Courage and Vulnerability

I woke up this morning thinking about the idea of vulnerability. I had been having quite a vivid dream about travelling from Edinburgh to London, going from the city out into rugged landscapes that reminded me of Scotland, but I awoke before leaving these areas. However this reminded me of the fears I had recently about travelling to visit family and having to pass through London, a place which I have not visited for a while but which is now intimidating to me and causes me to be anxious. On top of this I had the additional responsibility of travelling with my daughter and being concerned for her welfare and safety too. All of these thoughts are encompassed by my perceptions about how vulnerable I and others can be and fears about this.

We are all now in a time when we are experiencing a sense of vulnerability. Retreating to the safety of our homes we have become acutely aware of the danger which exists in the outside world, a contagious disease which can prove to be deadly if caught. However this situation is also highlighting that vulnerability exists by degrees and is relative. It is also making us face the fact that no one is absolutely invulnerable, we all are mortal after all.

The idea of vulnerability has been a preoccupation of mine for quite a lot of my life and has been expressed through my poetry, stemming I guess from a certain feeling or sense of vulnerability in myself and the dichotomy of needing to be strong (or perceived as such) being a male. I’ve always been fairly sensitive and yet also drawn for some reason to martial arts and things which you might call aggressive like the stories of knights and warriors, even in science fiction such as the Jedi Knights of Star Wars. Lately I’ve been exploring the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill through the poetry of James MacPherson and I wrote about this in a previous essay called “Why Epic Literature Matters” Its particular relevance to me today is addressing this idea of vulnerability.

Part of the warrior’s toolkit, as it were, is to assess their vulnerability (literally their ability to be wounded), to be completely honest about it and to take action to reduce it. A warrior recognises their weak points, the head or torso for instance, and then dons protective armour and a helmet. A shield is also of paramount importance to deflect incoming blows. Training takes place to learn techniques that can be used to ward off a variety of attacks and the warrior will study the techniques used by their opponents and devise counter-attacks. They will also take refuge in strongholds which are built defensively to decrease their vulnerability. All of these things are done to lessen personal vulnerabilities, to increase strengths and diminish weaknesses. And they endow a sense of courage because the warrior knows that they have taken steps to protect themselves. It is much harder to be courageous when feeling exposed and unprotected.

It must be said though that this is how most of us feel most of the time. Very few people have a great sense of security either in their homes or in their outside life and so fear plays a big role. We all experience vulnerabilities whether they are physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. One of my favourite hymns is “Be Thou My Vision” which was originally a prayer of protection written in Old Irish and attributed to the 6th Century Saint Dallan Forgaill. In its English translation are the lines: “Be thou my breastplate, my sword for the fight.” This imagery is perhaps not what you’d expect of a religious song, but the meaning is symbolic, a sign of taking to heart and heeding the awareness of vulnerability which requires some agency to overcome, in this case divine.

The fact that many people feel, and indeed are, vulnerable brings up another aspect of the human experience and that is a desire to protect. This was the case with my feelings about travelling through London with my daughter. It is also an integral part of the warrior’s role that they are not only able to defend themselves, but that their capabilities extend to others who are unable to defend themselves. Again this requires an unflinching honesty in looking at themselves and others so that both strengths and weaknesses are recognised and then some action is taken to enhance those strengths and lessen the weaknesses. One of the films I remember watching when I was younger was “The Seven Samurai”. I was particularly fascinated by Japanese martial arts and culture. The main story revolves around a group of samurai who are called upon by a village to protect them from bandits. The beauty of the film is how Kurosawa captures the multifaceted natures of each of the samurais’ characters and the villagers they are protecting. Their strengths and weaknesses are shown throughout the story which makes the film poignantly realistic. In the end however by working together the villagers, who are feeling acutely vulnerable, manage to overcome the forces that threaten them.

This often appears to be the main message. Vulnerabilities are overcome by working together as a collective. Courage and leadership are required but they come from a clear assessment of the nature of things as they are. There might be a leap of faith but it comes from an understanding that backing is there if required. And so this is how we as a society engender courage and bravery when it come to protecting people, especially loved ones.

I would just like to conclude by saying that there is also a growing movement which recognises the vulnerability of things outside our own society of human beings. For instance the Lakota Sioux at Standing Rock recognised that their water supply was vulnerable due to plans to build an oil pipleline through their lands. They called together allies and created a protest movement to protect the water of the river they relied upon. They met with violent opposition but there was leadership and collective action just in the way I described above which shows a definite warrior spirit. Guided by their example and also other movements around the world, our human society seems to be increasingly aware that Mother Nature is vulnerable and that our activities are having a negative impact on many forms of life on this planet and even the environment such as our waters and seas. This will be perhaps our next greatest challenge as we learn to protect ourselves from ourselves, for our activities, which we quite often take for granted, are to the detriment of our own welfare and even the welfare of our children and the future generations. This is another dichotomy which we may all have to struggle to come to terms with but we will have to if we want to leave a positive legacy for the generations which follow. The time has now come that we start to examine the situation honestly and realistically so we can collectively work out a course of action. Paradoxically, experiencing our collective sense of vulnerability may well turn out to be a source of great strength and courage.

Additional note:

Today, when I wrote this, was Captain Tom Moore’s 100th birthday. I watched the news report on the special RAF flyby which was in honour of his achievement and a celebration for his birthday.

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