Vulnerability Hurts. But It Plants the Seeds of Change

No one likes being vulnerable. But as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., we’re reminded once again that nonviolence and vulnerability are necessary to effect real change in the world and in our everyday lives.

In The Quest for Peace and Justice (a lecture he gave when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964), King said,

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man (sic) who wields it.”

Lofty words, for sure. Yet our lived experience tells us that nonviolence feels anything but “ennobling.” In fact, nonviolent and non-aggressive responses to confrontation can feel demeaning, degrading and dehumanizing.

Whether you’re protesting an injustice or diffusing an argument with your spouse, refusing to respond to anger and violence with anger and violence pushes your humility to the breaking point. It makes you feel weak and exposed.

In a word, it makes you feel vulnerable.

From the time you were old enough to walk, you’ve been taught to practice self-protection and self-preservation. But King understood that there is power in being vulnerable because it allows us to become living, breathing witnesses to truth.

As witnesses to truth, we carry the seeds of change and the possibility of a “community at peace with itself.” They might disagree with you. They might even despise you. But they can’t argue with your willingness to be vulnerable for what you believe in — and it’s your vulnerability that gives authority to the truth you speak.

Jesus and the Art of Being Vulnerable

It’s no coincidence that vulnerability played a central role in MLK’s ideology of change. Remember, King was a seminary-trained Baptist minister. (MLK received his seminary training at Crozer Theological, one of the three schools that became the seminary Melissa and I attended, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.)

In a 1967 sermon, MLK said,

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”

Vulnerability was a fundamental element of Jesus’ life and ministry. MLK often cited the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ counsel to “turn the other cheek” as a basis for nonviolent resistance. Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean submitting to injustice or abuse — it simply means creating space for God to transform vulnerability into strength and change.

Being Vulnerable in Your Everyday Life

In the spirit of MLK and Jesus’ call to a radical lifestyle of love, here are some examples of how being vulnerable can create positive change in your everyday life:

1. Being Vulnerable at Home

Conflicts and petty disagreements are inevitable in shared living spaces. But instead of adding fuel to the fire, diffuse arguments and conflicts by remaining calm, cool and collected. Don’t be a doormat, but look for win-win solutions to resolve conflicts with your spouse, kids or roommates.

2. Being Vulnerable in the Workplace

Most of us are conditioned to view the workplace as a competitive environment. But a new generation of researchers is dispelling this myth and proving that generous people — not toxic, selfish takers — achieve the most success in the workplace. Being vulnerable in the workplace means finding ways to be truly helpful to your coworkers by being generous with your time and talents.

3. Being Vulnerable in the World

When we practice self-protection, we keep other people at arms length, making it impossible to create relationships built on trust and respect. Being vulnerable in the world means letting down your guard to allow other people — especially people who are different than you — become a part of your world.

Vulnerability isn’t easy. You could spend the rest of your life trying to master it. But if there’s anything we can learn from MLK and Jesus’ alternative worldview it’s that being vulnerable is worth the effort because it’s the first step toward peace and a more meaningful way of life.