An invitation to be vulnerable

The mass shootings this weekend stirred in me something I haven’t written about yet: my uncle was murdered on March 1, 2018. My uncle was a landlord, and one of his tenants shot him with an illegal firearm. Every time there is a shooting, it brings up that day and the pain that followed.

Adding to these resurfaced memories: I’ve been called to jury duty tomorrow and Thursday in the same courthouse where my family and I attended the hearings for my uncle’s murderer. So, needless to say, these past few days have brought up a lot.

Specifically, the phrase “be strong” has stirred up quite a bit in me. It’s a phrase that doesn’t sit well with me since my uncle’s murder.

Often in the wake of gun violence, people use the phrase “be strong.” Yes, strength is important and needed—but so is vulnerability. What might it look like to encourage being vulnerable?

“Broken glass” by Jef Poskanzer CC BY 2.0

Strength and shock are not the same

During my uncle’s funeral, many people commented to me that “your family is so strong” or “you’re so strong right now.” Offering those phrases are ways that people showed their support and love, and sure, it was true. We were strong because we had to be.

You have to “be strong” to get up in the morning and go to work.

You have to “be strong” to support your cousins as they plan the funeral for their murdered father.

You have to “be strong” to attend court hearings.

You have to “be strong” to be in the same court room as your uncle’s murderer as he smirks at you and your relatives from behind bulletproof glass.

I realize now that most of these moments of strength were possible because I was in shock.

In the weeks and months that followed my uncle’s murder, I managed to teach the rest of that semester and meet publication deadlines due to shock coupled with my inner strength. But I experienced deep pain and vulnerability, both of which pervaded my daily life at times. (I still have difficult days; most recently the Fourth of July proved challenging because fireworks sure sound a lot like gun shots.)

I was brought to my knees by grief at the crime scene. I sobbed, doubled over in a parking lot across from my uncle’s apartment building, knowing that local news stations were watching me and my mom receive news from the homicide detective that the body found in the garage belonged to my uncle.

I’ve cried so hard on my living room floor that I couldn’t move. I just stared into the distance, moaning as tears ran down my face.

I’ve collapsed onto my kitchen floor in tears as my beloved old English sheepdog stood watch next to me as I wailed in pain.

I’ve been immobilized when I’ve caught myself reliving the events of March 1 and 2, 2018 and the moment when I went with a relative to identify my murdered uncle’s body.

I’ve wailed in the court room with my mom and my cousin as we listened to the prosecutor read the criminal complaint aloud, which contained details of the crime scene and the murderer’s confession (he was found not guilty due to mental illness, but that’s a story for another time).

That’s just a small snapshot of the pain and aftermath of just one story of gun violence.

Be honest, even if it means not being strong

The glorification of “being strong” and being resilient in the wake of trauma minimizes effects of trauma. Sometimes we don’t want to be strong. We don’t always need to be strong.

In some ways, when people say “be strong,” it threatens to cover the impact and horrendous everyday effects of violence.

The effects are real.

My family and I live them every day. I relive these events when I see a car similar to my uncle’s car. I relive them when I see my kitchen shelves that my uncle helped me hang.

I anticipate that I’ll relive the effects tomorrow when I walk back into the courthouse for jury duty, being forced to participate in a system that failed my family and so many others.

I also was annoyed with hearing “be strong” because being open to vulnerability, weakness, and pain takes incredible courage—and, dare I say, strength. I was and am able to address the pain because of the support of my family, friends, dog, colleagues, students, spiritual director, and therapist. In their own ways, they allowed me to be vulnerable and even weak, which has allowed me to grow.

So, I invite us to experience pain, vulnerability, weakness, agony, fear, despair, confusion, hopelessness,  uncertainty, anger, rage, and injustice, and to support other people as they experience it, too.

It all becomes fuel.

Questions to ponder

  • How can you support others to be vulnerable during difficult times?
  • How can you care for your own vulnerability?
  • What might vulnerability be fueling for you?

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