Venturing into vulnerability

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I’ve got a confession to make. 

Though I’ve been writing as a columnist for a few weeks now, I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that what I write will be available on the internet forever — or at least until the United States perishes in a fiery cannibalistic apocalypse this November. 

Ah, public vulnerability — it’s daunting, to say the least. Much like with public nudity, I’ve got a few qualms with “baring it all” in my writing. It’s an irritating insecurity that scratches at me, staring out from the emptiness on a fresh Google Doc. The lasting imprint of my opinions in the annals of The Daily Californian makes me uneasy, so my instinct is to mince my words, avoiding smearing the page with the raw unfiltered contents of my mind. 

Maybe it’s because I was raised to be wary of openness in public. 

My Russian mother emphasizes that trusting someone, especially as a woman, with your vulnerability is not a generosity easily extended to all. She raised me with her Soviet pearls of wisdom, which are now some of my greatest treasures. One particularly witty expression isслово – не воробей, вылетит – не поймаешь.” Words are not like sparrows: If they fly away (are blurted out), you cannot catch them again (take them back). This other one is a bit on the nose: Слово — серебро, молчание — золото. Words are silver, silence is gold. The origin of these small proverbs, however, extends beyond the confines of my childhood home.

For decades, censorship in the USSR was suffocating. For simply voicing their political opinions, my mother’s relatives were a few of the many who disappeared without a trace in Stalinist Russia. The punishments for self-expression have hardened Russian people, deeply affecting how they perceive openness in Russian culture. Public vulnerability was not a luxury people could afford, and so outward silence and reservedness became tradition. 

Yet, to assume Russians’ speech has historically been oppressed, as many Americans like to do, would be incorrect. It’s quite the opposite. 

Russians grew a secret vulnerability in their imaginative gardens, nurturing it quietly. Modest, yet deeply expressive, vulnerability resides in art, performance, dance, poetry, music. Culture flourished where spoken words could not. Opening themselves up as vessels for the arts, Russians are vulnerable to feel the waverings of life more deeply. It is profound and private, experienced uniquely in each fluttering soul. 

Russian vulnerability is different from its brazen American cousin, a breed of vulnerability marked with voyeurism. The United States’ fixation on “what’s underneath” — from paparazzi snapping shots of celebrities’ secret lives to trashy tabloid scandals to our collective infatuation with social media — has revealed an obsession with relishing in others’ vulnerability, as though it can only ever be some public spectacle. 

The mistake is believing the only form of valid vulnerability is in a public arena, that it no longer resides with our deliberate choice to open ourselves to the ebb and flow of life. After all, if one is not susceptible to the gaze of others, are they vulnerable at all? And so vulnerability, existing in a world infatuated with its unearthing, often becomes an exhibitionist performance. 

From fake YouTuber apology videos to social media pages, vulnerability is fabricated, something to hide behind when it ought to be an opening experience. We perform our vulnerability and seek others’ vulnerabilities all without truly experiencing its resonance. 

In “The History of Sexuality,” French philosopher (and genius) Michel Foucault scrutinized Western society for its addiction to “unearthing” through the act of confession. As vulnerability transforms into a ritualistic, necessary practice, Foucault profoundly concluded, “Western man is a confessing animal.” We broadcast our vulnerability, be it genuine or not. The image of vulnerability is cultish in modern America, as we receive praise when opening ourselves up and are excluded when we want to keep to ourselves

Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate American attachments to confession and our relationships with our own vulnerability. We ought to venture inside, to see what vulnerability we can discover within ourselves without the performative exhibitionism encouraged by the structures of our world. 

As a writer, I’ve encountered such structures. To be an interesting American writer, or rather to produce interesting writing that appeals to an audience hungry for vulnerability, there’s a demand to gut yourself, to turn yourself inside out, to expose all of your raw parts and unearth your innermost feelings. 

Vulnerable writing can be wondrously raw, beautifully open, evocative and moving. Without a doubt, when honest, it nourishes the soul. But some of the best books that I’ve been sucked into are fictitious accounts of history or made up altogether. Is there not a degree of vulnerability present in those works too? 

The act of writing (of making any artwork, really) inherently requires vulnerability. Writing is discovering: It is exploring something yourself and your thoughts, and doing so blindly. 

From my own experience, the writing process always involves feeling it out in the dark. And to make it more confusing, I kind of know where I want to go, but never really know how to get there. It is not always easy, but is always uncomfortable. Being with yourself and within yourself, with all the good and the ugly parts together — this is the vulnerability I know. 

The guiding light in the Sisyphean madness of coming up with any piece of writing, the single marker of progress, is whether the words are coming out at all. There’s an inexplicable gauge, some Seussian “writing-o-meter” calibrated to each individual author — we all venture into these unfamiliar, private terrains. It’s naked. It’s intimately honest. It’s vulnerable to you. 

Writing for the Daily Cal interrupts my comfortable writing niche. Vulnerability sweeps me up in her arms and I’m suddenly in uncharted territory. Finding my way through it is the journey.

Alexandra Sasha Shahinfar writes the Thursday column on multiculturalism. Contact her at [email protected]