Man is not only social, but also a metaphysical being. In other words, he is not merely a social individual, but also a personality. Consequently, it is wrong to confuse what is above the individual in us with society, to translate it completely into sociology. Doing that, one leaves the metaphysical aspect of the person, what is truly above the individual, out of account; for it is the personality, not the mass, that the actual superordinated principal is to be found. Thomas Mann, author of Death in Venice as quoted by Joseph Campbell in “Mythogenesis” in Flight of the Wild Gander
That’s Mann’s literary way of saying the masks we adopt and identify with and the personae we project are aspects of our social being. We adopt them and come to believe they are our true selves as we define our roles in our larger interrelated culture and in our mini-societies: family, community, and so on.
The superordinated principal is our ultimate reality: That That I Am. To get back to or down into that ultimate level requires the individual to act courageously, which ironically entails one being willing to become vulnerable. To get psychologically butt-naked. For many, if not most, that might be more challenging than doing so physically. But that’s what it takes if we are to be authentically truthful with ourselves.
To be vulnerable means becoming exposed and defenseless. That might be the toughest thing one can do, which then seems to be a contradiction. Generally, toughness is not associated with vulnerability. Toughness is correlated to strength, a shield against vulnerability.
However, it takes courage—strength of heart—to be vulnerable. Writers, artists, and performers expose themselves on a regular basis. When asked about the most difficult part of writing Sisyphus Wins, I say it wasn’t the writing but pressing the enter button on my computer when it came time to send the manuscript to the online printer. For once it was in the public realm, I no longer had control over it, and whatever I wrote would be on full view and fair game for everyone to see, comment on, and judge.
My fellow authors and fellow travelers in the world of art are possibly thinking, “So, what’s new? Been there, done that.” I wonder if it gets easier with future launches or performances.
Ultimately, the scariest person with whom you can be vulnerable is yourself. To dig deep, be truly honest, and own all that is true about yourself. Many can’t and won’t. It’s one reason they fill their lives with noise, distraction, clutter, and busyness.
In Sky Above, Earth Below, vision quest leader John P. Milton recounts the story of a businessman from the New York Garment District who attended one of his camps. At one point, the quest participants were to spend some time alone in the Arizona desert so to begin putting into practice what they were learning. Shortly after the students were to be off and alone, Milton saw the man meandering through town. Surprised, Milton approached him and asked him why he had come back so quickly. The man, appearing befuddled, finally said, “I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand the silence.”
The gentleman’s problem is not an unusual one. Our lives, especially urban and suburban ones, are filled with racket. Think of Neil Diamond’s song, “Beautiful Noise.” When your mind is directed towards that ado, extraneous stuff swirling in a chaotic world spinning on steroids, you are unconsciously or perhaps consciously doing your avoidance bit. In some homes, the TV is on, often to talk shows and cable news, 24/7. Others keep a level of so-called “white noise” going in their homes and offices. Silence and quiet are dreaded and avoided.
Introspection, like everything else, requires balance; otherwise, neurosis and self-absorption dominate. But a healthy commitment to serious reflection on one’s self, to wonder about, question, and reassess one’s life course can be part of one’s regular practice. That’s where being vulnerable begins…with one’s self. To move beyond, “Know Thyself” to “Be honest with Thyself.” That takes courage, practice, and patience.