Thoughts on Vulnerability (in the wake of Charlottesville)

I once had a client who was a white supremacist.* The thing about being a therapist is, you quickly learn that everyone’s got a story. In this case, there was a history of domestic abuse, a parent with extreme racist ideologies, underlying severe depression and anxiety, and experiences of rejection by loved ones (which hurt him deeply, though he would only rarely admit it). He was also bright and thoughtful, extremely well read, and had a sardonic sense of humor that I genuinely enjoyed. He openly discussed his racist ideologies with me, and I was never shy about telling him how abhorrent his ideas were. He was always willing to debate these ideas, but whenever I called them out for what I thought they were—stories he told himself in order to feel strong, powerful, and invulnerable—he scoffed and quickly changed the subject.

Once, in the aftermath of an incident in which his own risky behaviors nearly cost him his life, I told him honestly how concerned I had been for his safety. At this, he grew intensely uncomfortable, and more emotional than I had ever seen him. “I don’t want to know that!” he said to me, curling up into a ball in the chair with his head in his hands. It was as though the very idea that I—or anyone, for that matter—could care about him enough to be worried about him was just utterly intolerable to him. He just could not handle the vulnerability of true human connection.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. That was the last time I saw him—days afterwards, he moved away and I wasn’t able to continue working with him. He sent me a short message several months later to tell me that he had “no hard feelings.” Several months after that, I heard that he had died by suicide.

Unsurprisingly, he’s been on my mind as I’ve watched events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend. I tell this story not to excuse the perpetrators of racism and violence–I believe, as I would hope all people would, that evil such as this must be condemned in the strongest terms. But my experiences working with this individual (and others) have taught me that it is still humans with their own complicated stories who commit these acts of violence, humans who are often attracted to extreme ideologies out of fear and a desire for safety, and who cannot tolerate the vulnerability that comes with life on earth.

Something I’ve noticed in the past several years is that almost every client who comes into my office (regardless of how they describe the “problem”) is wrestling with some variation on that one essential question: how can I feel safe and certain in a world that is complicated and dangerous? I’m afraid I have also realized that the only real answer to this question is not one that is likely to provide immediate comfort—the truth is that life is full of risk and complexity, and complete safety and certainty are not actually possible (no matter who tells us otherwise). It’s a hard idea for many of us to swallow, as evidenced by the many ways we try and avoid the discomforts of vulnerability.

Many people develop perfectionistic tendencies, for example. We work ourselves into anxious frenzies, trying to control the uncontrollable. Some of us become defensive and hostile when feeling vulnerable.  We blame, we criticize, or we refuse to confront the possibility that we are wrong.  To be wrong is to seem weak, and that is unacceptable for many of us. Some of us take the opposite approach and avoid conflict at all costs.  We become supremely adaptable, and pat ourselves on the back for our patience and long-suffering, neglecting to realize that standing up for ourselves in an open, honest way creates a sense of risk that we’d just as soon avoid.  So we go with the flow, and refuse to “show up.”

And yes, some of us feel the vulnerability of cultural change or a perceived loss of power, and form increasingly polarized mentalities of the world. We resort to tribalist thinking and begin to divide people into easily defined “us-vs-them” categories. We surround ourselves with people who think and look and sound just like us. It feels safer to not have to confront complex realities, where most people are doing their best (even when clearly screwing up all the time) and many problems don’t have simple solutions (if they have solutions at all).

These aren’t new tensions; rather, these are themes that have existed since the dawn of time. What little we know about the council in heaven provides us with some clues about the nature of the original conflict between Satan’s proposed plan, and God’s. In Moses 4:1, Satan offers to the Father, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” Note carefully what he promises here—“not one soul shall be lost.” Some have interpreted this to mean that Satan’s plan involved some sort of coercion, or somehow “forcing” everyone to be good. This was the interpretation that was most common in my childhood primary classes, and I imagine many of my contemporaries who grew up in the church will recognize it too. However, the text itself does not necessarily support this. Another, I think more plausible interpretation is that rather than stating his desire to somehow “force” the perfection God’s children, Satan was stating a belief that he could somehow circumvent consequences and avoid loss altogether. Later in the garden, Satan speaks to Eve in the form of a serpent, and tells her to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “Ye shall not surely die,” he promises her (Genesis 3:4, Moses 4:10).

