06/29/2010 05:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Vulnerability Leads to Courage

There is a secret in the air, one of those secrets that most people ignore but still feel: Each and every one of us is vulnerable, scared, and even more so when that part of our inner being goes denied. There is another secret, or rather it is learned misinformation that respect for human development, for a child's first steps towards trust of self and others, is a waste of time, takes too long and is impractical.

On this second point, nothing could be further from the truth. When I worked in residential treatment with very disturbed and chaotic children, the way they looked was, in many cases, exotic. Their friendliness that first day was enchanting. One of the staff took me aside and asked, "Want to know how come they are so appealing?" To my nod he replied, "They have no shyness, no caution, and no self-protection. The next time you see them they might be climbing the walls."

It was in that moment that I learned about the value of shyness as a form of self-protection, of caution, of scoping out the field.

Since then, I have learned much from little children. I don't mean to suggest that we erect boundaries to keep feelings or knowledge out, but rather that we form ways to say when something is too much. When there is a safety valve, there is the freedom to explore.

Just yesterday I sat with a woman at the pool in Italy, and she told me about herself. She was born without a certain valve in her heart, and it wasn't till she was twenty years old that she had an operation which allowed her to enjoy fairly regular functioning on a physical level. She said that she still resents that she didn't get the operation sooner, and she doesn't know why. We spoke of swimming and of her fear of deep water and anything else she has to do before she is ready. I had some Hydro Fit equipment with me, and since I had only learned to swim for real over a year ago, I asked her if she wanted some tips. She said please, as long as she didn't have to do anything herself.

I showed her my rhythm, the one that has come to work for me, where my breathing seems easy and where I can stop if feel uncomfortable. And then I began to use the water weights. She watched, sitting on the ledge of the pool. After about five minutes she asked if she could try. I made sure we were in water in which she could stand, and was amazed she could float.

She wasn't my student or my patient, just a fellow human who, because she found in me, someone she could entrust her vulnerability, she had become more human that day. Before, she was the wife of the incredibly artistic Lamberto who cuts hair the way he learned it from Vidal Sassoon. He is an artist and she is his wife. But yesterday she became Franca, a real person with whom I exchanged some of my own stories and fears.

Vulnerability is our first communication in life. Our cries, be they for comfort or out of hunger or fear, are signals that we need validation. Even if -- to modern parents -- when sending a child to a time-out or allowing them to cry it out seems to work, we have no idea what the implications of being ignored in the formative months and years does to a child's inner sense of safety. Our society is made up of so many knee jerk reactions and public debates that seem more like gladiator fights to the death that we may have imbued our species with the tragic flaw of not allowing our vulnerability to aid us in developing a sense of safety that can expand to courage. Which begs the question: Can we allow ourselves to defend with confidence and make sound judgments by listening to alternative points of view or even to change our minds when that is the bravest and most sound thing to do?

A propos of an association with recent headlines, the spate of politicians ruined by sexual scandal leads me to believe that we are taught to mimic moral strength and so we wind up lying about our values. This is because real values are something intimate that cannot be expressed merely as political correctness. Also, if we are learning and teaching our children, to mouth tolerance and goodness and justice, but are fighting in our adult playgrounds like wounded animals who want to kill, we are rather missing the point.

It is hard to stop the adrenalin once it starts. It's also just as hard to stop liberal hate and self-righteousness as it is to stop the conservative type. Scorn is popular. Vulnerability isn't.

For example, trying to initiate a conversation by admitting confusion over the lack of psychological concern about our nation's compulsive entry into wars on personal and global levels is often met with something like, "Interesting but it's not my field." I may be vulnerable to criticism and sensitive to the hurt of others, but I'm not ignorant about this business of whose field is it anyway.

The simple fact is that it is our field, and those who say it isn't are ignoring their own vulnerability and connection to themselves and others -- on a personal and global scale.

Just think, what if all the walls of the earth actually crash in on us? Would those of us who actually do not pine for the End Times say, "Pity, I didn't realize it was actually my field after all." And one more thing, in the absence of certainty, it is empathy -- rather than punishment -- which transforms the doer. It makes those of us who decide more in touch with feelings, needs, and even danger, better regulated.

Let's dare to start the conversation: Whose field is it anyway?