The Importance of Being Vulnerable

Recently, I read another article over at The Good Men Project, and this one was written by a woman who is imploring men to listen to their concerns rather than dismissing them as irrational or overly sensitive.

It’s easy for us men, especially those like me who are of above average height and musculature, to think that the fears and worries women express to us are groundless.  I suspect that the article’s author is correct that this is in part because we are generally not as vulnerable as women are and do not experience regular or constant attempts by others to appropriate our bodies.

And on the occasions when we do experience that (and I have on occasion experienced it), we are generally more confident in asserting our self-ownership and setting appropriate boundaries without being worried that we might be overpowered and our bodies appropriated without our consent.  Outside of a war zone, men are less likely to have lives which are shot through with bodily vulnerability in the same way that women generally do.

Perhaps it would help if more men did see combat, fight against larger opponents, work in an extremely dangerous job or engage in extreme sports in which bodily danger is a constant risk.  And perhaps it would help if  men were generally raised to understand that life is generally experienced differently for women so that when women express concerns about their vulnerability, more of us men can really listen to them instead of dismissing them.

This is of course not to say that every single concern a woman expresses is necessarily based on good evidence or good reasoning, or that we should never ask women to do self-examination and think critically about it.  It’s quite healthy to engage in self-examination to identify our insecurities and seek to overcome them.  But it is to say that we should not merely assume that a woman’s concerns aren’t based on good evidence or good reasoning.

Instead, we should understand our own vulnerability and let that be the stepping stone to listening to one another with an open mind and an open heart full of compassion.  But if we are never particularly vulnerable, this is unlikely to be something we can do well.

The importance of being vulnerable is that we can learn from that experience in order to become more compassionate to those who are the most vulnerable and in need of our strength.

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2 Responses to The Importance of Being Vulnerable

  1. Jack D. says:

    Thanks for bringing attention to this issue, Sam. I think that human beings (both men and women) as a whole tend to lack skills in perspective taking (and the true empathy that it engenders), not because we lack the mental ability, but because we don’t practice that ability regularly.

    Just a few comments on what you wrote. Although men who work in hazardous occupations or are otherwise exposed to bodily harm on a daily basis might be in a better position to empathize with the kinds of threats to bodily integrity that women face, this is not necessarily the case. First, because the dangers that women face in this area are qualitatively of a different nature. Threats that are merely violent (in the potential for serious injury or death) often do not carry the same “punch” as threats of a sexual nature. The kind of fear that one would feel, for example, just before being shot would be of a different sort than the fear that one would feel at being raped. This fear of sexual violation is something that women have to deal with much more often than men do (though young boys and teenager boys are at much, much higher risk of this kind of exploitation than grown men are). Secondly, even having shared experiences in facing certain dangers or humiliations does not guarantee that one will develop a sense of empathy. The development of empathy depends on a wide range of other factors, including social support, personal beliefs, and the bonding experiences we had during the first few years of our lives. I think we have all met at least one person who has suffered a lot in life but who has a snarky reply to everyone else’s tales of woe.

    For a great book about empathy, I highly recommend Born for Love by Bruce Perry, MD, a child psychiatrist who has studied a lot in the field of child psychological trauma. I know your reading list is very long, Sam, but it is worth reading.

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