One of my youngest daughter's favorite books is “We Are Going on a Bear Hunt.” The premise of the book is a family going on a bear hunt. As they walk to find the bear, they encounter many obstacles—a forest, mud, river—and they always say: “We can't go over it, we can't go under it, oh, no, we have to go through it!” I always thought that was good advice for many situations in life, including fear.
Fear is a primary emotion: we are wired to feel fear in order to protect ourselves when we see danger coming, it is a basic survival mechanism. At at the bottom of fear is our vulnerability to danger. We feel fear when we think we are vulnerable—from being physically hurt, to getting sick, to being hurt in our relationships, etc. Anything and everything can produce feelings of fear if we think we are vulnerable and exposed to the possibility of getting hurt. But what lies at the bottom of fear? Our vulnerability.
One of my favorite authors and researches in the field of vulnerability is Brené Brown. If you haven't heard of it her, you need to look her up. She started out her research on the subject of shame and during her research, she had a profound “spiritual awakening.” As she looked at those who dealt with shame in a healthy way, she could see a pattern in their thoughts and behaviors. She could see that these people differed significantly from those who did not deal with shame in a healthy way. The difference was that they had a very strong sense of worthiness, love and belonging. They had the ability to be connected to others and that gave them a strong sense of purpose and meaning. They sought out human connections in the face of the fear of rejection and failure. They also had the courage to share their imperfect selves with others, they had compassion and connection as a result of living authentically. It was the connections with others that made their lives meaningful and fulfilling.
So vulnerability is at the core of fear and shame. And if we are fearful, Brené Brown says, we will find ways to protect our vulnerability by escaping it and replacing it with something else. How do we do it? We numb our minds and our vulnerability. Instead, we get in debt, we use food, we use drugs, we shop, we perfect our bodies and children, we pretend that what we do doesn't affect others, we hide who we truly are, we lose the connection with have with those around us.
The funny thing about emotions is that once you numb one emotion, Brown claims, you numb all the other emotions as well. If we numb our fear or vulnerability, we will also numb joy, gratitude, happiness, etc. We cannot live a life of numbness without suffering the emotional consequences. But there is good news in vulnerability—it is not just the core for fear and shame, it is also the birthplace for connection, joy, worthiness, creativity, belonging, and love. How do we get there, you ask? We can't go over it, we can't go under it, we have to go through it!
So, according to Brown, how do we stop numbing our vulnerability and letting it do the work it is meant to do—to create joy, belonging, love, and worthiness? We need to “lean into—or go through” vulnerability and fear and let ourselves be seen as we truly are, we need to love with our whole hearts, practice gratitude and joy, instead of staying in the fear of “What If?” Going through it means being afraid, recognizing that we feel fear, but doing it anyway! Having the courage to be vulnerable.
Do you know that there are close to 80 verses on the Bible about fear and courage? In most of them, God invites us to let go of our fear and enter into a relationship with Him. Sounds familiar? It is our connection with others that makes our lives meaningful and fulfilling. We are made for connection and God constantly reminds us to stay connected with Him as we go through our fear. Our relationship with God and our ability to recognize our vulnerability and our reliance on His certainty is what helps us create meaning in the middle of fear and vulnerability. Our connection with God allows us to take our vulnerability as a gift and as Brené Brown would say “lean into it”, we know that God is there to catch us if we fall, to keep our hearts and minds at peace as we deal with fear.
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