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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Meekness and Vulnerability

by Shawn Tucker:

I have often heard that meekness is not weakness, but I have to say that it is easy to see how the two go together. In the scriptures, for example, we often see the meek connected with the poor. When Jesus lists the Beatitudes He connects the poor in spirit, those that mourn, and the meek. Even in Elder Ulisses Soares' 2013 LDS General Conference talk Be Meek and Lowly of Heart, a talk where he says that meekness is not weakness, he also says that the meek have a "docile, tolerant, and submissive" temperament. I have to admit that those just sound like three positive terms for weak. To be meek is also to be teachable, and while that is not necessarily weak, those who are teachable must acknowledge a sense of their own ignorance, need, and neediness.

Needy, ignorant, and docile are not usually seen as attractive qualities. But in my opinion, to really get at the nature of meekness, we need to make things worse. To make things worse, or in other words to make meekness seem even less attractive, let's think about poverty. What I have in mind about poverty is actually something that C.S. Lewis says about charity and security. Lewis puts forward that "For many of us the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear—fear of insecurity." (C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity 86) What really seems frightening about poverty is the lack of control, the lack of power in our lives to predict and to bring about the outcomes that we want. Perhaps this is just me, but I think that what I find really frightening about the poor is to see how vulnerable they are. And I would add one additional frightening thing about the poor: their plight seems shameful. In the capitalistic, individualistic, hard-work-always-guarantees-success world that I live in, to be poor is to be a failure. To look into the face of poverty is to see shame and need and vulnerability. And I think that all three of those things are connected with meekness.

So to get to meekness, let me start with shame. My point-of-departure for this post is a fabulous TED talk by Brené Brown called The Power of Vulnerability. In this talk Brown discusses her findings as a social work researcher. From that work Brown concludes that shame unravels human connection. Brown defines shame as "the fear of disconnection" or the fear of being unworthy of being connected with others. She elaborates that a sense of shame is universal, and that while no one wants to talk about it everyone has it and in fact "the less you talk about it the more you have it." Brown says that a phrase that expresses shame so well is "I am not good enough." This idea of not being enough can be expressed as "I am not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." At this point, my reader, you might want to note where you feel that you are "not enough." Of myself I would say that "I'm not quite smart enough, kind enough, obedient enough, and just not quite lovable." I would add that I am afraid of how people around me would respond if they "really knew me."

It is painful to explore one's shame. It can make one feel anxious, alone, and disconnected. This is why I find the Adam and Eve story so compelling. Here are these two people who do something foolish and which fills them with a deep sense of shame. They come to feel broken and afraid and unworthy of God and perhaps even each other. Their natural impulse was to hide. Adam and Eve are a symbol for shame. While I don't believe strictly in "original sin," I think that, as Brown said, there is something universal about the shame Adam and Eve felt.

So we all have shame, and our shame, when we really attend to it, brings with it painful vulnerability and an acute sense of need. We feel poor, destitute. Brown describes how, as a response to this vulnerability, we employ a variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms, whether they are drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, work, food, perfectionism, or attempting to make certain that which is by nature uncertain, are all attempts to either numb or evade vulnerability. But Brown notes that when we attempt to numb vulnerability we inadvertently numb positive and desirable emotions. As Brown puts it, "You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable," and we turn again to our unhealthy mechanisms to again numb or evade vulnerability.

It seems to me that in order to keep this cycle going all we have to do is continue to avoid vulnerability, thereby letting shame and fear maintain control. Or perhaps we can respond with courage. And perhaps what our courage needs is a gentle yet powerful invitation:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
This is a potentially life-changing invitation, but one must quickly note that coming unto Christ is going to be painful. He says that we must take up His cross, which I believe at least in part means courageously responding to our shame. It means recognizing our needs, our neediness, our brokenness, and taking all the risks of vulnerability with all of its fear and uncertainty. In this respect Christ's courage and his willingness to share that courage with us, to invite us to be yoked to Him, makes Him the New Adam or the Man who reverses shame's universal curse.

Shame, need, vulnerability and incredible courage are essential for meekness. The shame is a given, and with that shame the deeply felt need to address it. Unhealthy responses to shame are attempts to numb or evade vulnerability; meekness is a courageous willingness to embrace it. And blessed are the courageously vulnerable, for they shall … what? What do the courageously vulnerable get? When they turn to Christ they find rest, rest from burdens of guilt and sin as well as the terrible burdens of unhealthy coping mechanisms including self-righteousness and perfectionism. Connected to Christ, they feel free to be broken and flawed, encountering in that relationship a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light. They find a God who is far more concerned about them than He is about how well they compare with either others or some imaginary standard of righteousness or goodness. They find Someone who loves them and is happy with their efforts and their progress, patiently attending to them as they grow to be what they can be. They find an empathetic God who genuinely enjoys their company and finds them so worthy and worthwhile that that God is willing to come down, be born, suffer, pass below all things, die, and resurrect for them. In Him the courageously vulnerable find peace and rest.

This connection with God that the courageously vulnerable experience transforms their relationships with others. Brown asserts categorically that "connection is why we're here. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives." As stated earlier, shame is not only the fear of disconnection but the fear of not being worthy to be connected to others. But when the courageously vulnerable, the meek, bravely acknowledge fears and still take risks in spite of those fears, what they find is connection with others. To conclude her talk Brown admonishes her audience to "let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee." She says this because her research has led her to conclude that courageous vulnerability, or meekness, "is the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love." For the numb or the fearful, meekness looks like weakness, poverty, and foolishness. It seems too unwise, too uncertain to be so unguarded and unprotected, but what the meek find is that heaven, earth, comfort, joy, genuine connection, and life's sweetness all come in no other way.

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Shawn Tucker grew up with amazing parents and five younger, wonderful siblings. He served as a missionary in Chile during the Plebiscite and the first post-dictatorship election. After his mission, he attended BYU, where he married ... you guessed it ... his wife. They both graduated, with Shawn earning a BA in Humanities. Fearing that his BA in Humanities, which is essentially a degree in Jeopardy, would not be sufficient, Shawn completed graduate work in the same ... stuff ... at Florida State University. He currently teaches at Elon University in North Carolina. He and ... you guessed it ... his wife have four great children. Twitter: @MoTabEnquirer. Website:

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