These are the devil’s lies: I can protect everyone from loss. You shall not surely die. And make no mistake; they are incredibly seductive lies, even for us today. Satan’s proposal is essentially a wholesale rejection of vulnerability. But there is no vitality without risk. Such a plan as Satan’s would never, could never have been possible for a God who loves life, and truly would have “destroy[ed] the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). God’s plan, in contrast, requires becoming both flesh and subject to death (accepting and embracing even the most intense kind of vulnerability), as Christ himself shows us. And Satan, in his attempt to avoid the reality of loss, death, and vulnerability destroyed his chance at having a life, rather than just a meaningless existence.

So what to do with all this? I don’t know that I have a good answer, but I think we try to approach the messiness and vulnerability of life with clear-eyed bravery. We learn to see and love people, in all their complicated glory. We hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We forgive. We grieve our losses, and celebrate our joys. We stay open. We learn, we grow. We choose life, even as we are subject to death and loss and pain and change. In this, we follow our Savior’s example.


*To protect confidentiality, I’ve made minor adjustments to some identifying details, and left the rest intentionally vague.    

9 comments for “Thoughts on Vulnerability (in the wake of Charlottesville)

  1. Beautiful post. It brought to mind a powerful article I read in the Washington Post last fall: The white flight of Derek Black. Though, that story appears, at least thus far, to have a much happier ending.

    In thinking about the “complicated stories” and “vulnerability” you mention, I couldn’t help but think of the young men in the article who, knowing what they knew about Derek, chose to invite him to their weekly Shabbat dinners anyway — a step that would end up changing the whole course of Derek’s life:

    Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.

    Matthew had spent a few weeks debating whether it was a good idea. He and Derek had lived near each other in the dorm, but they hadn’t spoken since Derek was exposed on the forum. Matthew, who almost always wore a yarmulke, had experienced enough anti-Semitism in his life to be familiar with the KKK, David Duke and Stormfront. He went back and read some of Derek’s posts on the site from 2007 and 2008: “Jews are NOT white.” “Jews worm their way into power over our society.” “They must go.”

    Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking.

    It was the only social invitation Derek had received since returning to campus, so he agreed to go. The Shabbat meals had sometimes included eight or 10 students, but this time only a few showed up. “Let’s try to treat him like anyone else,” Matthew remembered instructing them.

    Derek arrived with a bottle of wine. Nobody mentioned white nationalism or the forum, out of respect for Matthew. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next, until after a few months, nobody felt all that threatened, and the Shabbat group grew back to its original size….

  2. I don’t intend in any way to make light of your post, quite the opposite. Your post helped me understand the motivation of the villain in the latest Marvel comic movie featuring Dr. Strange.

    The villain is a former ‘disciple ‘ who was seduced by a demon who promised the end of death and suffering. I realize it wasn’t the promise in and of itself that was the sinister twist. The twist was that the promise was a lie, and assimilation into the demon was the actual fulfillment of the ‘promise ‘ which was not obvious to this lost group of disciples until it was too late.

    Pain and loss happen, with no particular will behind the events. This universe is complicated with lots of players, human and non-human, many not even organic. Collision is inevitable, change will occur, following cycles sometimes, happening randomly at other times.

    God’s best service to us is not preventing these events, but helping us bounce back from them. The universal gift of the atonement from Jesus the Christ is resurrection for all. But dearh comes first. And the ultimate gift, exaltation, comes after we wade through opposition and surrender our own weaknesses. We are not intended to be the same people returning to Heavenly Father that we were when we left.

    Our return is not as children, but as adults, ready for the responsibilities that God shoulders.

