When I was preparing to move, people kept telling me I’m really brave. I don’t think of myself as brave. I don’t feel brave. When I think of brave, I think of the characters in the movie that face scary bears head on. Me, I prefer things safe and routine. And yet, here I am in a place where things are unpredictable (at least to me) and full of unknowns.
Shortly after I arrived in China, I saw someone mention she was re-reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead to help her as she faced a situation where she was feeling vulnerable. I decided that since there’s no vulnerability like learning a foreign language, I should probably read it. I downloaded it for kindle (what a luxury!) and found it very applicable to the ups and downs of learning Chinese and figuring out life in a foreign country.
Brown defines “vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (pg. 34). Over the last few weeks, as I have searched for an apartment, signed a lease, and worked at settling in I have felt the uncertainty and risk in new ways. I felt that uncertainty as I signed a lease in a foreign language (it was translated into English, but the Chinese is the binding part). I felt uncertain as they explained how to pay for utilities. The electric you add money to a card (either at a bank or the post office) and then stick the card in the meter/machine in the hallway to add the money to. The cooking gas has a meter in the kitchen, and every so often (monthly?) someone will leave a paper on the door for me to write down what the current reading is and then put a bill on the door. I think the water works in a similar way, but I will probably have to ask again. It is a vulnerable feeling to not know exactly how to pay the bills, because it is a different system than setting up automatic bill pay to Consumers Energy and DTE.
I felt so vulnerable when I realized I was trying (unsuccessfully) to unlock someone else’s door! This is the story: I live in building B, entrance 4, but I hadn’t fully paid attention to the entrance 4 part. I came in a different gate than I had used before and saw the B, but didn’t pay attention to the number. It wasn’t 4. The layout of the building is the same so I went to my apartment number in that building and tried to unlock the door. When the key didn’t turn at all, I started to wonder if I was actually in the right building. Good thing it didn’t seem like they were home and I didn’t see anyone else!
I feel vulnerable over so many decisions. When I was buying a cell phone I wondered if I was making a good decision (still wondering, actually). Were the salespeople really trying to help me or just get a better commission for themselves (if they even work on commission, I really have no idea)? Every little thing can be a risk. This is probably true wherever you live, but the feeling is exacerbated when you are so far out of your comfort zone. The feeling is exacerbated by only understanding some of the language that is passing by you. There is always the question: what am I missing or not picking up?
There is an element of risk and emotional exposure every time I open my mouth in Chinese. Even in English, I would rather think my words through carefully before I speak them. I was never the person in class with my hand up before the professor finished the question. I need at least a few seconds to articulate my thoughts. So I take a risk to force myself to take to speak Chinese. I would rather not say anything at all than say something wrong, even though when I do speak it doesn’t always come out right. Most people are quite gracious with my mangled sentences and work hard to understand me.
I think my question, the reason I decided to read this book, is what do I do with this vulnerability. It is part of my life as a sojourner in a foreign land. I can try to hide behind the behaviors Brown identifies as the armor we usually try to use to keep vulnerability away: expecting the worst, perfectionism, and numbing. But when facing this much vulnerability, either these won’t work or I will end up in horribly unhealthy patterns.
I don’t have all the answers yet of how to live with vulnerability. I suspect it is something I’ll be working on a long time. In the last few weeks it has helped me to identify when I am feeling vulnerable and to acknowledge it as normal. And then I’ve been using Brown’s vulnerability prayer: “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen” (pg. 42). Often, that’s the hardest part—actually walking into the cell phone store or actually opening my mouth. And so I pray for the courage to show up, the courage to at least try.
I’m also trying to remember the Biblical theme that “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Co 1:27). I’m trying to remember the long list of barren women, teenage boys, and social outcasts that God used. God shows up in vulnerability, in people who show up and try to be faithful. And so I pray, “God give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen. And help me to remember that you are with me even when, perhaps especially when, I am feeling vulnerable.”