Touching Vulnerability

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. Revelation 21:1

One of the reasons why I love blogging at Restoring Pangea is hearing our chief editor, Nathan Smith, talk about the idea behind our name. Nathan has been developing the idea of “Restoring Pangea” for years and so this post taps into just one small facet of his vision–the act of vulnerability.

According to Nathan, the idea of “Restoring Pangea” is linked to Revelation 21 where John writes of the new creation and of its newly formed structure which is without any division of nation or class. Even the land of the new earth can be seen to be “metaphorically” brought together as a sign of humankind’s unified relationship under Christ’s rule. As the earth’s massive waters physically separate humanity, John’s remark in verse 21, “…and the sea was no more” can be a truly fascinating and hope-filled vision. John’s image of a sea-less earth is brought even more potential given that the Bible often uses “sea” and “the waters” to symbolize chaos and evil. With this understanding, a new earth without any sea (to perpetuate evil or separate humanity) becomes a place of absolute peace and justice, which allows for a place of unconditional and intimate human belonging.

This may be a beautiful image but I still have one major problem with the whole thing: I’m not sure if I am currently capable of taking part in it. I’m not sure if I’m ready to part with the seas. Barriers that they may be; without them I am utterly vulnerable. And vulnerability is a restless feeling.

In the video above, it seems New York photographer Richard Rinaldi is taking on the biblical task of removing seas. As I watch the video—and now look at the finished product—I am at first extremely uncomfortable. While watching all kinds of people who were not supposed to touch one another become intimately close I thought “This is so awkward. What is this dude trying to accomplish here?” Yet after gazing intently on the photos and hearing the stories of the participants I finally realized I may have initially rejected a truth which was too hard to accept: the idea that there is not one person on earth who does not intimately belong to God and therefore to myself.

Rinaldi’s photos capture moments of absolute belonging between strangers. Oddly, the process leaves the photographed with a lingering sense that the whole staged event was—even if for a moment—actual reality. In doing so, the photographer is able to remove sea and bring new earth to New York. For some reason the vulnerable act of touching brought out this idea in the photographed.  At a more metaphorical level, this video shows people who might typically see one another too separated by the waters, now finding themselves on a plane of Pangea.

Yet, there is an important first step which each participant had to take before they were exposed to their radical experience of barrier-free belonging—the step of embracing vulnerability. The video below digs deeply into the complexity of taking such a step:

In this TED Talk, researcher/Storyteller Brene Brown takes a scholarly and personal look at vulnerability and at the psychological motivations behind the phenomena.  She concludes, “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness. But it appears that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, of love.” I think this is an important and deeply overlooked insight into how people relate to one another.

In my experience vulnerability is the thing which can paralyze us with fear while simultaneously energizing us with the potential of truly unconditional belonging.  The difficulty however can be with sorting out our experiences of vulnerability and naming them for what they are:

  • Vulnerability happens when part of ourselves is exposed which we do not fully understand and have worked to keep hidden.
  • Vulnerability is the willingness to say “I’m sorry” first and without the guarantee of receiving an “I’m sorry, too” back.
  • Vulnerability happens when I ask a question in front of a crowded room and sometimes it happens when the room is empty and I am left all alone with only my thoughts.
  • Vulnerability is the feeling we get when the secret we’ve kept for so long becomes a source of internal chaos.
  • Vulnerability happens when suspicion arises that the person next to me will uncover something which would cause them to reject who I really am and refuse me love and acceptance.

Along with all the instances in which I am unintentionally vulnerable, as a Christian, I am given the chance to practice vulnerability all the time. In fact, the Eucharist—or “taking Communion”—might be one of the Church’s best ways of allowing us to consider vulnerability as a spiritual discipline. In doing so, I wonder if we can learn to see vulnerability as an essential part of Christian spirituality which leads only to a deeper love for those around us. The late Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen puts the opportunity this way:

“When we gather around the table and eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup, we are most vulnerable to one another. We cannot have a meal together in peace with guns hanging over our shoulders and pistols attached to our belts. When we break bread together we leave our arms – whether they are physical or mental – at the door and enter into a place of mutual vulnerability and trust.

The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close.”

All of this I think can be summed up through a question I’ve been considering for a while now. Is a first step in welcoming a new earth actually embracing one’s own vulnerability in order to find the courage, creativity, and compassion to belong to and with the other? I’m not talking about just overcoming vulnerability; or even conquering it. But actually embracing it as a wound which signals to us a chance to welcome the world Pangea offer us despite the chance of rejection or the experience of conditional love. Can we really belong to one another at all without taking on the risk of vulnerability? Or put more practically, can I really be a part of restoring Pangea without being vulnerable enough to embrace the self and the other?

If I ever do learn to practice and embrace vulnerability in this way, I’m hopeful and confident that I will start looking more and more like those people in Richard Rinaldi’s astonishing photography project. I suppose I would at first appear awkward and make folks uncomfortable. But maybe, if we spent enough time together, our relationship would create a new reality–one in which there is no longer any sea.

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  • Wow. What an interesting project. It was especially interesting (and insightful) to see how quickly the participants relax and accept the role. “the process leaves the photographed with a lingering sense that the whole staged event was—even if for a moment—actual reality”
    Maybe there is something within us that is anxious to escape the alienation that comes with living among a sea of strangers.