When I was a girl, my mother once told me that the worst thing that could happen to a woman was to become "hard." I have often wondered what, exactly, she meant by that word, that phrase. I will never know for certain, because I was too young when I lost her to realize that this would be one of the moments I'd remember so clearly, and question so often. Maybe she said it more than once, maybe she said it often and my crystalline memory of that day is not real at all, simply the distillation of a stack of memories.
I am not a girl any longer, and I know that the struggle to stay soft in this world, filled as it is with struggle, with injustice and with senseless pain and loss, is a difficult one. It does not escape my notice that my inability to ask my mother this--because she died when I was not yet 25--is itself an example of the temptation Vonnegut's words are warning against, the temptation to harden myself against loss, and pain. Yet, somehow I was lucky enough or wise enough to avoid that temptation. I knew better, I know better, than to allow myself the tempting plunge down that slope of anger, and then bitterness and, yes, hatred.
How to stay soft, then, remains the big question. In the course of my life, I've tried a lot of methods. I took a good long run at the use of denial. This is not a tremendously effective method to ensure you are living fully, on the off chance you are considering it. While denial can be a very effective coping mechanism to get through something painful, or awful, it is not a life strategy. Denial consumes a lot of energy, and it turns out that living in denial results in a life lived in perpetual numbness more often than a life truly lived. I have said that I'm "lucky" not to have grown bitter. But that isn't accurate.
I've come to the realization that the only way I've truly found happiness in the wake, and sometimes even in the midst, of pain and loss is to risk feeling the pain fully. To be vulnerable to exactly, precisely the kind of pain we never want to feel. To love fully in spite of the risk of loss, and even in the midst of it. To give freely to those who will never know you helped, and to expect nothing in return. Seek the joy, and the beauty, trust that it is there even when it is so dark you cannot imagine it still exists.
I have listened to Brene' Brown's lectures, and read her books. They are based on her findings while researching vulnerability, the surprising relationship between vulnerability and joy, hope and love. I think "of course" or, more accurately, "well, duh." How have we missed this for so long? The only way to truly succeed is to be vulnerable to failure, loss, rejection and complete idiocy. To find great joy, you need to take risks. Sometimes big risks.
So, take the job that isn't as secure but makes your eyes light up. Have the baby, even if it is not the right time. Go back to school, even if the degree you want to pursue does not translate into a fatter paycheck. Pursue the love affair, even if you or your lover have failed at love. Begin to dance, or bike, or run. Write poetry or play the guitar--even though you are no longer young and you'll likely never "make" anything of your passion. Do it, risk falling on your face, and watch the joy flow into your life.
Know that the outcome could be a trainwreck. Don't be an idiot - don't leap without thought. Keep your eyes wide open, know the risks. If there is another human involved, do your level best to know that person is worth the risk. Be mindful, and choose deliberately. But do not let yourself be frozen in indecision. Take a deep breath. If your belly tells you to leap and your head keeps reminding you how much you could lose, leap.
That is what I take from Vonnegut's words. I'm writing essays these days about the things I've seen and experienced, the people I've known who risk vulnerability and, in doing so, create connections that simply cannot be formed in any other way. These essays will someday be a book that gives readers a glimpse of how the world changes each time one of us bravely steps into a vulnerable place. Writing these essays is difficult. I feel vulnerable as a person and as a writer--almost frozen in place by the weight of all that I am trying to put onto the page. I'm doing it anyway, because it matters enough to risk imperfection and failure.
Being strong is not the same as growing hard. Care is not the same as fearful avoidance. Staying soft means remaining open to the joy, love, happiness and beauty that lies just on the other side of a scary and brave choice. If you are over 30 and reading this and thinking that there is no point in wisdom if you can't use it to protect yourself, then you're exactly the person I hoped to find with this message. Yes, risking a painful trainwreck in your life becomes more difficult as we grow older. We now have actual memories of pain, and thus the risks have more weight, as of course they must. We understand the risk because of our personal experiences, and not via some other person's told-to-us-over-libations war story. And yet--what is the point of having amassed all of that knowledge and experience, all of those bruises and scars, if it doesn't help make clear that we must open ourselves to hurt and loss and pain, because those bruises and scars are the mark of a life fully lived.
The truth is that risking hurt and loss and pain is simply what it costs to put yourself next to a person you adore, in the circle of a life that fills you with quiet joy, in a world that is wondrous and beautiful more often than it is ugly, on the stage of a life that is unfolding in full, vivid color.
My best to all who happen this way.