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September 19th, 2020
The word ‘vulnerability’ occupies a strange intersection in language: on the one hand it indicates weakness, but in many touted contexts vulnerability is presented as something that requires strength to exercise. The juxtaposition certainly seems like a contradiction, for aren’t strength and weakness polar opposites?
Our tendency to think linearly extends to spectrums. We rate and gauge within a framework of absolute minimum and absolute maximum. But when it so happens that we come across a situation where the endpoints of a spectrum appear to intersect we can twist our linear framework into a new structure. Imagine for a moment, taking that straight line from worst to best and wrapping that line around a circle. In this form, the extreme endpoints are both as far apart as possible on the circle, and - paradoxically - side-by-side. At first this seems either nonsensical or gearing up to some kind of sly hack, however, we need to introduce one more dimension of structure.
Imagine a slinky, or a spring in your hands. Now imagine that you place this slinky or spring on a flat surface and position yourself so that you are looking straight down on the spiral. Adjust yourself so that the perspective resolves so that all you can see of the spiral is the top loop. What does it look like: a circle, naturally.
The attempt with this spiral design is to transform the one dimensional idea of a spectrum into a process - a cycle that functions through time: Each complete ‘circle’ within the spiral represents one ‘cycle’.
A good analogy here to evoke how this new structure works is to think of time, more specifically days, seasons and years. We experience time in a nested set of cycles. Each day has a zenith when the sun is at its highest and a nadir when the night is darkest. So too with seasons and years: the weather is warmest in summer and coldest in winter and this whole process cycles repeatedly through time, like breathing.
We might think of one loop around the spiral as a single day, but since this is a spiral, the process doesn’t simply repeat on the same circle, it ‘jumps’ to the next circular loop in the spiral, and so we can see a process that has identical iterations which are separate and compounding.
Now, how could such a convoluted spiralling structure make any sense of the relationship between strength, weakness, and vulnerability?
To see how strength and weakness can sit so paradoxically close on a circular spectrum, a practical example is needed: let’s say we have a weightlifter who can benchpress a whopping 300lbs. Now, in the context of bench pressing, when is this weight lifter at his weakest? Watch this weightlifter attempt to bench press 305lbs, and suddenly we can see the paradox: we see the weightlifter both at their strongest and their weakest, for what would happen if you suddenly added a measly little 20lb to the bar they are struggling to lift? Suddenly it would be too much, and this impressively strong weightlifter would have to abandon the exercise, because despite how much strength such a person has, they are weak in a context that is just beyond the limit of their strength. When the limits of strength are pushed, we feel weak, we become weak, but it’s only by engaging with that weakness, does our strength increase.
Weightlifting or not, we all know this experience, because it’s the same when we try to learn anything that’s completely new. At first we don’t understand, we feel overwhelmed with confusion and frustration. We feel crippled, and paralyzed because engaging with a subject in which we have no proficiency is to experience our weakness in that area. But it’s only be engaging again and again with this experience of weakness do we learn and slowly gain proficiency, and ultimately strength.
Suddenly, the dichotomy of strength and weakness, which seemed so simple and straightforward in the beginning now seems to require a kind of sliding mechanism where strength is constantly interacting with weakness in order to advance itself. These new requirements map on to the spiral previously described quite nicely.
Each iterative loop around the spiral, or circle, as viewed from above functions as a single instance of strength and weakness engaging with one another. We can, for example imagine the very beginning of this circular iteration representing the situation when we are at our weakest, say when we have added new weight to the bar that we seek to lift. As we put in the time and the reps with this new weight, a weight which represents the limit of our strength, we become less weak. We grow stronger, until we are ready to level up, and add more weight and then the whole process starts again, like going round and round up the spiral.
So how does something like vulnerability fit into this. Vulnerability has a meaning which points in opposite directions - seemingly contradictory directions: One indicates a weakness and a fragility which can break and result in real damage. The other indicates a weakness and a fragility which seeks to be broken in order to grow stronger.
The two directions are either advancing up the spiral, or sliding back down. We either move forward, or we decay.
Vulnerability isn’t some sort of alternative to strength, it is not a synonym for weakness. Vulnerability is the instance when we have to choose: to consciously engage with the feeling of weakness in order to grow stronger, or to coddle a sense of security through the illusion of strength in a context we can only hope won’t suddenly demand more.