This minister's one sermon, she said, was about the spirituality of imperfection: the profound connection that can result in willingness to be vulnerable with others, and with ourselves, about who we really are, instead of who we think we ought to be. We've heard this before from people like Brené Brown, whose Ted talks and books and appearances on Oprah have catapulted her into the public eye.
One of the things that came up in the discussion after the sermon (because for those of you who aren't UU, that's how we roll: we talk back after the minister talks, even if we do let said minister have the last word) was when it was useful to be vulnerable, given the tendency to overshare in social media. Though the question was really more about Facebook, the question applies equally to bloggers, and about whether the kind of vulnerability Brown describes is really what we're doing here.
When Brown talks about being vulnerable, with sharing our stories of shame, she says that we can't just be vulnerable with everyone. In fact, there are several kinds of people we want to actively avoid:
"1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy ("I feel so sorry for you") rather than empathy ("I get it, I feel with you, and I've been there"). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: "Oh, you poor thing." Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, "Bless your heart."
3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can't help because she's too disappointed in your imperfections. You've let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: "How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?" Or she looks for someone to blame: "Who was that guy? We'll kick his ass."
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: "You're exaggerating. It wasn't that bad. You rock. You're perfect. Everyone loves you."
6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: 'That's nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!' "
Basically, Brown says, we need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it.
In real life, I can attest to the fact that Brown's assessment feels pretty accurate. Even as an adult, even in the past year, I've had my share of being vulnerable with the wrong people--not people who tore me down, but people who didn't value the gift of my vulnerability. People who came back with "oh, yeah, that happened to me" ... except it didn't, because I'm not you, I thought. I walked away from those conversations feeling hurt, strangely violated, strangely tossed aside, wishing that they'd told me instead, from the very beginning, that they didn't really want to hear my story. But of course, that's for me to judge, not them.
Of course, we don't all share everything online. There's a lot I don't tell you, or that I tell you only in veiled ways. I am not my blog. But our blogs are the places where some of us do feel we can be vulnerable. Why is that, given what Brown says about the privilege of being empathetic? And does it matter to us whether our audience has earned the right to hear our story, if that story is difficult or painful in any way? It certainly matters to us when people tear us down; so how do we walk the line between productive (for ourselves and for our readers) vulnerability, and self-preservation?
Then there are others of us who blog (and, for that matter, live) like we have our shit together. These are the people whose DIY projects and food dominate Pinterest and Foodgawker. They're the people who win all blogging awards, who have gazillions of followers. They're the people whose statuses you hate to read on Facebook.
Mel wrote this week about the tricky business of admitting that we don't have our shit together, and I think this has a lot to do with vulnerability. She talks about the fact that we are drawn to confidence, to people who seem to know things. Smart doctors. Well-recommended dentists. Bakers (oh, yes, for me this hits home ... I rarely eat a mediocre cupcake on purpose). And she suggests that perhaps we look to others who "have it all figured out" because we don't.
I don't know. I think I actually feel better about people who openly don't have their shit together. Do I like to read a well-written novel? Hell, yes. For as much as Barbara Kingsolver's most recent novel has its flaws, I found myself practically weeping over the beauty and cleverness of her prose, telling myself I could never be that good. But on the other hand, as a writer, I like reading other writers that struggle, that help me to do it better. If I'm seeing a doctor, I like to know that she has gotten good medical training, and that she's had some success with patients. But I also know that I'm not every other patient, and I appreciate when a doctor is honest with me about a course of treatment. Maybe we'll try this, and if it doesn't work, we'll try that. A chocolatier recently opened a little shop in a town not far from me, and I've already made friends with him. He was making truffles a few weeks ago, and posted to Facebook something along the lines of "I have these truffles that are not very good yet; come taste them and help me figure out how to make them better." So I did, of course. I had a great conversation with him about taste and texture and mouth feel of a truffle. I learned a lot. And I was glad he was willing to stumble out there in public. And yet, you don't do that with everyone, do you?
Recently, I joined what our church calls a covenant group. These are basically once-a-month small group meetings outside of the regular church service where the members choose a topic, or series of topics, to discuss over a period of several months. The members of the group covenant with each other to show up, to be respectful and supportive, to listen, to contribute, to value the contributions of others. It's a lot like a vow of empathy, the way Brown might describe it. And because of that covenant, the group becomes a safe place to be vulnerable. I will admit, I have not become completely vulnerable with my covenant group. But I do feel like I can trust more of them with my authentic self now, and I'm grateful for that. I am drawn to those relationships. I need them. I need them even more than I need beautiful DIY crafts and perfect pictures and stunning prose. I need to feel like it's OK to be imperfect.
I intended to make these bars from Flourishing Foodie for my covenant group when I hosted last week, but I got a little sidetracked, because I couldn't find fresh apricots in the store, then (after I'd bought the canned ones) realized I didn't have enough apricots. It's also the wrong season for fresh lavender, and we didn't have any Grand Marnier. And the powdered sugar went everywhere when I turned on the mixer because someone who lives in this house and who is under three feet tall likes to turn things on and walk away, so I had to add more powdered sugar after the fact. And when I cooked the mango, there were little fibers in the bars that looked like hair, which was sort of embarrassing. I disclosed all of this information before I let anyone eat one. But everyone thought they were good anyway. And maybe sometimes good enough is exactly what we need.
Where do you feel like you can be vulnerable? If you blog, do you feel like you can be vulnerable on your blog? Or do you feel like you need to have your shit together? Are you drawn to people who are imperfect, or who make living look easy?
Blueberry-Mango Lavender Shortbread Bars
makes 16 squares
adapted from Flourishing Foodie, who adapted it from Baked Explorationsby Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
12 T. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 1" cubes
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
3/4 t. finely chopped dried lavender
1 3/4 c. flour
1 c. canned apricots, chopped
1 c. fresh mango, chopped
1 c. fresh blueberries
1 c. white wine
1/2 c. of water
1/3 c. sugar
2 T. honey
1 T. Triple Sec
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. chopped almonds
3 T. unsalted butter, chilled, cubed
2 T. oats
Leaving a 1" overhang, line a 9 inch square baking pan with parchment paper. You can also coat it with cooking spray if that makes you feel better, but it's not necessary.
Place the powdered sugar in your electric mixing bowl, and drop the butter in. Stir gently a few times to coat the butter so that the sugar won't fly everywhere when you turn the mixer on. Using an electric mixer, starting on a very low speed and pulsing gently, gradually working up to a full-on high mixing level, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the vanilla and chopped lavender. Beat again until combined. Add the flour and mix on low speed, until everything is combined. Place the dough into the pan and press flat. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
While the dough is chilling, prepare the filling. In a medium saucepan simmer the apricots, blueberries, mango, wine, water, sugar, honey, and Triple Sec on low to medium heat. Stir occasionally, and cook until the liquid has absorbed (45 - 60 minutes). You may have to vary the heat as liquid begins to evaporate. Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place the crust into the oven and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
In a bowl, using your fingers, rub together, the flour, brown sugar, and butter. You want the mixture to lightly clump together. Add chopped almonds and oats. Set aside. Once the shortbread has cooled, spread the filling over it, and top with the crumble. Bake for 25 minutes or until the top has just lightly browned.
Let the bars completely cool on a wire rack, in the pan, before serving. Once they have cooled, pull them out with the parchment paper and slice into bars.