Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Equality, Vulnerability and Well-Being

While when many of us heart the word, "vulnerability," we run the other way as quickly as we can, vulnerability is actually a critical human capacity, necessary for connecting to self and others.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, on the very same day, two people in my network sent me links to two very powerful pieces, an article from the New York Times, "Equality, a True Soul Food" by Nicholas Kristof, and a video clip of Brene Brown from the University of Houston presenting on "Wholeheartedness" for TED. While the two pieces seemed unrelated at first, together, they got me thinking deeply about the nature of vulnerability, and how equality and vulnerability relate to well-being.

Few people I know like to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is usually given a bad rap, bringing to mind images of being hurt, taken advantage of, being powerless or unprotected. In "Equality, a True Soul Food," Nicholas Kristoff (New York Times, January 1, 2011), the cost that comes with the vulnerability of being low in the social pecking order is made clear. The kind of vulnerability that comes from not having what you need for physical survival (food, clothing and shelter) or psychic well-being (connection, meaning, inner peace) is an emotionally unsafe and disempowering kind of vulnerability.

Kristof reflects on the "stunning" levels of inequality in America, which "seem profoundly unhealthy for us, and our nation's soul." We live in a time of "polarizing inequality," where the wealthiest one percent of Americans possess a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent. The inequality is not just economic, but soul deep, marked by high rates of violent crime, drug use, teen birthrates and even heart disease.

Kristof refers to a book by British epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greatest Equality Makes Societies Stronger. "Gross inequality tears at the human psyche, creating anxiety, distrust, and an array of mental and physical ailments," concludes the authors. Inequality not only makes us vulnerable, but even polarizes vulnerability and invulnerability.

Those who have the bulk of society's resources can become "invulnerable" to the pain, struggles and daily deprivations of those who lack them, as they are both distanced and protected from the raw reality of thsoe who lack what they need. Out of sight is out of mind, and this leads to a dangerous disconnection between human beings living in the same country, but in very different worlds.

The very wealthy live in an alternative universe, flying around in personal jets, living in gated estates with personally selected staff, with easy access to "recreational" drugs, that more disenfranchised people use to self-medicate the pain of hopelessness and powerlessness. By being far removed from those who suffer from long-term unemployment, lack of access to needed resources, and no clear pathway out of their state of struggling for survival, the wealthy can maintain an ultimately false sense of invulnerability.

Wilkinson and Pickett show that those at the bottom of the social pecking order "suffer from a range of pathologies." A long term study of British civil servants found that "messengers, doormen, and others with low status were much more likely to die of heart disease, suicide, and some cancers and had substantially worse overall health." When you are vulnerable due to circumstances beyond your control, and there is no clear pathway to get what you really need, life loses meaning and becomes little more than a struggle.

Why is inequality so harmful? "The Spirit Level suggests that inequality undermines social trust and community life, corrodoing societies as a whole. It also suggests that humans, as social animals, become stressed whewn they find themselves at the bottom of a hierarchy." High stress levels long-term lead to the release of the hormone cortisol, and with it com today's epidemic diseases: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression. Kristof notes that "social ailments like violent crime, mutual distrust, self-destructive behaviors and persistent poverty," follow suit.

Inequality creates a state of almost institutionalized disconnection, bringing with it despair, powerlessness, hopelessness, and high levels of cortisol from long-term stress. If we are indeed all interconnected as human beings and as a society, even those who through wealth and social status imagine themselves immune from the struggles of the more common man, will suffer from this tear in our collective fabric. In this sense, by living in a society with polarizing inequality, we will all become more vulnerable as we become more disconnected from ourselves and one another.

Disconnection is damaging to well-being, since in the eyes of social worker and University of Houston researcher Brene Brown, connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives. "The ability to feel connected neurobiologically is why we are here." The effect of disconnection is so strong, Brown found, that when people were asked to talk about love, they talked about heartbreak, and when they were asked to talk about connection, they talked about disconnection.

Disconnection brings with it feelings of shame. Brown defines shame as "the fear of disconnection," meaning, that for any of us, there are things about us, if known or revealed, we fear will make us unworthy of connection. Pressure to be thin, rich, beautiful, or educated with a proper pedigree lead to a lack of feeling worthy for who we are internally and essentially. Our worth becomes externally defined, not internally felt. This decreases our sense of personal power, and places us once again in the uncomfortable experience of vulnerability.

Brown points out, "we live in a vulnerable world." We are NOT always in control, and the way people in the US today deal with vulnerability is to numb it. Brown notes, "we are the most in debt, obese, addicted, medicated adult cohort in US history." Rather than risk rejection, judgment, uncomfortable feelings, bad news or feeling not in control, we numb our uncomfortable vulnerable feelings. As we do so, we deny reality and create a fantasy bubble whic is ultimately destructive.

Brown notes that in addition to numbing vulnerability, people today:

* Try to make everything that is uncertain, certain

* Try to perfect everything, often to our own detriment

* Pretend that what we do does not have an effect on others

All of these behaviors not only disconnect us form ourselves and others, but also can destroy our lives. We cannot selectively numb emotions. If we numb out our fear and sadness, we also numb out our capacity for joy and happiness. If we only embrace the behaviors and qualities in our children that look "perfect," we destroy their humanity and the qualities that make them uniquely who they are.

Numbing and running from vulnerability ultimately endangers us more than revealing who we really are. Vulnerability, while initially frightening, is critical to our sense of connection, and therefore, our well-being. By treating ourselves and others with more love and kindness, we break through the walls of judgment and inequality that polarize us, and create a deeper sense of connection, that can heal us individually and collectively. By being vulnerable, we help create a safer and more equitable world, and restore a sense of dignity and worth to all, just for being human beings living on the earth.

As we improve the emotional and spiritual quality of our lives, we reduce the levels of cortisol in our bodies, increase our sense that life is purposeful, manageable and meaningful, and reduce the need to numb out through substances or processes. We re-create an environment that nourishes the heart and soul.

Kristof opens his article with a quote from John Steinbeck, "a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ." By embracing our vulnearbility and un-numbing our deeply sad, disconnected souls, let germs be our strongest danger, not one another!

Vulnerability need not be a liability or contributor to lower status. When we can be vulnerable, yet feel emotionally safe, our vulnerability can actually be a source of personal power and contribute to a greater sense of connection with self and others. If we feel safe in our vulnerability, rather than experience vulnerability as excruciating, vulnerability can become a deeply rooted source that moves us to reach out to others, take passionate stands on issues we care about, and even touch the heart of others in a most human way.

This allows us to live in a way Brown describes as "wholehearted." A wholehearted person, according to Brown, can embrace their vulnerability fully, realizing that vulnerability may not be comfortable, but it is necessarym and can even be beautiful. Perhaps it is time to revision vulnerability as a powerful tool to brake the chains of inequality, to allow us to be authentic, and to facilitate the experience of connection with self and others that keeps us healthy, happy and human.

So, perhaps paradoxically, vulnerability can be the "great human equalizer," assuring not only our own well-being but also a healthy social fabric where through our sense of interconnection, we will tend to the well-being of others as well.

Copyright 2011 Linda Marks

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