I sat in my doctor’s office last week, wondering as I sat waiting on the couch how I was going to answer the questions I knew were coming. “How have you been feeling? Have you noticed any changes since we last met?” Sure enough, he asked, I answered; using a lot of words and not much emotion to say essentially, “ok…not good, not bad, just ok.”
And then he said, “So how are you feeling about the cancer? How much are you thinking about it?” Gone was my disconnected heart, and an answer bubbled up before I had time to edit: “I feel vulnerable.” And the tears started, a clue that something significant was wrapped up in that word that came from a deep place inside me. I sat in a familiar space that morning: my body feeling one thing very clearly, and my mind working hard to convince me there wasn’t a reason to feel that way.
I had a lumpectomy in January to remove a mass of abnormal cells in my breast; I was told it is a type of carcinoma, but it’s not technically cancer, it’s pre-cancerous; I was told not to worry, and at the same time handed a thick manual on breast cancer and instructions to see an oncologist to begin a 5 year course of Tamoxifen to minimize my now increased risk of future recurrence. My body was very aware of how much tension it was holding in all the disturbing and seemingly contradictory information.
Throw in relational challenges with close friends, the need to step up and provide support to our daughter-in-law and grandchildren in our foster son’s absence, a major home remodel that had us living out of our basement for 3 months, and some particularly nasty side effects of said Tamoxifen, and I was done. No reserve. No energy. No desire. Vulnerable.
The Oxford dictionary defines vulnerable as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” Yep, that fits…I’ve experienced the physical and emotional attacks and I am left exhausted and anxiously anticipating more of them. I’ve been turning this word over in my mind, sitting with it in my heart, wondering what it has to teach me. I know my most recent experience of vulnerability tied to the cancer/not cancer in my body touched other memories and experiences my body also holds. Experiences of a deep body knowing held alongside dismissal and invalidation, the most painful being my story of sexual abuse.
Over the past 12 years spent in a ministry that provides a place of healing from abuse, I have heard the stories of countless women whose stories resonate with my own. And I have noticed in myself and in them a tendency to respond to our vulnerability with justified walls of protection. Sadly, the ones who feel the impact of those walls are not the abusers – the ones responsible; rather it most negatively impacts us and those who are trying to love us in the midst of our brokenness. Paradoxically, Jesus taught that the pathway to healing and salvation was through brokenness and suffering, not protection and justification. So how can I both honor the weight of the harm that my body holds that produces such vulnerability, as well as open myself up for further healing?
A recent yoga practice provided a perfect picture for me. We were instructed to move into “reclined goddess”: lie on your back with knees bent, bring the soles of your feet together right below your hips and allow your knees to relax open, arms open to the sides. If you can call to mind how vulnerable it feels laying on your OB/GYN’s exam table with your feet up in the stirrups and your knees spread, you’ve got it. I remember early on in my yoga practice encountering this pose and wondering who in the world thought of such a distressing move, a move they had the audacity to categorize as “restorative”! Clearly they had never experienced sexual harm, or even the vulnerability that comes from simply being a woman. I felt the fingers of anxiety close around my heart and begin to squeeze, my brain chemicals clamored a warning to batten down the hatches.
Yet on this particular day, my favorite instructor, who I know has her own story, encouraged us to move into the pose while keeping our hands over our heart; a profound shift that communicated kindness and care for my body and my heart. Placing my hands over my heart connects me to the Divine that dwells within me, the Spirit who brings peace. I lay on my mat and literally enacted the paradox of vulnerability and care simultaneously in my body. While I needed an instructor to call out the movement, I had to choose to care for myself in the midst of allowing myself to be vulnerable rather than protected.
So as I continue to move through this particular season of vulnerability in my life, I am holding a new picture of kindness and care and personal responsibility. I wonder if there are any spaces in your life where you are feeling the pull to protect and justify? I invite you to join me in a “goddess response” – opening up while tending your heart with great care.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to embrace her depth and sensitivity. Inspired by Mary pondering things in her heart, Janet writes about her experiences here. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband of 25 years, as well as her 4 children and 2 grandchildren. She is a life-long lover of words and looks forward to reading and sharing at Red Tent Living.