One of the most debilitating aspects of life today is that we do not admit to each other the cost of struggle. Our real fears are seldom allowed to surface.
Yet we all struggle. Our lives are full of pain, little comes easy for us, and we make a living, remain healthy, remain attractive and achieve success only at great cost. Fear is always present. The fear of failure, of slipping, of having others see that life and success are not automatic, that life is had at the edges of sickness, unattractiveness, boredom, failure and sadness.
However we bury and hide struggle and fear. Rarely do we genuinely share how we really feel, what our fears are, and how difficult it is to be who we are. Rarely do we admit anyone into our inner space where fear, struggle and inadequacy make themselves felt. We all go through life posturing strength, pretending; lying really, giving off the impression that all is easy and that friendship, health, achievement and attractiveness are easeful and automatic. But that is dishonest and debilitating. Dishonest because it isn’t true. God knows, and we know, how precariously we are glued together! It is debilitating because when we are forced to hide our pain and fear, we are forced, too, to hide the very strands within which compassion can be found. In shared weakness and fear, there is a common meeting ground. Our weakness and fears, much more so than our achievements and successes, drive us inward and put us in touch with what is deepest, softest and most worthwhile within the heart.
In that part of the heart, we discover who we really are and there we understand that we are not what we achieve, but we are what is given to us. Outside of that, when we posture strength and lie and pretend, we learn falsely that life is not a gift to be shared, but a possession to be defended. The road to love and intimacy lies in a compassion born out of the perception of shared struggle and shared fear. When we genuinely see another’s wound and struggle, then that other enters a deeper, more real, part of us. But it is precisely here that the problem lies: More than anything else, we struggle not to reveal our pain and fears to others, for we have been falsely taught that community and love are grounded upon something else, namely, upon impressing each other. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to intimacy and community is that propensity to believe that others will love us only when we are impressive and strong.
Because of this, we go through life trying to impress others into liking us. Rather than sharing ourselves as we really are – vulnerable, tender, struggling, full of fear – we try to be so sensational that there can be no possible reason not to love us. Like the inhabitants of Babel, we try to build a tower that is so impressive that we overpower others. The result for us, as the result then, is counterproductive. Because of pretence, we go through life “speaking different languages,” that is, unable to find a common meeting ground upon which to understand each other. Understanding takes place through compassion and compassion is itself the fruit of shared vulnerability. Thus, so long as we hide our struggles and fears, we will not find intimacy.
When fears and struggle are hidden, when achievement, health, attractiveness and friendship are projected as automatic, then our talents, intelligence, wit, charms, beauty, and artistic and athletic abilities cannot be seen for what they are intended to be, namely, beautiful gifts which enrich life. They are projected, then, as objects of envy and they become forces which create jealousy and further wound. When there is no shared vulnerability, life becomes what we can achieve, and our talents are possessions to be defended. We must, therefore, admit to each other the cost of struggle. Our real fears must be allowed to surface. Intimacy lies in that. Intimacy will be achieved only when we are so vulnerable that others can see that we share with them a common condition.
Scripture reminds us that here, in this life, we see each other as less than fully real – “as through a glass, darkly, an enigma.” We contribute to the enigma, we make ourselves less real, precisely to the extent that we do not admit to each other that it is hard for us. It is only when we see each others’ fears and struggles that we become real to each other. The path home, out of exile, lies in vulnerability. The threads of compassion and a concomitant intimacy will appear automatically when we present ourselves as we really are, without false props, as tender.