Leaning into vulnerability

This essay was originally published by The Good Men Project 

Often, we become friends with those who are close to us in proximity. You could argue, that some of these relationships are enthusiastically inaccurate when it comes to friendship. You know what I'm talking about: Co-workers, neighbors, colleagues and other soccer dads.

Without the workplace, locality, or field that brings you close together, there probably wouldn't be a relationship.

Other connections, however, are incredibly impractical - but done so intentionally because it's worth the effort. My relationship with Abby was not grounded in convenience. I chose her. She became my companion.

As a young lady, she had fresh legs. Her sclera in each eye was white a snowflake. She was a sharp-minded thing; somehow she knew when I was leaving for an extended period and would tuck her tail and pull her ears back by the door each time I set off on a daily crusade (a.k.a work). She paired that act with wimps that would soften any man's heart.

Abby is an old girl now and has since been adopted by my Pa who takes good care of her. She moves slowly these days. Every time I visit, it seems like a few more gray whiskers have claimed real estate around her snout. Her eyes aren't as white anymore either. But she's still a good girl; always has been.

I almost lost Abby prematurely one day.

Blowing off some steam at a local park to doing pull ups and burpees, I tied Abby to a tree. Despite her size, she'd always been a feisty little thing. I'd always wonder what she thought of herself. Her fierceness did not match her stature.

True to her form, on this day she thought she could take down a German Shepard. My headphones muted any of the exchange, but I did see Abby losing her mind as the German Shepard and the owner made circles around the park. I didn't much attention to it.

Breathing like a small horse, I had finished my workout. Hands on my knees, sweat dripping from my nose. I glance over at Abby; she's lying down. The German Shepard is gone.

Something is not right. Abby never lies on her side in the grass. My walk towards her turns into a run once I realize this.

She wasn't lying down - she was fighting for her life. The only conclusion I could come up with was that she had tangled herself around the leash chasing the German Shepard. The leash was now wrapped around her neck so tight I thought her blood-red eyeballs were going to pop right out of their sockets.

I acted quickly. Unraveling the leash as fast as I could without panicking, it felt like nothing could go fast enough. I tried not to look in her eyes, but she kept demanding that I do. A few glances let me know that I was the only thing between her surviving and the leash winning.

And then another layer of emotion flooded in. I suddenly wanted to run away and not having anything to do wth this. Abandoning the scene so I couldn't be blamed for it sounded lustfully tempting. I even thought about why I was even risking myself in an attempt to save her. There was so much on the line; it would be easier not even to try.

This isn't a story about my heroism. It's about vulnerability.

We savor the experience when we see others being courageously vulnerable. But we shy away from being vulnerable ourselves. I experienced this luke-warmness first hand while Abby was losing her life. I feared that my vulnerability would not be enough. I feared that the risk wasn't worth the failure. I feared that my imperfection would only lead to more shame if I couldn't keep her alive.

To conquer these thoughts, I had to lean into the entropy. I had to show up at that moment with all of my brokenness. I had to be "all-in" even with the high probability of failure. I had to be content with the residue of an unsuccessful attempt. And maybe, running away in panic wold have only made things worse.

This scenario reminds me of a story from Philosopher Michael Zimmerman:

A school boy was once given a pair of Chinese handcuffs, a seemingly harmless little toy with an opening at each end. The item was given to him as a gift with no instruction. Out of curiosity, he slipped his right forefinger in on one end and his left in the other.
He soon found out that the harder he pulled in opposite direction, the tighter the grip became. Feeling restricted, the boy panicked and pulled harder and harder. The cuffs compressed. Out of nowhere, the boy thought to try the opposite of what his emotional reaction tempted him to do.
He leaned his fingers into the cuffs, and the grip slowly loosened; allowing him to work his fingers free.

This is the paradox: Leaning into what is clutching us is what will allow us to work ourselves free.

Abby has long since forgotten that day. But I'll never forget it because it taught me this: Panic shouts at us to run. Vulnerability whispers to us to lean in.

As I say my goodbyes to ma and pa each time I pay a visit, Abby tucks her tail and pulls her ears back. She pairs that act with a few tired wimps. But instead of putting this show on at the front door, she preserves her energy and shows her love parked in her day bed next to the doggy treats.