Vulnerability: The Roots of Compassion

When I was four years old, I woke up in the middle of a severe thunderstorm, crawled out of bed and knocked on my parents' door. My mother got up, took me to the living room, and she sat in an old, overstuffed gray armchair. I buried myself in her lap - I remember the geometric pattern of her flannel pajamas--and covered my eyes and ears, while she looked at the brilliant flashes through the bay window, not flinching when thunder shook the house. Somehow, in the morning I found myself in bed again, the thunderstorm having passed, and life continuing as usual.

This is one of the warmest and fondest memories I have of childhood, a childhood in which I asked for very little in the way of comfort because, in part, little seemed available. Perhaps because of my early experience and my natural curiosity, I often found myself wondering (and still do): what if things really weren't o.k.? What if no one or no answers could provide comfort?

Of course, many people feel inherently safer than I do. Some experienced a greater level of security in their childhoods, never questioning its very foundation, and somehow this carries over to their adult life. Others have an unflappable belief in a compassionate God, and have faith that all things, even horrific things, happen for good reason, however un-understandable. Still others, perhaps most, feel safe because, psychologically speaking, they are so well defended. In large part, I suspect the very nature of our individual brains, our genetic makeup, in conjunction with life experience, determines how safe we feel in the world.

But as we learned two weeks ago, even the strongest, or most defended of us sometimes feel unsafe - events happen for which there is no immediate comfort. Last Tuesday, many of us missed our mother's laps, the calm and soothing words and an omnipresent heartbeat. Still, before we resurrect our adult defenses and somehow create a less painful home in our psyche for this tragedy - (a process that is inherently human, and essential for us to go on), let us take a minute to experience more fully---and even value our very feelings of vulnerability.


What could possibly be the benefits of acknowledging and sharing our vulnerability? By pretending the opposite--to be invulnerable-- we put up walls to intimacy, empathy, and compassion. Look at the news this past week: along with pictures of unbearable loss and suffering, we see the greatest outpouring of generosity and empathy this country has seen in a long, long time, perhaps since World War II. The donations of money, blood, time, food, supplies, hard work, are beyond people's wildest expectations. These acts of kindness and generosity have their roots, at least in part, in a shared sense of vulnerability. As a country, if you will forgive the new age parlance, we have gotten in touch with our vulnerable self, long forgotten and neglected, and responded magnificently. Our landscape may be marred, but the ugly American is ugly no more. I feel a sense of relief about this. Ironically, the terrorists were able to humanize our country in a way that the "kinder, gentler" folks were never able to do.

Sadly, this makes the events of last week no less tragic. Grief is the worst that life has to offer, for which there is no remedy save time and an ear. Even then, the cure is never complete - nor would we want it to be, for if we simply forgot those whom we loved, life would lose meaning. The grief that many people are suffering at this very moment is simply unbearable.

But the vulnerability this tragedy has engendered in the rest of us is nothing to be ashamed of. It has given us the opportunity to be closer to one another - to not pretend, to be humble, to be generous, empathic, and compassionate. We have rediscovered one of the real strengths of our country. Look at the people around you. We are all vulnerable, we are all scared, and if we share our feelings we can all take great comfort in this - because vulnerability is an important and precious part of being human.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 12). Vulnerability: The Roots of Compassion, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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