If you haven’t yet read Part II of this blog post series, check it out. We’re talking about Brené Brown’s studies of vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. This post is in part inspired by a Krista Tippet interview of Ms. Brown.
The mother was screaming at me over the phone. Her two-year-old was having a seizure on the floor next to her. I was telling her what to do, reading from a desk-top flip chart while trying to get her to calm down enough to follow instructions. She kept asking me how long the ambulance would take and what was wrong with her little boy and whether he was going to die. It was my first seizure, the dreaded call I knew I would get at some point.
All in all, a typical day at 911 dispatch. The job was the hardest I ever had: 8 hours of body-drenching adrenaline nearly every time I walked into that dark basement room for my shift. Other calls included people on the verge of suicide and those who had found suicide victims; armed robberies and hostage situations; horrific car accidents and electrocutions; and domestic violence and heart attacks in progress, just to name a few. Being vulnerable was knowing you couldn’t actually help everyone, or worse, that the slightest mistake could mean death. Even if you followed procedures to the letter, sometimes people still died. You couldn’t always be certain whether you were helping or making things worse.
Raise your hand if you like uncertainty. I thought so. Uncertainty is proof that we don’t always have control of a situation’s outcome. Who knows exactly what each day will bring? Yet we still face it, and in this way we live in a constant state of low-grade vulnerability. So low, in fact, that we don’t even think of it as being vulnerable. So now that I’ve put the notion in your head, enjoy your day. Thanks to routine, though, we usually don’t worry too much about uncertainty from day to day, yet we tolerate low levels of it, otherwise we wouldn’t get out of bed.
Brené Brown asks whether our capacity for wholeheartedness, our capacity to show up in life despite that there are no guarantees, can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted. In other words, do we show up only to the extent that we can be certain of a pleasing outcome, of succeeding, whatever that success means in any particular situation? This is called playing it safe. Sometimes it’s a prudent choice. Other times playing it safe saps the joy out of life and keeps us from developing to our full potential.
As any emotionally aware perfectionist knows, perfectionism is self-inflicted adversity. In a way, we perfectionists have it made because few things in life will ever fully meet our expectations. It’s our own built-in system for developing capacity for suffering, which is a great first step toward allowing vulnerability. And here I was thinking perfectionism had been destroying me when really this affliction has had a purpose all along!
Struggle—adversity—is the fulcrum upon which our character is built. Facing adversity requires vulnerability. If we showed up only when we could be guaranteed a pleasurable outcome, we’d be holding back, not giving it our all, not living quite to our full capacity out of fear of disappointment, of getting our hearts broken. How can we fully love who we are, what we do, the people we interact with, the world we live in unless we face adversity, accept uncertainty, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable? We can’t.
The two-year-old’s seizure lasted a little more than a minute, the longest minute of his frantic mother’s life—and at the time, mine. Febrile seizures are common in young children, caused by fever and usually with no lasting ill effects. I knew this, but it didn’t stop fear and doubt from challenging my confidence in handling the call. How could I be certain that, even though commonplace, this febrile seizure wasn’t going to kill a child? I calmed the mother and told her what to do, which is basically not a lot except wait it out.
The child stopped seizing, the ambulance arrived, and everything turned out fine. I answered another dozen or so seizure calls that year, each one with absolute confidence in my skills but none with absolute certainty that all would be fine. While showing up for my job had gradually boosted my confidence, it could never provide absolute certainty about outcome.
I hated that 911 job because it was mostly nothing but adversity, day after day of it. And it wasn’t even my adversity—it was other people’s! In hindsight, I’m grateful for that 911 job because it increased my tolerance for uncertainty, forced me to face adversity, and taught me how to mitigate crisis as quickly and as calmly as possible. The job was truly a gift that keeps on giving today.
Join me for the next post on self-worth.