Letting Our Guard Down, Letting Others In: The Power of Vulnerability | Congregation Beth Am

Letting Our Guard Down, Letting Others In: The Power of Vulnerability

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker on
October 2, 2016

When I was in middle school, I was a really shy, quiet kid. Thinking back, I can now recognize the turning point, when I began to discover that I actually could make good friends and become a more social person. It was the same summer I got my braces on (a real highlight in the life of a teenage boy about to enter high school). Out of the blue, my temple’s youth group advisor called me and invited me to go on our youth group’s annual river rafting trip. It was a seven-day road trip, from Los Angeles to the North Fork of the American River, with a group of about ten other teens, out of whom I knew exactly...no one. I was really touched by the personal invitation and was excited for the opportunity to go river rafting, but was still hesitant to go on a long trip with a group of people I didn’t know. After some deliberation, and probably some coaxing from my parents, I decided to take a chance and give it a shot.

Over the course of seven days, our group made our way up the California coast. Throughout the driving, camping and rafting, there were opportunities for long conversations, for working together to pitch tents and cook dinner, and cheering each other on as we navigated challenging rapids. The long hours in the van or around the campfire meant that what started as small talk could blossom into much deeper conversations as time went on and we all became more comfortable around one another. 

Those conversations were a gift to me. Before I went on that rafting trip, I now realize I walked around as a pretty guarded person. At school, I had resigned myself to having just a few guys with whom I ate lunch -- and I didn’t even have that much in common with them. What made this trip so significant for me is that I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I tried something new, putting myself in a place where I spent a week with ten strangers. As we got to know each other, I felt safe enough to be honest about things that I didn’t normally share with my peers. They learned that my AOL screen name (anyone remember those?), GBHeath, was a nod to my favorite country music star at the time, Garth Brooks. And they didn’t make fun of me for it.  Even though it was a bit scary to put myself into a situation that brought more than a little personal anxiety, it ended up being an incredibly powerful experience, which led to friendships and memories that I hold dear to this day. Before the rafting trip, I had acquaintances -- people I could chat with about superficial things. The kids on that rafting trip became my friends. We could talk to each other about the things that really mattered in our lives.

I now understand that this trip was a starting point on my journey towards becoming a rabbi. It still shapes the way I envision my rabbinate today. Until that memorable summer, I was resigned to being a shy kid, a little bit on the margins of high school. But I learned a lesson that would stay with me for the rest of my life: that by taking a risk and letting people see who I really was and what I really cared about, I could get closer to them and see them as they were.

Psychologist Brené Brown calls this act of letting people see our true selves, of letting our guard down, vulnerability. Some people cringe when they hear this word. They think it suggests weakness or opening up old wounds or revealing our deepest darkest secrets. But that’s not what it is. It’s about lowering the barriers we put up between ourselves and others and letting people in. It’s giving people a glimpse of who we are, in all our messiness and imperfection. It’s not trying to constantly broadcast that we’re doing great and our family is great and everyone is always happy. Because if we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that’s not the case - none of us are perfect or happy all the time. 

It’s understandable that we might hesitate to open up a bit and allow people to see a glimpse of our fear of not being good enough or not having it all figured out. But Brené Brown teaches the same lesson I learned on my rafting trip: it is precisely through the process of opening ourselves up in this way that we can begin to form our deepest, most valuable relationships. Some of us find it hard to be vulnerable, but the payoff is huge. She explains it this way:

Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.[1]

It is this question of engagement that I want to talk about tonight. When was the last time you took a risk in a relationship? When you told someone that you loved them, without being sure of what they might say in return. When you opened your heart; confided in someone -- not your therapist -- about something you’re worried about; spent time with a group of friends talking about more than the Giants or the Warriors or the weather or the movies, or laughed together with someone until you cried?

We know how to get good grades, we know how to do our jobs well, we are creative and innovative people, but we are losing the art of conversation. We chat about politics or our kids or work or where we’re going on vacation, but rarely do we get to a deeper level of talking about the substance of our lives.

There are many barriers that keep us from having these conversations: we don’t have enough time; we don’t have enough energy; we don’t have enough trust. We live far away from our families and our oldest, closest friends. We’re always connected to our smartphones.

In a book called Alone Together, MIT professor Sherry Turkle shares this story about the way technology is affecting our relationships:

I recently overheard a conversation in a restaurant between two women. “No one answers the phone in our house anymore,” the first woman proclaimed with some consternation. “It used to be that the kids would race to pick up the phone. Now they are up in their rooms, knowing no one is going to call them, and texting and going on Facebook or whatever instead.”...A thirteen-year-old tells me she “hates the phone and never listens to voicemail.” Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.[2]

We live in an age where it is becoming increasingly easy to avoid real human interaction. Where, if we want, we can retreat to our separate corners and only engage with others to the extent we choose. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m not anti-technology. It allows us to be in touch with people all over the world like never before. In fact, some of our members who can’t be here tonight are watching the live stream, helping them stay connected to our community. But communicating with someone virtually can’t replace the value of actually sitting with someone, face-to-face. And texting is no substitute for a heart-to-heart conversation.

