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Editorials

Weak point

You don't need to be a neurobiologist to know that each of us craves human connection. We're hard-wired for it. Societies are more peaceful and productive when there's more of it. But what scientists are beginning to tell us about how the process works is enlightening.

Researchers have discovered that when you ask people to discuss their sense of belonging and connection, they offer instead excruciating experiences of exclusion and disconnection. Some argue that this is our greatest fear: that there is something about us that means we are not worthy of connection. The English language condenses this into one word: shame.

This idea works conversely too. The people with the greatest sense of belonging are those who believe themselves worthy of it. Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, spent six years studying this group, which she came to designate as 'wholehearted'. She discovered that what they had in common was a sense of courage, in its etymological sense: a willingness to tell an honest, vulnerable story about themselves.

'They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees.' In some senses the meek have already inherited the earth: as well as  vulnerability being, as Brown says 'the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness ... it appears that it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.'

Many of us, however, suppress our uncomfortable vulnerability. We numb it with endless distractions - spending, eating, drinking - and become indebted, obese and addicted (as well as numbing those other parts of ourselves that might offer hope, love and creativity). But more interesting for the Christian is the revelation that we numb it in our thinking too. We take the uncertain and make it certain. Remove the vertiginous wooze of mystery and replace it with conviction. It's safer.

Meanwhile, we try to make everything perfect: our homes, our churches, and especially other people. But it turns out that humans were not made to be kept perfect. We are born ready to struggle. We are imperfect, but - so says our scripture, so says our God, so now says our science - we must be loved in our imperfections.