Strength in Weakness: A Call to Authentic Vulnerability

When spring break 2018 rolled around, it came as a sigh of relief after the breakneck pace of life at Duke. I was going to the beach with some of my closest friends. I resolved not to bring anything that resembled schoolwork. I would actually have responsible bedtimes. This week was going to be a much-needed oasis in the desert that was my junior spring semester. I was excited to take a break from running around like a chicken with its head cut off, but I had not considered what would catch up with me when that running stopped.

I was immediately overwhelmed by things that I usually did not have the time or the headspace to consider. My insecurities came crawling out of the corners into which I had so nicely stuffed them, reminding me of all the ways I feel like I fall short:

“You didn’t score higher than a B- in any of your math classes. Why do you think you can be an engineer?”

“The only reason you got an internship this summer is because you know someone who worked there.”

“Do you think your friends would still love you if they really knew how needy you are?”

I realized how burnt out from school I was. I missed my family so much that I cried myself to sleep. I thought I had left those days behind after freshman fall.

The Wall of Lies

The next afternoon a friend asked me, “How is your break going? How are you?” My response? “It’s good! I’m doing well.” Um, what? Had I forgotten everything I was feeling the night before? I was definitely not “doing well” and yet my reflex was to say all was fine. I decided it was better to add another brick to the wall around my life than it was to risk opening the door too wide and revealing how messy my life really was. I chose silence, and I felt alone.

In reality, there is no way I am alone in this experience. I am certainly not the only person on Duke’s campus, let alone the planet, who is insecure and imperfect. In fact, we all do this on some level. We rehearse our answers to questions and life updates. We find ways to frame our weaknesses as valiant strengths. We describe our hardships in a way that garners admiration at our grace and perseverance.

We learn early on that we should always appear as if everything is fine all the time. The demand to be effortlessly perfect leaves no room for openness about our struggles or imperfections. A friend once told me that during international student orientation, Duke tells students that when an American asks you, “How are you?” it is expected that you just say “Good, you?” in response. To answer with anything more is to acknowledge that our lives are not as perfect as we would like others to believe.

The Loneliness Epidemic

In the spring of 2017, the American College Health Association published its results from a survey of almost 48,000 college students.[1] Among their findings was the statistic that nearly 2/3 of all college students report feeling “very lonely” at some point in the academic year. In a lecture hall, that’s both the person on your left and right.

At Duke this statistic is even more staggering. The Chronicle reported that in that same ACHA survey, Duke students reported feeling “very lonely” at a rate of 80%.[2] In that same lecture hall, add the person sitting in front of and behind you. The capacity for loneliness is all around us.

Whether it’s homesickness, overwhelming amounts of schoolwork, perpetual exhaustion, or the innate challenges of interpersonal relationships, our lives produce opportunities for loneliness. When we compare these internal feelings that tell us “you are weak, you don’t measure up” with our perceptions of the people around us—the countless Duke students who seem to have their lives together and are hardly breaking a sweat—we experience isolation.

Shame and Silence

What I came to realize in my secret harboring of insecurities was that shame feeds silence and silence feeds shame. When I look at my life and feel ashamed of areas where I don’t quite measure up I strive to hide those parts away. But in that hiding, silence and shame lead to loneliness. With greater shame comes greater incentive to keep silent. I felt as if this vicious cycle was unconquerable.

Luckily, within meaningful, deep, and bold friendships, insecurity has an Achilles’ heel. My dear friend looked me in the eye, said, “Okay, how are you really doing?” and offered the time and space to talk about how I was feeling. Once again I had the choice: silence or vulnerability? This time I chose vulnerability, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. I was about as far from eloquent as I possibly could have been. I certainly was not emotionally composed, and yet, as I let out my insecurities, there was room for peace to move in. Naming my silent fears took the wind out of their sails, and they were no longer able to snowball in my mind. And the best part? I had a true friend willing to stand by me in the midst of my mess and dispel insecurities with truth.

Known and Loved

Humans crave to be known and to be loved. Our relationships are just as vital to us as food or sleep.

However, our fears tell us that if others fully know us, there is no way they will still love us, so we are quick to sacrifice being known for being loved.

As theologian Timothy Keller writes, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.”[3] This superficiality propagates our need for pretense and furthers the belief that we are failures when we do not have it all together.

However, Keller goes on to write, “To be fully known and truly loved is…what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”[4] I am blessed with incredible friends that show me more love and grace than I deserve. They are willing to meet me in my mess, pick me up, and say, “I’m not perfect either.”

Perfect Presence

But even the incredible love and grace friends offer are not perfect. Perfect knowledge and love is impossible to find in any fellow human. In the midst of our isolation, imperfection, and loneliness there is a shining light. Jesus chose to lay aside His perfect presence with God and enter the messy reality that is humanity. He did not stand aloof and maintain His well-ordered existence but descended to be present in our mess. While we were still enemies with God, before we had done anything to clean up our lives, that is when He came to exchange His life for ours.

Jesus, literally God with skin on, came to save us and to be with us. He did so without self-importance and without needing us to be “put together.” He did not fret about His image, His agenda, or His status. He wept over the loss of His friend. He laid a comforting hand on a man who had not been touched for years due to a contagious skin condition. He broke bread with sinners. He diverted His own plans to heal the lowly and needy.

He seeks out those who are the most alone and says, “I am here. I know you. I love you.”

Weakness to Strength

Our need to be known and loved can only be met fully in God, who knows entirely and yet loves truly, despite our flaws. The beauty of this love is that none of us are perfect next to the Creator and Sustainer of all things, so there is no room or need for facades. All of our strength is weakness compared to God (1 Corinthians 1:25), and this is cause to rejoice! The God of the universe is not waiting for us to be perfect but instead asks us to name our weaknesses so He can meet them with His perfection.

In the end, I believe we have a poor definition of strength as a society. We are quick to say that strength lies in our achievements, our abilities, and our independence, but at some point each of these inevitably fail. We believe that we must have it all together and that when we don’t, we must hide our shortcomings at all costs. We are told we must be strong, or at least we must appear to be.

What would it look like instead to be real about our limitations? To be honest about our struggles? And to ponder that a strength that is not our own but is always for us and never failing is available to us? Jesus delights in taking our weakness and using it to display his strength and glory and power.

Strengthened Friendships

When we experience this perfect love, we are free to be vulnerable with others and let superficiality dissipate. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says it best: “Friendship…is born at the moment when one says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.’”

For those of us who know deep love and friendship in Jesus, we ought to be compelled to model this vulnerability and openness in our human relationships. If we as Christians insist on maintaining the walls around our hearts, we reinforce the culture that says, “You have to have it all together.” Instead, let’s live lives with our messy hearts open in our friendships, a messiness that Jesus already knows anyway.

If you are reading this and don’t have a relationship with God, I invite you to look around for the places where you see authenticity, empathy, and humility, the type of friendships C.S. Lewis describes above. Find out what is different in those places. I hope that in those places you see the unwavering love of Jesus.

 

1 American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment II – Graduate/Professional Student Reference Group Data Report Fall 2016. http://www.acha- ncha.org/docs/NCHAII_FALL_2016_GRADUATE_REFERENCE_GROUP_DATA_REPORT.pdf. Accessed July 23, 2018.

2 “The Pressure to Be Thin: Examining Eating Disorders and the Duke Culture That Contributes to Them,” The Chronicle, accessed July 23, 2018, http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/11/171129-berkoeating-disorders.

3 Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, Reprint edition (Penguin Books, 2013), 95.

4 ibid.

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