This “Goldilocks” approach to relationships might keep our anxieties at bay, and might feel more comfortable than the messiness of real connection. But the distance we are creating between ourselves and others is bound to catch up to us. Too many of us live in a bubble, without giving much thought to the strength of our human connections. We may have hundreds of Facebook “friends.” We may have plenty of colleagues and people to chat with. But who among them knows what’s really going on in our lives, and in our hearts? Who will we call when there’s an emergency and it’s 2:30 in the morning?

Sooner or later, the bubble will burst. Sooner or later we’re going to need people in our lives who know us, and care for us, and will be there for us when we need them. Now, Beth Am is a wonderful community. If you or someone in your family is ill, volunteers will cook for you, through our Mitzvah Meals program. If you’re experiencing a life challenge, volunteers will give you one-on-one support, through our Tikvah and Yad L’Yad programs. It can feel wonderful to get that kind of support from fellow congregants that you don’t even know. But wouldn’t it feel even better to have true, deep friendships within this congregation? Wouldn’t it feel good to walk life’s path together with a group of Beth Am friends who know you in all your vulnerability; spend meaningful time with you, and stand with you in times of celebration and struggle?

Last year, I visited a Beth Am chavurah that has been together for many decades. I asked each of them to share a time when they had experienced a sense of being part of a community. Many of them spoke powerfully about gathering for the funeral of a good friend of theirs. This was a group who had celebrated the births of their children, b’nei mitzvah, big moves, and even some weddings. The shared simchas were wonderful. But it was this moment of sadness that stood out for them. Their closeness helped ease the pain of their terrible loss. They said they found great comfort in being able to be there with each other, to remember their friend and share all the good memories they had made together, to cry and to hold each other in those moments of grieving.

Many of us haven’t been fortunate enough to form those kinds of connections. Many of us hunger for that sort of closeness. But how do we get there? I know I feel it. My family has been here in the Bay Area for two years now and we still don't feel like we have a close group of friends. It’s not easy to find your place -- especially in a large community like this one.

We’re not alone in feeling this way. A few years ago, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote eloquently about the value and importance of adult friendships. He wrote, “Lovers face each other, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world.”[3] He cited a recent study, which found that “friendship is not in great shape in America today. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time.”[4]

It’s not just the fault of technology. Time is another culprit. Relationships take time to build and nurture, and many of us feel like we’re already  too busy to do all that we want or need to do. Brené Brown points out that the first thought many of us wake up with is “I didn’t get enough sleep,” often followed by “I don’t have enough time.”[5] If we always feel like we don’t have enough time, then it’s difficult to imagine how we might carve out time for something as intangible and non-urgent as building relationships. This is especially challenging for those of us who are working and raising kids. With all of our running around, we often find ourselves with very little energy left over at the end of our day to give to our families, let alone other pursuits.

As a rabbi I get to spend much of my day meeting with our members. I’ve spent hours with with many of you -- in my office or over a cup of coffee -- talking, listening, getting to know each other. One thing I hear over and over again is that you want to get to know others and make friends in this community. Sunday Program parents want to know the parents of their kids’ friends. B’nei Mitzvah families want to talk with understanding peers about how they’re preparing for their children’s simcha. Even our long-time members recognize that they don’t have as many close relationships as they used to. Cherished friends move away, or pass away, or drift away. We crave connection, but we don’t know how to carve out the time or take the first steps to make it happen.

Our desire to be deeply known, deeply valued, and missed when we’re away is at the core of who we are. And it is impossible to satisfy this need by ourselves. We are meant to be in relationship. As Brené Brown explains,

Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection -- it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.[6]

The Torah said the same thing three thousand years earlier. Upon seeing the existential loneliness of adam - the first human being, God remarked “Lo tov heyot ha-adam l’vado -- it is not good for human beings to be alone.”[7] As Rabbi Marder taught us a few weeks ago, loneliness is different from choosing to spend time alone. Many of us love having time for quiet reflection in solitude. Loneliness is quite different. Loneliness hurts.

For Judaism, human relationships are an essential path to goodness. Indeed, our tradition sees them as a path to God. Emanuel Levinas, the great modern Jewish philosopher, suggests that we experience the Divine when we really look into the face of another person.

