I was going to write about chronic pain and poverty but something else has been nagging at me as of late. I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability and how it relates to chronic sickness and pain. I have an injury that has caused a great deal of instability to my spine. It is also an injury that has produced other problems with different systems in my body. In addition and prior to my accident, I was diagnosed with a disease that has no known cause and not much in the way of treatment. So it is that physical instability and vulnerability come together. It is an awkward place to be in to constantly have to explain your body’s limitations. In everyday life, I am often apologizing for it. Why did I miss that meeting? Why did I miss that class? Why did I not write or call back right away? Oh, the constant explanation.
To be honest, sometimes it also brings about humiliation. I was a Ph.D. student at an elite university before choosing a different career path. I was a student registered with disability resource services. I required classroom equipment accommodations including a specialized chair. One day, I walked into the classroom and there was the professor sitting in the chair. Oh, God! What do I do? Do I say something? Can I just leave? I’ll just pretend it isn’t happening. Suddenly, a fellow doctoral student speaks up. That is a chair reserved for a student with a disability. The professor looked at me and said: “Oh, pardon me. Is there anything else I can get you? Would you like a coffee and perhaps something to eat too?” The class roared in laughter. It was quite painful. I sat down revisiting all those old childhood feelings of humiliation. I felt as if I did something wrong by having a body with physical limitations. Yes, I think vulnerability and chronic pain are entangled. Yet, there must be more to the picture. Isn’t vulnerability also a pathway? Through vulnerability, don’t we also experience love, a deeper sense of humanness, and knowledge about ourselves and each other?
I read an article recently by Erinn Gilson (2011) called “Vulnerability, Ignorance, and Oppression” in the journal Hypatia. In this article, she interrogates the idea that vulnerability merely means to be bare, exposed, weak, and helpless. She argues that viewing vulnerability in this manner causes the group that is placed in the “vulnerable” category to be not only relegated to a place where they are primarily acted upon, instead of being the actors in their own life; but, it also sets them apart from the rest of society as affecting only some individuals and not others. What she contends as a better definition of vulnerability is that vulnerability is ambivalent—neither positive nor negative. From this standpoint, she asserts that vulnerability is a universal state that has potential. Therefore, through recognizing that invulnerability is a fantasy, this places everyone at the same starting point. According to Gilson, vulnerability can mean to suffer but it can also mean an awakening to new experiences.
In order to function in my everyday life, I have to be vulnerable and explain why my body “doesn’t show up” when it needs too and that sometimes exposes me to feelings of powerlessness. At the same time, it exposes me to my own courage, resiliency, and even to these words. Think about that. Isn’t that something radical and beautiful? Being vulnerable is a state that I am placed into because of my body but it is also a position of boldness. It is the same condition that allows you to love, explore and seek out meaning in your life, and relate to each other’s humanity. That’s not weakness; rather, that’s power.