Vulnerability: Newtown and Nouwen

Last week’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut hurts. It hurts badly,  troubling us at multiple locations of doubt, hope, fear, and love. Survey the landscape and see what has been scorched: the innocence of children, the space of the schoolhouse, our duty (and capacity) to protect children, our general sense of security in the midst of community, a myriad of assumed rights and responsibilities, ideals of parenthood and the resiliency of children, our blind spot toward mental illness, perhaps even our tacit acceptance of public risk.

In the destructive wake of the violence, many voices have rushed in to offer solutions–a not unhealthy impulse, even though many of the solutions are misguided, I think. Many of them reflect views that are not new judgments, but old commitments given new urgency, and these have been immediately met by other old commitments fueled by the urgency of any defense played at critical junctures. Political pundits, theologians, pastors, social scientists and community leaders are all having their say, and I suppose that some of those discussions may well bear fruit, if they are pursued with honesty, courage, and wisdom. In the end, now that the idea of this type of violence has been seeded in our communities, it may not ever be eradicated from the consciousness of those deeply broken people who might consider it a live option. Becoming more intentional about addressing that deep brokenness, addressing the systemic devaluation of human life in our society, limiting how well-armed such individuals might come to be, and making sensible decisions about security and emergency procedures may well combine to save lives—I would hope many—but eliminating the seed itself may be beyond our grasp. (This is not to say that such pragmatic conversations should not be pressed forward! Even if we can spare but a few families this sort of deep horror, I hope we will courageously engage the questions.)

Beyond the immediately pragmatic, the deaths in Newtown have again exposed a conversation that we are scarcely willing to pursue, namely our extremely fragile ability to experience community with other humans. When we join in others for any public endeavor or experience of community, we always experience danger, whether that be in the market or workplaces, in the schools or mass entertainment venues. Such events raise our awareness of the willingness of others to abuse our trust and do us harm in exceptional ways, although we most commonly encounter such abuse and harm in mundane, petty things. Whether they do so out of rage, greed, or some other vice, our experience of such danger threatens our willingness to be full participants in community, and in exceptional moments of violence, even at the hands of madmen, we can be pushed further into retreat mode.

I say “retreat”, but as I mean that, the impulse to ratchet up security and devise better schemes for protection, and to make ourselves stronger is also a “retreat” from community, in its own way. Those impulses are a way of insulating us from the sense of vulnerability that we have in encountering “strangers”, people who are really our neighbors, but who have become “estranged” from us. Whether they have become strangers to us through their own failings or ours, through the broader directions of culture, or through some innate human “fallenness” is one of the central questions of theology, as is the cure. Put simply, these questions ask, “How did we become this broken?” and “How can we be fixed?” And so, moments like this can be deeply theological moments, because we experience in an acute way the condition of humanity, They strip away the illusions that we hold of ourselves, whether those illusions reflect to false invulnerability, a cavalier sense of immortality, or the pretenses of faux community.

All of this has called my mind back to Henri Nouwen, one of the most formative influences on my own life. I think Nouwen has a lot to say to our world in this time, particular in his great theological insight that honestly owning and living in our vulnerabilities is a more fruitful way to live with God, other people, and ourselves than our endless maintenance of the illusions of security and strength. Nouwen writes about the roots of our loneliness, a symptom of our estrangement from each other, when he writes, “The roots of our loneliness are very deep, and cannot be touched by optimistic advertisement, substitute love images, or social togetherness. They find their food in the suspicion that there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used.”

For Nouwen, the way to deal with that suspicion was to avoid the natural impulse of adding layers of security around it, and to confront it head on through radical hospitality—creating space in our lives for others despite the real danger that they would somehow harm us. Creating free spaces inside our perimeters of supposed invulnerability allows us to discover community with each other because it allows us to be honest and free, despite being “threatened”. Dealing with our sense of vulnerability also helps unmask the illusions of immortality and invulnerability which, being idols, stand between us and any relationship with a free and loving God. For Nouwen, God’s own actions in the story of Jesus represent just this sort of radical hospitality, and thus create space for us within the story of God within which it is possible for us to inflict harm upon God, but also to freely know and be blessed by God.

As a framework for policy, radical hospitality sounds like a recipe for disaster. As a framework for really building community between broken people, it may be the only way forward.

4 thoughts on “Vulnerability: Newtown and Nouwen”

  1. Great thoughts! I love that Nouwen quote. As the person who most often interacts with members of the community in our church office, I see firsthand the effect of wall-building as a response to pain and vulnerability. The irony is that those emotional walls, intended to protect the builder from pain, are not strong, but brittle, and end up creating pain through enforced isolation and despair. It IS a courageous act to live in true community, but the emotional and spiritual richness to be found there far outweighs the risks. Discovering that is a big step toward healing the brokenness you speak of.

  2. Thanks for the thought. You are right there are all kinds of solutions to the problem of Newton that have to be pursued one person at a time not one policy at a time. That is a point I haven’t seen anyone making. Loving our neighbor-radically-one by one-that’s where we have to be!

  3. Yes, this hand-to-hand work and problem solving is the kind of deep engagement that I think we have to keep pushing ourselves towards—This is the kind of thing that breaks down evil at its roots. It’s tough work, though! Thanks for the comment, Helene!

  4. Katrina, that quote comes from Reaching Out, one of my favorites from Nouwen. Someday I’m going to write a blog post that consists in nothing but the entirety of Reaching Out. It’s a minor travesty that the book isn’t more widely known or read.
    I totally feel what you’re writing about how I see these kinds of walls in many of our neighbors that are struggling. It’s a complete trap, because the very things that feel solutions to the problem drive you into deeper and deeper isolation. (Can’t help but think of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby). The courage to be honest and to create the kind of hospitable space for others to be free and honest is a virtue with a lot of reward, but it’s hard to find the right kinds of baby steps that will help us develop the habit.