Growth is only possible if you subject yourself to vulnerability

Vulnerability; the Hallmark of Growth

Growth is only possible if we subject yourself to vulnerability. If we never leave our comfort zone, we never discover new experiences or new facets of ourselves. But vulnerability is uncomfortable. It takes courage to embrace it. If we want to grow, we must be willing to risk vulnerability.

Think of a crab that ducks under its protective shell at first sign of danger. Though its shell is its shield, it sheds its shell every molting season and grows a new one. It can’t grow a new shell if it remains tucked into the old one. But as the crab grows, it requires a larger shell. So, it chucks its old shell, burrows itself into sand or soft ground to escape potential danger, and grows a new shell.

While between shells, the crab experiences profound vulnerability. Yet it never shies away from what must be done in order to grow. We must do the same. To grow, we must take social or spiritual risk. To climb, we must risk the possibility of falling, but we put ourselves in G-d’s hands and move forward.

All Alone

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the mother who gives birth to a baby. The Torah says, “When a woman conceives and gives birth”. From conception to birth is a long and often painful road, but it is a delightful road. For the mother, it is filled with wonderful surprises and experiences. She is constantly aware of her baby; whether awake or asleep, she is constantly nurturing her baby to life.

However, there is a time when the mother is oblivious to the baby’s existence. From the time the baby is conceived until the time the mother realizes that she is pregnant, she is unable to care for the baby. For the fetus, this is a time of vulnerability. It is all alone, facing an uncertain future.

King David wrote of this time in Psalm 27, “For my father and my mother abandoned me, yet G-d gathered me in.” The famed commentator Rashi explained that David was talking about the long hours that elapsed between the time his parents conceived him and the time that they became aware of his existence. They both went to sleep and thought nothing of the fetus they had just created. The egg had fertilized, an embryo was formed and the parents were oblivious.

The fetus has no awareness during this time, but the soul does. And David, a soulful man, was aware of his soul’s energies. He was keenly aware of the trauma his soul had experienced all those years earlier and the impact of this trauma exerted on his life. Yet, he marveled that the trauma did not result in a sense of emotional abandonment and insecurity. He marveled over his courage and bravery. And he understood why.

He recognized that he was not really alone. Although his mother and father knew nothing of him, G-d was at his side. G-d had gathered him in. This thought consoled David all his life. Whenever he encountered a personal vulnerability, he consoled himself with the thought that if G-d was there for him during the abject terror and vulnerability of his seminal days, G-d is here for him today.

The Missing Letter

What does G-d do for us during our time of vulnerability?

In Psalm 146, King David built in an Acrostic of the Hebrew Alphabet from the first letter to the last. But he skipped one letter, the letter nun. Our sages taught that King David omitted the nun because the word nofel, to fall, begins with a nun.

King David did not want to create a theme out of falling, so he skipped that letter. But he mentioned it in the successive line. In the next line he wrote, “G-d supports the fallen.” With this David taught us that when we fall, we don’t break. Falling is just a different form of progress.

You can’t climb unless you learn how to fall and how to pick yourself up. You can’t make good decisions if you haven’t made bad ones from which you have learned. When we fall, we haven’t failed. We just gave G-d a framework in which to lift us up. A vulnerability that He can support.

In our times of vulnerability, G-d doesn’t take away our challenge, instead He does give us the tools to overcome it. Once we overcome it we realize that the trials of challenge are growth stimuli. It was not a fall. It was part of the climb.

A classic example is the story told in the Midrash about Adam and Eve’s first experience with darkness. On the first Saturday night of creation, the sun set and darkness fell. Never having experienced darkness before, Adam and Eve did not know what to do. It was a time of terror and vulnerability. G-d did not bring back the sun. Instead, he showed Adam how to build a fire.

The vulnerability was not a setback. It was an impetus to learn how to build a fire; something he would never have learned, had darkness never fallen. Every time I write an essay, I encounter a lull in the creative process during which I don’t know how to progress. At that point, I have no idea what the essay will say when it will finally be complete. But the lull is not a reversal of progress, it is part of the creative process. For creative energy to bust forth, it must first be held back by a wall of resistance. It gathers energy and strength, and when it bursts through, the creative thrust provides a ray of startling clarity.

In Life

This is true in every facet of life. Whenever we experience a setback, it is the lull before the storm. It is not a negative that will soon be overcome by a positive. It is part of the positive process.

Suppose you marry and come to believe that your spouse is your soulmate and you will never depart. Then the day comes and you separate. At that time, your heart brakes and you feel completely abandoned. You feel silly for having given your heart to the wrong person and your vulnerability eats away at your soul.

This is but one example, and in truth, there are endless numbers of examples. It can be the loss of a lucrative client, a dream job, a beautiful house, a bosom friend, a youthful memory, a loving parent. Whatever the loss, whatever the darkness, know that it’s purpose is to point you in a new and unanticipated direction. You would never have gone there if not for your temporary setback. And during this temporary lull, you are not alone. G-d is holding your hand and moving you forward.

The Field

A city dweller visited his friend on the farm. He went out in the morning and watched the sun rise over a beautiful field of green grass. But in the afternoon, his friend brought out the tractor and turned over the soil. The beautiful greenery was now a dirty mess; overturned clods of brown soil filled with tiny little seeds. He thought his friend was crazy and left the farm in a huff. Several months later he returned and found the field alive with a budding crop. He now understood that what seemed destructive was part of the growth.

Life is a field and our dreams are the seeds. Circumstances are the brown clods of soil. When the Divine farmer has His way, our field sprouts with seeds of joy planted in the clods of challenge and sorrow.