We humans can be a stubborn bunch. We don’t like to admit that we crave connection, that we need help, that we can’t do the work of life alone. And we certainly don’t like to make ourselves vulnerable. It can be a scary thing to let someone into our lives, to allow ourselves to really be seen. It can be scary to realize that we’re lonely; to admit that, even if we’re surrounded by people, we need more closeness in our lives. But being honest with ourselves is what this season is all about. This is precisely the work we’re called to engage in as we enter the Holy Days. As Rabbi Alan Lew teaches,

Teshuvah -- turning, repentance -- is the essential gesture of the High Holiday season. It is the gesture by which we seek to heal [our sense of] alienation and to find at-one-ment: to connect...to reconcile with others…”[8]

As we engage in this intense period of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, reflecting on how we’ve tended to our relationships over this past year, here are some new questions to consider. Not just “how have I wronged others?” but “How have I been vulnerable in this past year? Have I been too busy to make strong connections? Have I been guarded with others, keeping them at a distance, or have I let them in and showed them who I really am? And, looking forward to a new year, let’s ask ourselves: how can we deepen the relationships we have? How might we forge new relationships of worth and meaning? 

Over the past year, I’ve been working with a dedicated team of Beth Am members to consider how we might build stronger connections within our synagogue. How can we create a space for real and substantive conversation? A little over a year ago, Beth Am joined a cohort of 19 other Reform synagogues across the country who are exploring how Small Groups can provide a simple structure that will help bring us together in meaningful ways.

This is more than just a new program that we’re introducing at Beth Am. Small groups can transform this very large congregation. By building a congregation of small groups, we will focus on the people that make up this holy community.

We know the truth. You can belong to Beth Am for years. You can come to lots of programs and events. You can have lots of acquaintances here -- and still feel that you’re on the margins; that you haven’t deeply connected with those around you. And we know this, as well: a congregation is not about programs and events. When we are at our best, we are about meaning and spiritual sustenance. We are about people.

If we are going to thrive, and truly create a sacred community in the coming years, we need to focus on relationships and building deep connections. Small Groups with Meaning offers a simple, yet radical idea: To bring Beth Am members together in intimate settings to know and be known, learn and laugh, rest and rejuvenate, deepen connections with one another, to Beth Am, to Judaism and to the rhythms of Jewish life.

Small groups are about building face to face connections in this digital age, slowing down in a time of speeding up, discovering one another’s unique gifts in a world often defined by anonymity, conformity, and disposability. They’re about the power of conversation -- a word derived from the verb “to turn towards each other.”

So what can you expect to see happening in the next year or two at Beth Am? You’re going to be invited to make some of the best friendships of your life. Some Small Groups will be geographic in nature, others will connect around life stage, common interests and affinities. All Small Groups will provide opportunities for Jewish growth and exploration, for connecting with Judaism in a very personal way. Over time, group members will find ways to celebrate together, support one another, and join together in community service projects.

How will we form these small groups? How will we make these matches? We’ll begin by listening. That, after all, is the core teaching of our tradition. Shema Yisrael, Listen, Israel, let us listen to one another.

Beth Am’s Small Group initiative will begin on Yom Kippur afternoon -- and you’re all invited! Right after the morning service, each of you will get a taste of the small group experience. In just 90 minutes, you’ll have the chance to start making some new and deeper connections.

You’ll also be hearing about  a series of house parties in congregants' homes between November and February. Conversations will be facilitated by members of Beth Am who have been trained by the Small Groups leadership team.

In the next several months, we’re going to listen carefully to you -- your ideas and concerns will guide the formation of our new small groups.

So think about it tonight. Think about what it might mean for you to be part of a sacred community of 8-12 others who will walk with you on your journey.

Let me be clear. Joining a small group doesn’t mean joining a chavurah. It means you’ll take part in a structured series of conversations that will help build relationships of substance. And it’s certainly not therapy or baring your soul to a bunch of strangers. It is a space to let yourself be seen for who you are, to let your guard down, just a bit. It’s a way to connect more authentically with fellow congregants, to find people you can trust, to talk about the truths of our lives in a supportive Jewish atmosphere.

Are you intrigued? I hope so. The Small Groups team and I are excited about what this initiative can mean for our community.

There is an old Hasidic story that I love,  told by Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz:

A man had been wandering in the forest for several days, unable to find a way out. Finally, in the distance he spotted someone approaching. With a heart full of joy, he thought to himself, “Now I will surely find a way out of this forest.” When the two neared one another, the first asked the second, “Will you please tell me the way out?”

The other replied: “I also do not know the way out, for I, too, have been wandering here for many days, but come, let us search for the way out together.”[9]

It’s easy to get lost in these woods we wander; it’s easy to get lost in this world. But we don’t have to make the journey alone. We can let our guard down. We can turn towards one another. We can find friends here at Beth Am -- friends who will stand with us, side by side, facing the world.

This year, why not try something new? Give yourself a gift. When the Small Groups team invites you to take a chance, please say yes. And may this be, for all of us, a year of love, belonging and connection.


[1] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 2

[2] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, p. 15.

[3] David Brooks, “Startling Adult Friendships,” New York Times, September 18, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/19/opinion/david-brooks-there-are-social-and-political-benefits-to-having-friends.html?_r=0   

[4] Ibid.

[5] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 25

[6] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 10.

[7] Genesis 2:18

[8] Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, p. 33.

[9] Adapted from S.Y. Agnon, The Days of Awe

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