I’ve got to stop shoulding on people, both in my life and in my writing.
My intentions are to be helpful, of course. I just am so eager to analyze problems and solve them with some (self-declared) sage advice. I intend to connect with others and help them in their own lives—but before I know it, I’ve should on my coworkers and employees, my family and friends, all over the page.
You should look for a new job. You should meditate more. You should roast your garbanzo beans, add some cumin and turmeric, and use that for your protein source on your salads. You should try this…
I’m just full of advice—but please ignore it. Please ignore the fact that I just should all over you. Nobody wants to be told what to do.
Instead, people want connection. One could say our main purpose here on Earth is to connect. And if we want to connect, we must show ourselves. We must be vulnerable. Sounds simple, right? Just follow the formula:
- Be vulnerable: Show myself and I will connect with readers.
- Be real: Share my story, not what I think people want to hear.
- Be useful: Share something that will help others.
But my problem is, I have a tendency to skip those first two essential steps and just go right to what I think is useful. I don’t really “do” vulnerable, which makes this writing thing a challenge—and as it turns out, presents obstacles for living, too.
I consider myself to be “an intellectual,” which isn’t a bad thing, and certainly high intellect has its place in writing. But it’s not the only thing. By intellectualizing everything, I quarantine my heart, my fears, and my shame—the things that make me human, that make us all human. In so doing, I limit how much those around me can benefit from what I have to say.
The power of vulnerability is as real as the Law of Gravity. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with it: apples still fall from the tree. The power of vulnerability is a spiritual law that cuts across many religious traditions, and is even supported by science and research.
The New Testament reveals the power of vulnerability. Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem as the Son of God, not on a stallion, but on a donkey, demonstrating that even kings can be vulnerable. He also taught this truth in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, ”Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” [Matthew 5:5]. In Greek, at the time, meek meant gentle or soft—like our hearts, when they are open. Finally, in Second Corinthians, Paul writes, ”For when I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10].
The power of vulnerability is also touted in Buddhism. In Pema Chödrön’s The Places that Scare You, she speaks eloquently about bodhichitta. Chitta means “mind,” and also “heart” or “attitude.” Bodha means “awake,” “enlightened,” or “completely open.” She describes bodhichitta as “the soft spot,” and equates it to our ability to love with compassion and feel the pain we share with others.
”Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. Our opinions and emotions become barriers and protective walls from our open heart.” ~ Pema Chödrön
Knowing that my first instinct is to give my opinion, I have to stop myself before I build a wall where a bridge should be—for humans need that bridge, that connection to each other.
Finally, we hear almost exactly the same message from social researcher Brené Brown.
Her research shows we must display excruciating vulnerability to beat back shame and fear. Those are her words, but she read my mind when she wrote them; excruciating is precisely how it feels for me. She goes on to describe the courage of vulnerability as being whole-hearted. In fact, the word courage is actually derived from this act: cour means “heart,” and originally meant “to tell who you are with your whole heart.” Vulnerability is the courage to be imperfect. Living vulnerably means being willing to do something without any guarantees around the outcome. As someone who happens to like guarantees, this is rather difficult.
Nonetheless, we have here three different viewpoints that offer surprising, almost verbatim, agreement. I’m finally convinced.
My goal is stop with the shouldy advice, and instead use the power of vulnerability. To connect with others, I must open my heart in a manner that reveals my inner self so that others may benefit. I want to live and to write in a manner that is useful. I can’t love from afar. I can’t be useful from a distance. I have to get close. It’s scary. And messy. And I might get hurt.
But that’s where “useful” begins.
Useful: yo͞osfəl/ adjective. 1. Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways. ~ Oxford Dictionary
Just as I’m learning to be vulnerable and soft, I am also learning to be real in my writing. At first this felt like more pressure, another layer of complexity tacked on to a process that was already difficult. I felt the frozen terror of writer’s block. Be real? What does that even mean?
But here’s what I realized: facing a blank page is always overwhelming. The staring contest begins the moment we take the pen in our hand. The blank page is no different than the sunrise of each day. If we listen closely, we will hear both asking the same question, ”Human, what do you want to say to the world today?”
“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
A powerful writer will not ask, ”What do you want to hear?” Rather, they will write from the heart. Similarly, I will not truly live when I live to please others. Writing and living both demand individuality and originality to be of quality. Ironically enough, as I’ve practiced being real, I’ve discovered that my worst bouts of writer’s block were when I was writing to please others. Life block is no different.
So, I’m learning to hesitate. To “lean into the blank page.” Put another way, I’m learning to be comfortable with the silence. When we give ourselves momentary pause through deep calming breath or allowing pure silence to surround us, we center ourselves so that our message to the world can reveal itself.
Mostly, I have learned that successful writing differs not from successful living. My challenge is to approach both the same way.
Be vulnerable. Be useful. Be courageous. And for goodness sake, stop shoulding.
Author: Greg Simmons
Image: Elephant Journal/Instagram
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman