I’m a Sucker for a White Whale

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”

                                          – Kurt Vonnegut

I was a straight-up playa until the 6th grade, when I decided to settle down with the class nerd.

We’ll call him Ishmael.

Ishy wore thick glasses and liked to spend non-school days building with K’nex and writing exhaustive video game manuals (The “Zelda: Ocarina of Time” guide was our scripture. F yeah blasphemy!) I was a jock and hadn’t yet developed my weird fully enough to be cast out of / freed from the cool-people group, so I was definitely dating down at this point– the math teacher’s exact words were, “Way to go, Ishmael.” But I was smitten. 

Long story short, it took us until the 8th grade to kiss. What can I say, I’m a girl with boundaries. Or moats. Whatever. Anyway, shortly thereafter, he called me to say we should chat on MSN Messenger (as close to texting as we could get, and it tied up the phone lines because– hang on to your pants, kids– we still had dial-up), and proceeded to break up with me over IM. The reason he gave me: his parents thought we should date other people. And shortly after that, someone told me the real reason: he’d been cheating on me with a freshman (I’ll pause for reaction. Got your breath? Good, read on). I spent most of the next year crying, pining, marveling at the physical pain of a broken heart, and generally making a hormonal ass of myself, thereby ruining any chance of procuring a date for the prom four years down the road. And that was the official end of my status as a straight-up playa / spoken-for playa.

The callouses have sort of built up since then.

When it comes to relationships, my bewilderment is matched only by curiosity. I’ve done my share of shrinking for friends and family since the age of eleven, doling out advice without any real experience to back it up (not that anyone seemed to mind). Being on this end of the therapy for so long has maybe had a hand in convincing my subconscious to run screaming in the opposite direction at even the threat of intimacy, romantic or not. But for what it’s worth, I have culled a few general tenets of love and its derivatives, the chiefest among them being how absolutely crucial it is to approach this other human– if you’re lucky enough to have a human to call yours– with as much vulnerability as you can muster.

Because my approach to these things is now limited almost entirely to the rational, I looked up the etymology of this “vulnerable.” It derives from the Latin vulnus, meaning “wound.” I suppose then that “vulnerability” would suggest the ability to be wounded. It’s understandable why we went with that over “woundability,” which rather catches on the tongue. And it makes sense that we as a species have arrived at the fallacious conclusion that to be vulnerable is to be fragile.

However, as much as I wish I’d thought this up all on my own, I am not as clever as all that. While the raw material was all in my brain, Ted Talks was the Great Fairy / porn star to my Link. Zelda nerds, you know the one. 

Not pictured: the exploding fountain beneath her.

I may have gotten off track there. Ted Talks crystallized what I’d suspected but never been able to articulate, is what I was getting at. In her Ted TalkBrene Brown (NOT a scary porn fairy) explained what I hadn’t til then known I’d known. She describes vulnerability as a deep-seated fear and the one thing that just might save us poor saps from ourselves. I remember not wanting her to be right:

…in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

but knowing she was. The particular chunks of life I have seen, coupled with the craving for more of it than I suspect any human has the right to expect, have pooled in my marrow and resulted in an unbearable awkwardness when confronted with anything resembling a letting down of the guard. So I fidget or say something I regret, commit these social sins to preserve the brittle contract I’ve made with myself.

See? Totally not scary.

Listen: I have worked– harder than I have for other things– to lose, or hide, my ability to vulner. And until recently I prided myself on my ability to pretend not to give a damn. Twenty-three years in, I know how callouses can and do build up inevitably, relentlessly, mercilessly, and from non-use as much as overuse. And that for too many reasons, we become cagey. We consider the disarming of ourselves a failure. We’ve been wounded, and for many of us it won’t happen again if we can help it.

Backing off and away from people in my life has been a way to control the uncertainty that so far has given me a hell of a time. Leaning into vulnerability is a daily dogfight even after watching Brown’s talk half a dozen times, but one that I take up gladly. Because I know, and maybe everyone knows, that hearts are made to be broken and stitched back together into weird little shapes, and that the inevitability of emotional pain does not make it okay to run. You do it long enough, and people are going to stop chasing you. And that’s not their fault; it’s yours.

On the good days I remember not to run, and to keep the fool close and to love what it says and does. Because I’d like to have a human with his own fool, someday, and he’s going to have to love my fool, and if I practice enough with my own then the next part will maybe be just a bit easier. Even if he doesn’t like Zelda.

What I’ve been trying to say, talking to myself out here in cyberspace this whole goddamn time, is this: Getting hurt and getting weird are why we’re all here, and in it together. So human up and give a damn and let it in. All of it. You’re worth it, you little fool, and so are they.

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