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If you're new to this blog and want some context for it, read this post from the day I announced my Alzheimer's disease and this post about the day I announced I had lost it. For more info, visit my website with my autobiography and all blog entries in chronological order for easier reading to catch up. There's also a sermon on the spiritual lessons I've learned through this journey through my damaged mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Spirituality of Weakness & Vulnerability

Washington DC
I recently visited the Michigan State medical school to lecture about the “Spirituality of Weakness and Vulnerability.”  I’ve lectured many times to medical students, but this was a new topic for me and I was quite anxious: It’s not easy to write about human vulnerability; we don’t have good language for it.  Because of the long train/bus trip, I came in a day early to be able to rest.  I also needed to tweak the lecture I’d prepared.

First panic: I discovered that my talk was on the wrong subject … at least different from what I had told the organizer.  This was actually the second time I’d forgotten the subject matter.  The general topic was “Spirituality and Medicine.” I’d been asked last summer when both the organizer and I believed I had Alzheimer’s, so I was going to talk about that.  In January, after I’d discovered I didn’t have Alzheimer’s but only a stable cognitive decline, we decided I would talk about my history of working as a physician in economically oppressed areas and its impact on my spiritual life.

I wrote back with a proposed outline of my talk.  He responded that he didn’t see any reference to spirituality in the text.  Sure enough, I’d completely forgotten the general spirituality theme.  So we settled on the “Spirituality of Doing,” ie the deepening of my spirituality that had come from my work as a physician in Washington DC.  When it came time to write the lecture, however, I forgot what I’d told him and prepared the lecture on vulnerability. 

Second panic: Re-reading the lecture, I realized it was terrible: Simplistic, full of platitudes, and boring with no new, interesting perspective.  It was a ghost of what I thought I’d written.  I hadn’t articulated what I knew in my spirit: integrating my human brokenness into my spirituality was essential to being a good doctor.  So I tried to fix it.   

Third panic: About 6 PM I realized I wasn’t improving the lecture, which comprised four stories describing different sides of weakness and spirituality.  But I couldn’t tie them together … especially the story about my “Alzheimer’s,” which—while still about weakness—had not been painful like the others.

Fourth panic: I choked.  My anticipation of the next day’s embarrassment and disappointment overwhelmed me emotionally.  I could hardly think straight.  I wasn’t going to be able to do this.

I took a long walk and returned to the hotel, hoping to continue writing.  Still nothing!  In desperation I called Marja.  She’d read the draft before I had left DC and said, without much enthusiasm, that it was ok.  I wasn’t terribly hopeful she was going to be able to help now. 

Story, story, story! she reminded me.  It’s the stories that people remember, not all the philosophy/psychology explaining it.  From my previous writing, I knew this to be true, but in this case I just didn’t trust my naked stories.  Marja recommended letting the stories speak for themselves, hosever, without trying to talk about them too much.

I felt a glimmer of hope and went back to writing.  It took me until 4 AM to get it done.  I got up at eight to make sure my middle-of-the-night thinking was still coherent, made some small changes and was picked up a little later.  The organizer wasn’t really upset about the subject change … what could he do, after all?

I was still more anxious than I'd ever been before giving a lecture, but the approximately 100 students and faculty paid close attention …even though it was after lunch.  I can always tell when my audience is with me.  They asked lots of good questions, and the organizer and his group were very appreciative.  It was a wonderful experience for me.  (You can read the lecture here.)

Sharing stories of my brokenness gave people in the audience permission to look at that broken part of themselves, to recognize their dark sides, to acknowledge that they aren’t always the strong, confident people they show the world.  Recognizing our weak and vulnerable sides can bring us closer to our true selves and to our core values. 

Only later did I understand that the whole process—forgetting the agreed-upon lecture subjects, not recognizing the unsatisfying lecture until almost too late, all the panics, and, in the end, acknowledging my dependence on Marja—was itself an experience of my weakness and vulnerability. 

There’s a brief sentence in the New Testament: “Be ye perfect as your Father is perfect.”  The word translated into English as “perfect,” however, doesn’t mean doing everything right; it means being whole, living out of one’s complete self, expressing one’s deepest values.  And in each one of us being whole includes being aware of and acknowledging our weakness and vulnerability.


  1. Anonymous4/29/2014

    Hi, David -- You gave an extraordinary lecture. I want to thank you for that and for this entry, because both -- and vulnerability -- resonate with me, particularly now.

    In the past I've commented here as caregiver to my partner, whose MS and damage to her prefrontal cortex have caused her physical, cognitive, and emotional dysfunction. I am now also a cancer patient, soon to begin chemo.

    My partner and I have had our challenging moments, but we have also had some very good talks. I have shown her some of my own vulnerabilities, while also being careful to keep from overwhelming her. I like to think that admitting my own current and potentially future limitations takes some pressure off her at a time when she is struggling against her own sense of "perfectionism." I have also had to set more boundaries to protect my own health and have become more vocal in expressing my own needs. I think that all this benefits our relationship by making our partnership dynamic a more equal one in an odd way, through a kind of shared weakness and vulnerability. We are both learning this new territory.

    1. Thank you for the supportive note.
      I'd like to underline a couple of things you wrote.
      First, it's very important to be careful about not overwhelming the person with you own issues. As with any person, the other may at times have a limited ability to deal with your vulnerabilities as well as her own, and this may be especially true for a person with cognitive impairment. It's important to try to share your weaknesses for the reasons you given, and, as you say, it's important to be sensitive to what the other can receive.
      Second, I believe that every caregiver has to develop boundaries to protect themselves from being overwhelmed. Depending on the situation and, especially, the amount of other help available, this may be difficult but, I think, always necessary.
      Third, the placement of these boundary lines will be very individually depending upon one's own capacities. As another kind of caregiver (a doctor), I've burned myself out quite quickly trying to be as good and patient as another doctor who seems to be able to do the same kind of work I'm trying to do but without, apparently, the same level of stress, I need to figure out where MY boundary line is and without guilt respect it.

  2. Anonymous4/30/2014

    What an extraordinary lecture. Thank you.

  3. Anonymous4/30/2014

    Thank you for sharing your heart and soul.

  4. Anonymous4/30/2014

    Thank you.

  5. Anonymous5/01/2014

    What a beautiful speech! Doing a mathematical analysis, the positive impact of your speech will have multiplied 100-fold, vs. the frustrating [to you] aspects of remembering and organizing it (one-fold). So measurement wise, it was great for all of us, even if stressful for you in doing it!! Thanks again. Sodium.

  6. Anonymous5/01/2014

    David, Thank you for this extraordinary lecture. Our lives are truly in our stories. As a preacher, I have learned that it is better to let our hearers find their own meaning in the stories we share, rather than exegeting them to death. Henri Nouwen's "The Wounded Healer" is a classic on the relationship between suffering and healing.

    1. It was Henri's "The Wounded Healer" that was the source of the title for my first book which included the story of the unintentional abortion. Only later did I get to know him a little when he visited our community for a while.

  7. David, this is a deeply moving post as well as address to students and faculty. Thank you for sharing this gift.

  8. Your post and lecture were deeply meaningful to me. Interestingly enough, just today I was reading about the "spirituality of weakness" in Father Henri Nouwen's book SABBATICAL JOURNEY (February 12, 1996 entry), a diary of his final year. I trust that you could relate to his experience.
    Thank you

  9. Anonymous5/04/2014

    What a wonderful gift this lecture is - thank you.


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