Birth and rebirth
Nine years ago today, I gave birth to my first child, a son. It was as wondrous and miraculous as a birth is, but it also gave way to a horrific hospital stay in which I didn’t sleep for five days straight, ultimately leading to a six-week debilitating battle with untreated postpartum depression (read also as: clinical anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, obsessive thoughts, and eventually losing the ability to effectively care for myself). Those weeks, and the following months and years of recovery and sifting through the rubble were among the most difficult of my life. The day I finally found my doctor – April 9, 2008 (etched into my memory like stone) – was a new beginning and a chance for rebirth.
The risk of vulnerability
Recently, I was asked in conversation by someone I trusted to tell the story of my journey through postpartum. While describing what I went through, and essentially reliving in vivid detail the sheer horror of those days, this person cracked a joke about the symptoms. My initial shock over this surprising lack of empathy gave way to tears in a matter of seconds, and nearly a week later, I still can’t seem to shake the feeling of betrayal. While I recognize that this person’s intention wasn’t to inflict pain at one of my most vulnerable moments, the experience has put into sharp focus for me just how daring it is to expose oneself and how risky it can be to admit and share fragility.
What is life, if not a series of challenges and experiences that serve to teach us more about who we are, what we believe, and how we choose to see ourselves, others, and interact with the wider world?
The courage to share
When clients come to me for a reading, naturally they are looking for answers to things that they feel deeply about. Just in the act of going for a reading, my clients are bravely offering up something they’re vulnerable about and saying to me – I trust you to hold this issue in your hands, call on the unseen mystery of chaos and chance, and weave meaning for me from a series of images, that I might get some light through this darkness, that I might find a way forward for myself.
We must share our stories. We must continue to share them, despite the risk involved, despite the possibility that we might be rejected. We must seek out those who will listen, those who will hold our stories in their hands and treat them with the care they deserve.
We must embrace our vulnerability. We must recognize our shared humanity. We must continue on, knowing that we are all connected, for better or for worse.
Philosophy with a hammer
One of my favorite sayings is the pithy pop-culture mantra “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Even though it’s the title of a catchy Kelly Clarkson tune, its origin is German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche. More specifically, it comes from his 1889 work Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, number 8 in its introductory chapter Maxims and Arrows: “Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”.
In the preface, Nietzche cites “a maxim which has long been my motto”: Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus. [“The spirits increase, vigor grows through a wound.”]
There’s no denying that human suffering can bring meaning and value to our lives. Andrew Solomon addresses it beautifully in his 2014 TED talk, which I can’t recommend highly enough: How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.
When we share our stories — our wounds, our failings, our hurts, our imperfections — what we’re really doing is crafting our narrative of triumph, of survival, of perseverance. It’s what Andrew Solomon calls forging meaning and building identity.
The way forward
How do we manage, then, a world that is often hostile to our vulnerability and suffering, and yet so desperately needs brave warriors who are willing to expose their wounds and reveal their shared humanity?
We can ask the cards: How can we bravely share our stories with others and remain open-hearted?
In this response we see the Six of Pentacles flanked by two major arcana cards: The Devil on the left, Strength on the right.
The answer here is fundamentally a question of how we view power and control in light of vulnerability.
Do we view others as beneath us, and do we see our contributions as only going out to those who we deem are worthy of them, to those we feel are “lesser than”? Or do we feel that it’s we ourselves who are powerless?
Do we share ourselves in order to chain others to us, in order to gain something from giving? Do we try to control others and their reactions through fear, intimidation, or humiliation? Do we view the world as a basically hostile place?
Has opening up and exposing ourselves to others been a source of shame for us in the past? Are we used to settling for emotional “crumbs” from those we are involved with?
A two-way street
Give and take has to be balanced. As we offer of ourselves, there must also be a willingness on the part of those with whom we share to open themselves to us. Trust and its inherent vulnerability pave a two-way street: as we share, we recognize our human fallibility and imperfection, and that sharing also asks of the listener to recognize his or her human fallibility and imperfection. It’s a tall order.
So, according to these cards, we can bravely share our stories with others and remain open-hearted when we realize that we own nothing and we control nothing — we let go and share of ourselves as a bold act of creating our own narrative, our own identity, for ourselves. We recognize vulnerability as the core of strength itself, and we are brave enough to put our hands into the lion’s sharp-toothed jaws as an act of giving without expecting anything in return.
We may not always receive understanding when we open ourselves to others. We may even be treated with disrespect or be made to feel shame for our experiences, or for sharing them. However, the very act of opening ourselves and daring to expose our wounds is the heart of strength itself — the bravery of sharing is what we must treasure and protect within ourselves and our hearts. Nothing external can harm that simple, enduring act of courage.