Vulnerability Together

Vulnerability Together

As I write this, the Amazon is burning.

When I mentioned this to my mom the other day, she looked puzzled and asked, “Which location?” to which I responded, “…the rainforest?” She assumed I was talking about an Amazon Company warehouse, and looked relieved when she learned it was not a potential warehouse fire, but rather a run-of-the-mill natural disaster happening in Brazil. Only it’s not “natural”—the fires were started by cattle farmers looking to clear land for more cattle, their own livelihood likely dependent upon the extra revenue. It’s this week’s Exhibit A of the Anthropocene.

When I type in “Amazon” to Google, the first result that pops up is Amazon.com. When I search “Amazon Fire,” Google eagerly directs me to the Amazon Fire stick, a TV-streaming device that provides instant escape and entertainment—which feels particularly dark, given the current status of its namesake. It’s a strange parallel happening right now between Amazon the Company and Amazon the Rainforest, between extreme capitalism (and subsequent waste[1]) and the Anthropocene—two increasingly unnerving events that I, as a grad student in Provo, Utah, can do almost nothing to improve. Sure, I can choose to abstain from beef or give my money to local stores instead of Jeff Bezos, but even my most extensive individual efforts will make no marked difference.

Even so, I’m continually drawn to learn about the catastrophes of the world that are far beyond my control, all of which are delivered each morning to my iPhone via podcasts, news headlines, and social media posts. In fact, the news of the Amazon was obscured at first, coming on the wake of mass shootings, the immigration crisis at the border, international conflicts, and constant political chaos. To choose to expose myself to this onslaught of news is at times painful and frustrating. It reminds me that I am vulnerable in a way that I have no power to change. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino illustrates the ability of the internet to overwhelm and incapacitate in her recent book Trick Mirror[2]. Reflecting on her feelings at the end of 2016, after an especially rough barrage of bad news, she writes:

“It seemed to me that this sense of punishing oversaturation would persist no matter what was in the news. There was no limit to the amount of misfortune a person could take in via the internet…and there was no way to calibrate this information correctly—no guidebook for how to expand our hearts to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience, no way to teach ourselves to separate the banal from the profound. The internet was dramatically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stayed the same, or possibly shrank right in front of us. I had started to feel that the internet would only ever induce this cycle of heartbreak and hardening—a hyper-engagement that would make less sense every day.”

And yet, she notes in the same essay that “the internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life…Even if you avoid it completely, you still live in a world that this internet has created.” In other words, the internet has not only begun to merely influence the world; it very nearly sets the terms for life in the twenty-first century. Tolentino has a gift for articulating the calcification process I see in myself and my generation, a process which leads us to speak and engage with the world in a way that is, for the most part, cynical, ironic, berating, even hopeless. It’s easy to feel suffocated by the tragedies, scandals, and conspiracies that are now instantly accessible; the learned reaction is to become emotionally distanced—to protect against the vulnerability of feeling perhaps too much.

This method of detachment is well established in the humanities, Rita Felski notes in The Limits of Critique[3]. However, she advocates for a different kind of reading—one that sets aside suspicion and critique and advocates instead for descriptive and affective engagement with texts. This is not to say that critique and suspicion are useless: both play a pivotal role in recognizing injustice and motivating action. However, critique also has a way of becoming a reflexive mode of thought. “Critique inhabits us, and we become habituated to critique,” Felski writes, and when I first read The Limits of Critique, I realized that I was not only relying upon a hermeneutics of suspicion in my academic work but in my approach to my personal relationships, my faith, and the world as a whole.

And though Felski asserts that the “critical mood” of humanities academia contributes to our predilection for critique, David Foster Wallace argues that an education in the humanities is exactly what releases people from that tendency and allows them to step outside our reactionary thoughts. “If you really learn how to pay attention,” he says, “then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” He advocates for human connection with even the strangers in the checkout line, for understanding rather than judgement, for connection rather than isolation—all of which requires active resistance against our natural thought patterns.

In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans documents her faith journey both within and outside of the Evangelical church, emphasizing the importance of both vulnerability and community in that journey[4]. She notes:

“Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy. Grief is healthy. Even anger can be healthy. But numbing ourselves with cynicism in an effort to avoid feeling those things is not.…Cynicism may help us create simpler storylines with good guys and bad guys, but it doesn’t make us any better at telling the truth, which is that most of us are a frightening mix of good and evil, sinner and saint. The annoying thing about being human is that to be fully engaged with the world, we must be vulnerable. And the annoying thing about being vulnerable is that sometimes it means we get hurt.”

As I navigate my own faith journey, I deeply understand this impulse to disengage and feel less, especially when faced with uncomfortable dissonance or unanswered questions. However, relying entirely on cynicism and emotional detachment, while it may be the less painful route, has offered me neither greater satisfaction nor deeper comprehension. To choose vulnerability, then, is to accept the inevitable heartbreak of nuance, incomplete answers, deep disappointment—and engage anyway.

I imagine former Nike executive Erik Hagerman was following the same urge to detach when he decided to cut himself off from all news and politics in favor of a quiet life in rural Ohio, spending his extra time and wealth restoring a lake for future generations[5]. While he might be making more of a lasting difference—especially in the ecological sphere—he’s entirely ignoring what I see as a vital part of citizenship. The scriptures ask that we “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort[6],” and I’m not sure that it’s possible to fulfill that command while remaining ignorant of world events.

This scriptural admonition—feeling with those who feel—is beautifully articulated in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves[7]. As one of the six characters, Bernard, sits and reflects on his life, he finds his identity is tied up in the lives of others:

“And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead, and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome…Here on my brow is the blow I got when Percival fell. Here on the nape of my neck is the kiss Jinny gave Louis. My eyes fill with Susan’s tears. I see far away, quivering like a gold thread, this pillar Rhoda saw, and feel the rise of the wind of her flight when she leapt.”

The subtle answer to Bernard’s question, “Who am I?” is that he is a compendium of experience—his own, and that of his friends. The lives of Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis are part of Bernard’s life—whether indirectly through conversation and empathetic solidarity, or directly through the event’s ripple effect. Similarly, the events that happen to our family members, to refugees at the country’s border, and even to the plants and animals destroyed in the Amazon fires, happen to us. Acknowledging the unbreakable connections between all living things in this world allows people to feel together, and motivate them to action, even if that action is confined to narrow individual spheres.

I haven’t yet found a prescriptive answer for how to cope on a personal level with the overwhelming conspiracy theories, corruption, and increasing polarity that permeate much of today’s discourse, but I do believe that it’s both possible and necessary to retain faith—a hope in humanity—and continue to engage. Choosing vulnerability in the face of tragedy might even allow for the connection necessary to band together and extinguish even the most unquenchable fires.

This post was written by Morgan Lewis, Humanities Center Intern.


[1] Bird, John. “What A Waste: Online Retail’s Big Packaging Problem.” Forbes, July 29, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonbird1/2018/07/29/what-a-waste-online-retails-big-packaging-problem/#7a7c1538371d

[2] Tolentino, Jia. “The “I” in Internet.” Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Random House, 2019.

[3] Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

[4] Held Evans, Rachel. Searching for Sunday. Nelson Books, 2015.

[5] Dolnick, Sam. “The Man Who Knew Too Little.” The New York Times, March 10, 2018,  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/style/the-man-who-knew-too-little.html

[6] Romans 12:15­–16 (KJV)

Mosiah 18:8-10 (Book of Mormon)

[7] Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. Harcourt, Inc., 1931.

 

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