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The Power of Vulnerability

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The other day, I heard Arianna speak at Harvard's Kennedy School of Public Policy, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about her new book, The Third World America. She pointed out that we now have a poverty level of 15 percent in America, two-thirds of Americans believe their kids will be worse off economically, and a 100 million Americans are already worse off than their parents.

In spite of the bad economic news all around us, Arianna and I share something in what we both see: a ray of hope. People are self-organizing, taking action to help others to deal with misfortunes, from credit card terrors to mortgage and foreclosure horrors.

It's the revolution hidden in plain sight that I saw in researching my book, Iron Butterflies: Women transforming themselves and the world. A revolution led primarily by women, women like Arianna, who amplify and trail blaze a constructive rather destructive path into the future, a movement that is largely off the radar screen.

A society based on domination is imploding as another reality emerges. We've been a domination-based society for over 5,000 years, a reality that defines power as power over others. This manifests in hierarchy, frontier mentality, and lone ranger leadership. To be sure, this has led to technological advances and great architecture, but also to war, genocide, racism, sexism and environmental degradation. We've come to the limits of this way of thinking in our global, interconnected, interdependent world.

There is a silver lining in the current economic crisis. This crisis has actually created conditions for a new way to emerge, a society based on cooperation and collaboration.
A key to this social transformation is in how we look at vulnerability, which I define as a profound openness. In a domination-based society, vulnerability is viewed only as a weakness, something to deny, disparage, dismiss. It's all but taboo. That's because in a domination-based society, vulnerability is taken as an opportunity to diminish or exploit another as a way of elevating oneself.

Iron Butterflies showed me a different way to look at vulnerability. That openness is also an opportunity for a depth of connection with yourself and others that is not otherwise possible. When we can accept, allow, and address vulnerabilities, several things happen. First of all, vulnerability is all around us, often masked as aggression. People are afraid, uncertain, confused. Out of fear, instead of turning to others, they lash out at them.

When we can accept vulnerability in ourselves and others, we level the playing field. We are all vulnerable; it is our shared humanity. If you're not connected to your vulnerability, you believe you don't need anyone, and that you can just give orders. But when people are connected to their vulnerability, they are more willing to cooperate and collaborate. In this way, vulnerability actually helps create conditions for a more cooperative society. Arianna pointed out how people, although in very difficult times, are reaching out to each other. These difficult times are actually teaching people the art of cooperation and collaboration.

Cooperation and collaboration are actually complex activities and require a high level of relational intelligence. True collaboration demands being able to tolerate a certain level of vulnerability that comes with openness: open to trust, open to growth, open to mutual action, open to self-examination. When people open themselves in this way, they can participate in co-creating a new society. The power of vulnerability is in its capacity to transform the meaning of power itself, from power over others to power with and for others.