I was enamored by the many sea otters I saw up close while in Alaska. They swim effortlessly, diving sleekly into ocean water depths in pursuit of shelled creatures—mussels and clams. Once they capture a closed shell, they bring it to the surface, turn onto their backs, open the shell, and float nonchalantly while enjoying their meal. When finished, they discard the opened shells and dive for more.
While walking on the shore, I saw numerous clam and mussel shells discarded after sea otter feasting. One such shell was still hinged and I opened it carefully to discover what was inside.
Dirt. Black dirt. Sometimes shells are emptied of good and filled with black dirt—inedible and certainly not attractive. But at one time there was life in those shells—beautiful, life-giving life. What happened? An otter cracked open wide what was clammed up tight, forcing out the life and devouring, leaving nothing but an empty receptacle for dirt.
Is this what becomes of our own openings? Do we open up our protective shells revealing the tender and vulnerable just to be devoured and discarded as nothing more than a dirt receptacle?
Our workshop consisted of four photographers, three fiction writers, and four nonfiction writers of which I was one. We were told at the beginning of our week that the last night would be the night for readings and photographs, for hearing and seeing others’ work and for sharing our own. I cringed, not being one who loves center stage. I have had my fill of performance anxiety as a pianist in younger years and painful memories bubbled up unexpectedly when I heard I would have to present.
I suppose many feel at least a bit nervous when presenting their creations for public perusal. I imagine it’s like birthing a baby and fearing someone will say, “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen,” or maybe the bit more socially acceptable, “Oh! What an interesting looking baby!” (“Interesting” is one of the most non-committal words I know and use when I don’t want to lie or be too offensive. Okay, my secret is out!)
As Friday inched closer, my stomach grew tighter. There’s something about writing memoir, about writing your true story and putting it out for all to hear, to see, that is most unnerving. I am writing a memoir—a true story about a part of my life that, though extraordinarily painful, has been growth-producing in a way no other part of my life has been. I am writing because I believe many others can relate to the overarching theme of my book—holding on to hope when all seems hopeless and finding renewed purpose and meaning after life delivers the unexpected, changing one’s course profoundly and permanently.
All week long on that island of grace in Alaska, I was dreading the reading. I felt like throwing up, like clamming up, like calling a helicopter to airlift me to a place far away. All the while I was experiencing such wilderness, such wild awe of God’s creation, finding my heart swinging from one extreme to the other—from awe and peace to dread within short time frames.
Why did I come to this place of extreme wild and beauty to expose myself so raw, opening myself to possible criticism, judgment, and rejection?
Because I have a belief stronger than my deepest fears. I believe that one of the greatest gifts we can offer humanity is to offer hope when all seems hopeless, to offer encouragement to the deeply discouraged, to show how one can navigate through treacherous, terrifying waters and not just survive, but thrive no matter the circumstances that bring us to places beyond our belief in our own abilities to cope and overcome.
This is why I feel compelled to write. I have lived through much, have fumbled much, but have learned and grown much too. And I find I am most attracted to others who are able and willing to share their own vulnerabilities, their own imperfections, their own way through their most difficult struggles if their goal has been to grow from their challenges and to humbly help others do the same.
To me, the Biblical mandate to encourage one another daily (Hebrews 3:13) necessitates knowing where people need encouragement. And to know where people need encouragement necessitates people being willing to open up and share the deeper parts of themselves—the not-so-pretty—even the quite messed up—the floundering—the honest and raw. And if I want others to visit scary interior places, I must be willing to visit my own.
Though being vulnerable is necessary for growth, I have found being vulnerable is not always wise. Safe people are needed before we should open. We don’t want to be devoured, becoming empty shells cast aside. We all need to know that our deepest, rawest selves will be held in grace, in gentleness, with ears and hearts knowing how to listen and love well. We need people who can sit with ugly and not judge because they know their own ugly. We need people who can sit and hold hope when we have little-to-none because those who listen have also been in such places and they know how hope-holding is vital for gaining the courage to carry on.
There ARE safe people everywhere and we must find them because in opening and having others open is the only way we can become fully human, fully alive.
But let’s face it—some people just aren’t safe and it’s wise to refrain from opening to them. I’ve had enough of one-up relationships where others assume the expert position and have more advice to give than wanted. I’ve had enough of insensitive relationships where people don’t have the time or inclination to listen from the heart, no matter how ugly, when a person is trying their best to grow but still struggling. I’ve had enough of trusting others who can’t keep confidences, especially with tender heart material. And I’ve had enough of naively revealing information to others who appear to care but then turn and use vulnerability against me.
Let’s save our opening for people willing to be vulnerable themselves, even though scared, and let’s be loving enough to reciprocate levels of vulnerability. Start with less vulnerable truths and see how another receives. If received well and reciprocated, we can move to deeper levels.
If we want to love, we must love. If we want others to listen, we must listen. If we want others to hold our vulnerabilities gently, we must hold theirs gently. If we want others to be real, we must be real. And we need all this. We need each other to be real and deep because there is nothing worse than living life in the midst of so many superficial others, feeling profoundly alone, unknown.
As a therapist who has facilitated many groups, the most common healing experience for all was getting beneath the superficial and discovering we are not alone or strange. We are, at the core, similar in our humanity—a mix of joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, success and failure, faith and fear.
Allowing ourselves to open, to reveal our vulnerable, is the only path to truly intimate, satisfying relationship with others. Such relationships warm the heart and nurture the soul.
So, as it turned out, I read my writing on Friday. Though sick to my stomach and shaking, I coached myself through, telling myself that not everyone might like what I wrote—that some might even think the worst of me. But I also knew there were a few in the room cheering me on silently. And you know what? As I read and fought my way through my own tears, I saw faces of others. I saw their tears. And somehow I don’t think they were crying just about my story. I believe my vulnerable story touched deeper parts of themselves and they could relate to the pain, to the longing, though their own stories, their own details are quite different from mine.
Collecting some shells along the shore the morning before we boarded the skiff to begin our journeys home, I wrapped my treasures gently. I even saved the dirt I found inside of one. I want to remember. I want the clam and oyster shells now emptied and one filled with dirt to remind me that openings are possible, even when dirt is found, and that beauty and inspiration can come from opened and emptied vessels. If openness can sustain and grow the otter, cannot openness sustain and grow the human?
Open or closed? The choice is ours. Can we face the fear and open anyway?