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.