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Vulnerability and the pandemic

Vulnerability and the pandemic

Hannah Rich reflects on how the last year has made her think differently about vulnerability. 28/04/2021

Even before the pandemic threw it into sharp relief, vulnerability was something of a buzzword. Brené Brown’s 2010 TED talk on the power of vulnerability has amassed 53 million views and been translated into over fifty languages. In it, she tells us that vulnerability sounds like truth, feels like courage and never constitutes weakness. Her examples of what it means to become vulnerable include saying ‘I love you’ before the other person in a relationship. It is this notion that to be vulnerable is somehow empowering that has worked its way into the zeitgeist of pop psychology. Saint Paul got there first when he wrote in 2 Corinthians that ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’.

I once heard a Jewish writer talking about how they thought the Hebrew saying ‘gam zu l’tovah‘, meaning ‘this too is for best’ was something only you could say about your own circumstances. In other words, it was no use for well–intentioned people to find purpose in your suffering, but if you yourself reached that conclusion then it was powerful. The value of Brené Brown’s take on vulnerability also lies in finding and claiming it yourself. I think the same might be true about the biblical line that when I am weak, then I am strong. It is a realisation you have to get to for yourself, This is precisely why it is so uncomfortable to find it defined by something beyond your control.

Brown talks about the courage of being openly imperfect and vulnerable. Courage, she says, shares the same linguistic root as ‘heart’ and originally meant ‘to tell your story with your whole heart’. She describes the courageous, the vulnerable, the ones we should seek to emulate as ‘the whole–hearted’. It strikes me here that much of my own vulnerability stems directly from the fact that my own physical heart is not, and has never been, whole. (I have written before about how the metaphorical language of the heart collides with the experience of a lifelong heart condition.)

There is a certain courage in vulnerability, but it is not always something we get to choose. Enter the pandemic to make that much clear. In the last year, the most common usage of the word vulnerability has moved from the domain of inspirational social media graphics to that of public health. In addition to the two million classed as clinically extremely vulnerable and thus required to shield, there are an estimated seven million people in the UK in vaccination priority group 6. This covers those aged between 16–64 with underlying health conditions that put us at ‘a higher risk of serious disease or mortality’ if we were to contract the coronavirus.

In normal times, not all the conditions that put you in this group are imminently life threatening or even life limiting. They range from compromised immune systems to asthma, from diabetes to the lack of a spleen or, in some cases, pregnancy. You could have lived with these medical realities for years and barely thought about them between check–ups until the pandemic arrived.

If you have spent a lifetime defying an underlying condition, it goes against all instincts to concede your body’s vulnerability and so it has been a strange emotional ride of a pandemic in Group 6. We find ourselves in a medical no–man’s land, not quite vulnerable enough to need to shield yet still wrestling with a label that includes the phrase ‘higher risk of mortality’. It is hard to convey how it felt to hear people dispute the lockdown or dismiss the death toll because the majority of those who lost their lives were vulnerable, as if that meant they were dying anyway rather than living.

Maybe Brené Brown would argue that this defeats her point, but most days my body is strong enough that its vulnerability doesn’t get in the way. I found myself sobbing in the shower at the gym when news of the impending lockdown came on the radio and I started to confront what that might mean for me. It is an oxymoron that the body that carried me on Couch to 5k runs and swam a kilometre before work this morning is the same body classed as at risk. The irony was not lost on me when I walked seven miles across South London to get to a medical appointment at a time when public transport felt too dangerous.

It is not that I have never faced any of this before. I am no stranger to medical matters and imperfect bodies. One of my most vivid and earliest childhood memories is of being on a beach, staring at a boy in swimming shorts and trying to get my head round why he looked so weird to me. The answer, it turned out, was in the smoothness of the skin on his chest, without a silvery–white scar zipping up the middle. At six years old, that was just my default. Scars and medical procedures had been part of my life for longer than birthdays had. It is more that this year has made me unpick and unlearn much of how I feel about it. (Kathryn Bromwich’s piece about how long Covid has forced her to confront how her identity is shaped by her body captured this beautifully).

I have spent years perfecting the way I talk about medical experiences. I bristle when my heart is described as having a ‘defect’, because defective is something you take back to the shop for a refund. When my consultant’s notes once included the very technical diagnosis of ‘incompetence’, I grew defensive of my poor, long–suffering mitral valve. I like the imprecision of phrases like ‘glitch’ and ‘dodgy’ because you can laugh those off or bear them lightly. ‘Condition’ feels like the most neutral and easiest descriptor to embrace, because being human is itself a condition.

My coping mechanism has always been to frame my experiences in terms of how tough they make me, rather than any associated weakness. As a teenager, it took a particular persistent chest infection which six rounds of antibiotics could not shift before anyone realised my spine had curved to the point of starting to squash a lung. Yet I tell that as a war story and wear it as a badge of honour rather than anything traumatic. If you wear armour either as a recognition of vulnerability to attack or because you see yourself as a warrior equal to the battle, then the full torso plaster cast I wore for months after spinal surgery was surely the latter. Fragility is harder to spin into something empowering or even vaguely humorous. Perhaps it comes with the territory of clinicalness, but clinical vulnerability is not as sexy a concept as the one that Brené Brown expounds.

In her essay collection ‘Places I’ve Taken My Body’, author Molly McCully Brown muses intimately on her faith and disability in the context of a poem by Christian Wiman called ‘Every Riven Thing‘. She says that the word she ‘can’t get over here’ – and neither can I – is ‘riven’ (‘God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made’). There is a violence in it, a sense of being ripped, split, severed, which seems at odds with the stillness of creation and belonging.

I have never found the same solace that some do in the psalm that speaks about us being formed fearfully and wonderfully made in our mother’s womb because it was precisely there that my flaws were knitted in, a few dropped stitches in the cardiac pattern. Yet, as Christian Wiman’s poem tells us, God is the maker of riven and vulnerable things too. Maybe the really radical thing about ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ is not that these two terms are connected, but that they can coexist, strength and vulnerability simultaneously, in the same created world, even in the same body.

McCully Brown goes on to write about ‘the idea that being riven is a state of grace and potential.’ My vaccination appointment, when it came, also felt like experiencing grace itself. To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase though, it was costly grace rather than cheap grace. There is privilege in being afforded the vaccine ahead of those older than me; greater privilege still in living in a country where it is so readily available. But it is an ambiguous privilege when it came at the cost of acknowledging, finally, my own vulnerabilities and learning to extend grace to myself. I suspect, then, that I am not the only one for whom the lasting impact of the pandemic is a more complex relationship with vulnerability as something imposed rather than empowering. There’s grace for that too, I hope.


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Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘Growing Good’ (2020).

Posted 28 April 2021

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