man in the dream dips me, I let myself relax and trust. I can fall backward, naturally, and no harm will come to me.
In the final scene, I notice the differences between people. I imagine us divided into male and female, maybe gay and straight, and the casual gender split on this bus reminds me of the more insidious racial split that segregated human beings into those who got to ride up front and those who rode in the back. But I don’t need to see the people on this bus for their differences. Though we’re a diverse group—various races, genders, ages—we feel like family. Where we sit doesn’t matter. We’re surrounded by windows. We’re surrounded by the whole cosmos, the dazzling colors against the rich darkness of infinite space.
Finally, the context for authentic individuality and authentic community is this infinite, spacious universe we share. When we are willing to be ourselves, to share ourselves, and to accept one another as companions, we have all the glorious space we need to venture into the unknown. Dancing, riding, or walking together—this is our sacred journey home.