Vulnerably un-fine is just fine

Recently,  I decided that I wanted to start volunteering to teach a weekly English class. My friend Jeremiah volunteers full time for an NGO here that operates an English language learning center. They do a lot of good work, and Jeremiah’s partner Lexi has been teaching a class there once a week on a volunteer basis as well.

I went to observe Lexi’s class last week. She teaches English full-time at a Thai school here, and has years of experience teaching ESL, so hers was a good class to watch. Her students were very beginners. “Pre-beginners” if you can believe that’s a thing…when beginner is just too advanced. These are students who are just starting to learn English words and phrases, and they are excited to be there, which is amazing.

But one of the things that struck me most during my observation of her class had nothing to do with the students’ abilities, or their enthusiasm level, or Lexi’s teaching skills. It was their response to one of her opening questions: “How are you?”

Their memorized reply was exclaimed in unison: “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” Their learned response worked well; it was a natural answer used by most native English speakers when asked the same question. “I’m fine.” Fine. Not bad, not great, just fine. Just enough information to answer the question without requiring a more probing reply.

I started to think about their response and how seemingly normal it was. And then I thought…why is that so normal? That should be the farthest thing from normal. If someone asks how you are, you should be able to respond with a genuine answer about how you’re doing. Which, let’s be honest, for most people is really not that fine a lot of the time. But people don’t want to hear that. They want the response that limits their investment in the conversation. Who genuinely wants to hear how you’re doing? Nobody.

That’s what I remember my mom telling me when I was younger. “Nobody wants to hear about your problems.” And it’s probably true. They don’t. But maybe they need to. That kind of thinking, while it has perhaps made us a little less whiny (which is a good thing) has likely also made us a little less honest, a little less open, and ultimately a little less happy. Because the problems we have cannot be known. They are shameful things to keep to ourselves, and the weight of their burden stays with us alone. And that can be crushing.

I think allowing ourselves to be truly known is one of the most terrifying things we can do. But letting the world see that sometimes (or even most of the time) we’re not OK is pretty freeing. Sure, we will no longer possess the glossy allure of perfection and stability, but who really wants that anyway? Stable is boring. Perfect is annoying. I think I’d rather be known for who I am: a messy, unpredictable, sort of disastrous but still pretty great human being. I don’t have my shit together. Even at 27. I might never feel like I do. But I am confident that I am doing the best I can to be the best I can. I fail more than I succeed, but I try. I try messily, but honestly. And that is enough. I am enough.

Brene Brown did an excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s worth a viewing (click the link to check it out). Being put together is great, but it’s not as great as being comfortable admitting that’s not the case. There’s a lot of power to be found in loving yourself for who you are, even when you’re not perfect. Because, shocker, NOBODY IS PERFECT. And nobody’s really fine. And we’re still worthy of love. And I think that’s just the greatest thing.

I’ll leave you with this quote from her:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
-Brene Brown

Go, be brave. Embrace vulnerability. Do the scary things. Tell the truth. Love yourself.

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