You wouldn’t expect there to be much common ground between four hulking police officers and one gymnast who stands four-foot-eight, but last week showed that even humans who seem wildly different on the surface can share something quite profound. In this case, those five people demonstrated that vulnerability has life-changing consequences, for those brave enough to embrace it.
Simone Biles was in the Olympics compound in Japan, and the four officers were testifying before a select committee of Congress in Washington, but they all met at a particular place, where trauma was preventing them from doing their jobs. They were protecting themselves – and hopefully others – by admitting it. And they were perhaps also fuelled by a sense that they’d been betrayed by those who were supposed to protect them: Simone Biles by the gymnastics hierarchy that hid a predator, Dr. Larry Nassar, who molested her and other girls, and the officers by Republican politicians who continue to insist there was no riot.
“That day continues to be a constant trauma for us literally every day, whether because of our physical or emotional injuries, or both,” said Aquilino Gonell, one of the Capitol Hill Police officers who fought to quash an attempted insurrection by pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6. Mr. Gonell was beaten with a flagpole, hit with toxic chemicals, and called a traitor. “What we were subjected to that day was like something from a medieval battlefield.”
He and his fellow officers choked up and clutched tissues while they recounted what had happened to them that day: Beaten, kicked, eyes gouged, racially abused, and all at the hands of their fellow citizens. They all continue to experience the consequences of that traumatic day. You can be mistrustful of policing as an institution while still finding the courage of these men deeply moving, especially as they did the thing that men are never rewarded for: Admitting physical and emotional pain.
In Japan, Simon Biles did an equally brave thing by admitting her limitations in front of the world when she bowed out of the U.S. team gymnastics competition. The rest of us, who have trouble saying “no” to another slice of pie, cannot imagine the strength of mind it takes to say “no” to the expectations of sponsors, fans, sports executives, and millions of viewers passing judgment from their La-Z-Boys. But she did it with her customary grace and fortitude, and she did it to protect herself.
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport, you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Ms. Biles said at a news conference. “So it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself. It shows how strong a competitor and person you really are.”
This idea of strength through vulnerability is not something we readily embrace in North America. Strength through punching, yes. Or insulting. Or screaming. But the idea that sharing frailty and struggle is a powerful way to connect to other people goes against everything we’ve been taught about how to achieve power and success. Perhaps everything we’ve been taught about what constitutes power and success is a big crock of horse poo, though. It would certainly help explain the state of the world.
The thing is, vulnerability can be a superpower. Once you admit your fear and weakness, they can no longer be used as weapons against you. The shame dissipates. Brené Brown, the University of Houston professor of social work who is the guru in this field, gave a Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability a decade ago that’s been viewed more than 50 million times. In it, she talks about the “courage to be imperfect,” which is not something that our hyper-competitive society values.
But vulnerability, for those with the guts to demonstrate it, is also the secret sauce to effective leadership, Dr. Brown points out in her book Dare to Lead. The leader who admits mistakes, listens and grows is going to have a longer and deeper influence than one who leads by fear and bluster. You can guess which of the two men currently claiming to have won the presidency she favours. (For those hunkering under tinfoil hats: There is only one American president at the moment.)
On the Sway podcast, Dr. Brown pointed out the ways that Joe Biden’s empathy make him a daring leader: He was unafraid to shed tears over the memory of his late son, Beau, or admit love for his other son, Hunter, who struggled with drug use. He’s a hugger and a whisperer in troubled ears.
When Kamala Harris humiliated him at the presidential debates on a question about busing, Mr. Biden didn’t hold a grudge. He recognized her talents, swallowed his pride, and named her as his running-mate. He clearly does not think about the world like a second-grader, in a binary of winners and losers. Joe Biden understands that winning and losing are strung along the continuum of human life, and sometimes sit right next to each other.
It’s those nuances we saw on display this week. Simone Biles was a winner by losing. That might be an uncomfortable place for her, but you know she has the strength to process it. As for the idiots who tried to shame her – often the same idiots who ridiculed the Capitol Hill officers’ emotional responses – it seems obvious whose names history will remember. Some people make peace with their fear, and some people are enslaved by it their entire lives. Only one of those is a happy place to be.
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