  3. When an undergrad in college, I worked as a research asst. with a post-doc who was looking into right-wing, extremist, anti-govt. movements. Mind you it was just a year or two after the OKlhoma City bombing. Here in Michigan, of course, we had the Michigan Militia, led by Mark, a guy fromone of the Wards in our Stake. With the Prof., we went and visited all the local groups and even went and interviewed white supremacists and neo-nazis all over the State, in Hayden Lake, ID, in Arkansas and Missouri etc. I am not a trained therapist, but my observations about the people were somewhat similar to the client that Michelle mentions. Many of the real “macho” guys seemed to be the result of real poor family upbringing, from real unhappy family backgrounds, with plenty of physical and sexual abuse. Many seemed to latch on to neo-Nazi, or white supremacist ideas fervently believing that these ideas would solve their underlying psychological problems. Similarly, they identified with the Churches that seemed to support their political and social ideas, they were members of “Christian Identity” churches. I dont have any solutions, but, I think that people like Michelle, with their professional training in the field of Mental Health can do much to help heal a lot of the men( and a few women) who end up being members of these right-wing extremist groups.

  4. Compelling thoughts. It’s not the focus of your post, but I appreciated most the modeling you offer on how to confront racism while acknowledging the humanity of the racist. At the same time, I wonder how I could possibly respond in the same way given that my daughters are black. We live in a very cosmopolitan part of Virginia, and yet explicit racism is a reality in their school. The direct harm caused by those who embrace and perpetuate these ideologies is hard to overlook in any real or imagined confrontation. As the cosmology you cite runs, God’s ultimate reaction was to banish Lucifer. (Marc, would Matthew have invited Derek if Derek had directly attacked him or others he loved? In that scenario, what would the grace-ful thing to do have been?) We’re in a different position here on earth, and our cosmological also insists that every hate-filled ism-monger we confront is fundamentally like us and have used their agency to elect good—like us. But the here and now harm involved complicates the picture and makes it harder to determine the proper reaction. In the case you describe, the Javert you counseled didn’t ultimately stay his hand from harming.

    Also, like you, I find the fact that our Cosmology eschews happily ever after (as well as happy-once-upon-a-time), and instead gives us an eternity of wrestling with pain and loss in the midsts of exaltation to be one of its most bracingly true and empowering aspects.

  5. Thank you for this post. It brings important nuance to this conversation. Love and kindness, always, but I also think it’s important to balance love and kindness for one set of complex stories with love and kindness for another. When people come out of difficult circumstances and go on to take actions that are deeply harmful to others — as in, intimidating people of color through White Nationalist activities — I believe our first obligation is to the intimidated. If we can offer love and kindness to the intimidated while also offering understanding to troubled “intimidators,” all the better.

    I worry sometimes that expressions of understanding of the intimidators can come across as insufficient support for the intimidated. I’m not sure how to balance those in public discourse.

  6. Excellent points James and David. This brings to mind another story from several years ago. Former DC South mission president Mark Albright, who periodically publishes “Missionary Moments” in Meridian Magazine, circulated to his e-mail list the conversion story of William E. Davidson, also known as Bill Riccio, a man whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized as “a former Klan leader-turned-godfather of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement in the Deep South.” Davidson, who was reportedly baptized in Alabama in 2009, had shared his conversion story with Albright for possible publication in Meridian, recounting his troubled past with the white supremacist movement, introduction to the Church, and the long process he went through to get baptized, before bearing his testimony of the restored gospel. However, this prompted e-mail discussions about the appropriateness of publishing the conversion account, given the prominent role Davidson had once played in the white supremacist movement and the continuing effect that his prior actions may still be having. My understanding is that Meridian ultimately opted against publishing the account (in fact, I can find no mention of Davidson’s conversion to Mormonism anywhere online).

  7. Jerry Schmidt: Never fear! I have a deep and abiding love for superhero movies. Love the Dr. Strange reference! :)

    David Evans & James Olson: Yeah, I wrestle with that tension too. I have no good answers, and those issues were very relevant in the case I reference here (though I didn’t feel like I could go into too much detail). Sometimes “banishment” (whatever that looks like) really is the only option, if an individual is genuinely dangerous to others. And it’s probably important for me to clarify that I’m also speaking from the perspective of being the person that individuals such as this end up getting “banished” to, so my role is a bit unique that way. I wouldn’t hold myself up as an example on how everyone should necessarily treat situations like this, because it’s my actual job. :) In any case, I think your questions are important, and I wish I had better answers.

  8. Sid Sharma: What was the name of the researcher you worked for? Any publications? Sounds like interesting stuff.

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