In this series of posts about Up and Down I’ve been exploring how diametrically opposed concepts (light and darkness; hierarchy and heterarchy; comfort and discomfort) are mapped onto the spatial orientations of Up and Down, just like emotion and logic are represented by left and right. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson refer to this spatial mapping of conceptual opposites as “orientational metaphors.” A perfect example of one such representative pair is strength and weakness.
Strength is defined as: “a good or beneficial quality or attribute”
While weakness is defined as: “a quality regarded as a disadvantage or fault“
We can see how this Up>Down orientationial metaphor runs parallel to the dominance of masculinity over femininity through the nearly universal male perspective that vulnerability is weakness. This cuts dangerously close to the core of the eightstep me paradox, since vulnerability is simply the exposure of weakness. In other words, men don’t want to expose their weaknesses because they think that the act of opening up is a weakness in of itself.
If you’ll notice the phrase in the last sentence “opening up” strongly implies that vulnerability is actually a good thing. It doesn’t take much thought to realize why this is the case: if you’ve ever ripped a nail off your finger or toe you’ll know that the area previously protected by the nail is very sensitive. Just like the derivation of comfort from discomfort, exposure of weakness and dissolution of boundaries is what allows strength to exist. Like most of my ideas, this one is very old. You probably know the story of Achilles and his heel, even if you don’t know that you know it.
There are several variations of this several thousand year-old story, but one of them goes like this:
Since Achilles was born of the union between a mortal man and an immortal woman he was not invulnerable like a god. Therefore, his mother attempted to remove his vulnerability by dipping him in the river Styx, which acted as a barrier between Earth and the land of the dead. This worked well and he grew up to be a great warrior who fought many successful battles without injury. However, *spoiler alert* during the Trojan war, Paris, a prince of Troy, shot him in the heel with an arrow and killed him. Achilles was invulnerable everywhere except his heel, because his mother had held him by the heel as she dipped him into the river Styx.
Now, it’s easy to get distracted by the details of this story with questions like “why didn’t she just switch heels while dipping him?” or “why didn’t he wear a bajillion layers of armor around his heel?” But the moral that I take away from this myth is this simple paradox: exposure of weakness creates strength. The ancient Greeks saw vulnerability as a great virtue to be cherished, and I think we should appreciate it as they did. I could write for days about this, but I think that’s enough for now. Stay tuned for a long story I am writing which recounts a recent experience I had about vulnerability.
In the meantime, try to remember that being vulnerable isn’t a weakness — in fact, vulnerability is the source of all strength.