The movie Her, winner of the Golden Globe for best screenplay, is a quirky film that portrays the love affair that develops between the lead character, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha, the name he gives to his new artificially intelligent operating system. He falls in love with Samantha, even though she is a machine, a computer with no corporeal existence.
To some who have viewed the film the premise is unbelievable. But there are many (myself among them) who find the story credible. Samantha is completely accepting of who Walter is. He has no secrets from her, as she is able to monitor his every activity, nor apparently does she from him (at least until later in the film). The openess and consequent vulnerability that each is able to demonstrate creates a deep, deep connection.
It is that quality of vulnerability that author and researcher Brené Brown believes is at the heart of the deepest kind of love. Brown's "Ted Talk" on vulnerability is wildly popular (ranking fourth out of the more than 1600 talks given to date) - over thirteen million views!
Ms. Brown believes that the biggest barrier to exposing our vulnerability is shame. Not necessarily shame of confessing to some terrible transgression, but even shame about relatively trivial things: raiding the refrigerator in the middle of the night, or admitting that the boss was disappointed in a project we undertook, or confessing that we flunked trigonometry in the 10th grade. She states that there are three things we need to know about shame:
1) We all have it. Shame is universal.
2) We're all afraid to talk about it
3) The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
The portrayal of Walter, the hero of the wildly popular series Breaking Bad, shows how devastating shame can be to a relationship. Walter (a high school chemistry teacher) is diagnosed with fairly advanced lung cancer, and is told he may have only months to live. In an attempt to accumulate the money he believes will be necessary to provide for his wife and son, he decides to put his knowledge of chemistry to use and begins manufacturing a very pure form of crystal meth, which can be sold for a lot of money.
His motivation for undertaking this illegal and immoral endeavor is noble, grounded in love for his family. But the shame he feels about it, and the many deceptions he engages in to hide it, devastates his relationships with his wife, his son, and his brother-in-law, among others.
Ms. Brown's book about vulnerability and the shame that blocks it (Daring Greatly) outlines a number of major categories of shame*, among them:
- Appearance and body image
- Money and work
- Mental and physical health
- Sex/sexual orientation
Keeping secrets around these categories, or failing to be fully transparent about them to our intimate relations (whether conjugal, romantic, or platonic) is a way of DISconnecting - paradoxical in that we keep these secrets out of the very fear of disconnection. Which is exactly why vulnerability requires courage: "daring greatly."
In order to build up the courage required to be vulnerable we need to cultivate a sense of worthiness. If we know we are fundamentally worthy it is easier to admit ways in which we fall short, ways in which we are less-than-perfect. Yes, sometimes confession will result in profound disconnection; certain relationships will not survive the surfacing of bold truths. But in the long run, the transparency and vulnerability engendered by the truth of who we are and what we do will bring into our lives the deepest connections, connections that we all long for.
* Ms. Brown does a masterful job of outlining how the power of various categories of shame depends in great part on gender: "...Feminine and masculine norms are the foundation of shame triggers...women need to be sweet, thin, and pretty, stay quiet, be perfect moms and wives, and not own their own power. Men, on the otgher hand, need to stop feeling, start earning, put everyone in their place, and climb their way to the top or die trying."