There is a lot of talk these days about lifters and leaners, with leaners used as pejorative term. If you lean, you’re a dead weight. A passenger. Someone else‘s responsibility. Not doing that most crucial of all tasks, Pulling your own weight. Yet this shows a fundamental disconnect between the way the conservative side of politics seems to think we should be – aggressively, uncompromisingly independent, standing rigidly alone – and the way social animals like people really behave.
The very nature of social animals is that they lean. I could use the old analogy of a circle of people each sitting in the lap of the person behind them, but that implies a kind of linearity that doesn’t apply at all. It’s more like a giant game of kerplunk – a messy, interwoven structure of sticks, where every stick leans on every other stick. You can take individual sticks out (if you’re super careful) without completely destroying the whole, but no stick can stay up on its own, and each time you remove one the structure changes. Remove too many and it becomes fatally weak.
We are programmed to lean. Without leaning, we’d all go kerplunk. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had plenty of kerplunk moments, and they are neither graceful, nor proudly independent. They are without doubt the lowest moments of my life. But leaning isn’t simply a case of asking for, or even accepting help when you need it. Leaning means allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is fundamental to connecting with others.
If we can’t be open with others, we can’t truly connect with them. Brené Brown sums it up most eloquently: “Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty… I have come to the belief that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
So it’s only through being vulnerable, through leaning, that we can be brave, and that we can fully connect with others. It’s only through allowing ourselves to weep, to cry out, and to need, that we also allow ourselves to experience love and joy.
I remember when we bought our house. A little while later we were away for the weekend and there was a wild storm where we lived. For the first time it hit me, like a physical shock – if something happened to the house it was our problem. There was no landlord to fix it.
Suddenly we were responsible for this hugely expensive thing, and it was scary. But then we had kids, and the fear of being responsible for a mere house felt like the fear of a teeny tiny red spider mite the first time you come face to face with an Aussie huntsman. Not in the same ballpark, not even in the same galaxy as this new, heart stopping, mind scrambling terror. This immense, breathtaking awareness of incredible vulnerability. This huge opening that allows people to go straight to your heart and set off incendiary devices inside its very walls, every time someone or something hurts or threatens your child.
It’s this very vulnerability that allows us to experience such an intense and passionate love.
Yesterday I wound up in the Emergency Room of the local hospital with a left arm that had inexplicably stopped working. They kept me in overnight, and I felt incredibly lonely, scared, and disconnected. They put me into one of those extraordinarily soul-destroying hospital gowns with the immodesty panel flapping wide at the back. I am convinced those things are designed to maximize vulnerability and trauma – because being in hospital isn’t traumatic enough in itself. So there I was, huddled on the bed, with the ER throbbing and teeming all around me. A chaotic vortex of alarms, bright lights, and wailing children.
My own family had headed off home to bed, and all I had was my computer, and a fortuitous wifi connection. I hesitated over Facebook, wondering whether to post something about where I was. I didn’t want to look like I was trawling for attention or sympathy. But actually, I really did want to trawl for a little of both. I wanted to be seen where I was, and to have what I was going through recognized. I wanted to reach out and say “hey, this is a bit scary” and have my friends understand.
So I compromised and posted a snarky comment about hospitals being unable to provide gluten free food in the ER (my goodness, that’s a post in its own right – of all the places that struggle to cater to a medical dietary requirement!)… and what followed was beautiful. I spent the rest of the (wakeful) night fielding offers of help, expressions of concern, and funny anecdotes designed to cheer me up. I felt connected. I felt grounded. I felt supported. And I felt loved. Because I had let myself be openly vulnerable.
Now a whole lot more people know what’s going on with my health at the moment. A whole lot more people are supporting me, cheering me on, and cooking me yummy lunches. Tonight I’m back home with a long line of tests and appointments in front of me, but I’m not afraid to tell people what’s going on, because I know that trying to hide these things makes them lonely, dark times to struggle through. Allowing myself to be a leaner, on the other hand, makes it into a festival of love and laughter, punctuated by blood tests and MRIs. I know which version I prefer.
Right now, leaning is what I need to do. Tomorrow, someone I’m leaning on might be leaning on me. And we’ll both be better for it.