The Courage to be Vulnerable


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Category: Reflections 10 Aug 14


First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me —Martin Niemöller

I was in the Malala concert when I saw a woman slip on the stairs at the National Academy for Performing Arts (Napa). Two men ahead of her and two women behind noticed it, and did nothing to help her. The eyes of the men—staring straight ahead with a fallen woman next to them—were haunting. It reminded me of the time I was in a car park in Port-of-Spain and while looking down at my phone, walked into a pole. It was funny in a slapstick way. It was also painful. I had a big bump on my head and felt my eyes blur with tears. I was disoriented, looking around for my car, when I saw the group of men across the street. They were pointing and laughing. I wondered about us as a people. What makes many of us develop skins this thick? When did we make the decision not to care about the woman who falls in front of us?

A week later in Cambridge, enrolled in a summer creative writing course, I was practically running down Silver Street. I was late for class. I rushed past the white roses of St Catherine’s college where I was staying, darted past its cobbled 15th century courtyard and chapel; past the burnt orange, sandy, faded red facades of Corpus Cristi College and Queens College with a hundred thoughts in my head.

I could hear bells pealing from a medieval cathedral nearby. I imagined Winston Churchill here, on this very street, walking by these railings with posters for learning Chinese, promoting plays and concerts. I thought of Nobel prize winners, poets, writers, of statesmen like Nehru, and generations of curious bright students looking up at these very chimneys.

I thought of famous spies and royalty worldwide standing under dull gold lamplight, pondering on life. I imagined the poet Sylvia Plath meeting her counterpart and husband Ted Hughes at a party somewhere nearby, the passion of their first meeting when she bit his face and drew blood.

It is not a placid place, this: pretty on the outside, but the whole passionate spectrum of the human condition exists here, an entire inner world, and relationships based not on facades but vulnerability. In lectures, workshops and readings, the talk here is about stripping ourselves bare so we can see past the veils.

A tutor talks about his book: two men dying on the Blue Mountains in Australia, wounded and in an altered state with opium. They are holding on to life with a thread.

The people on the course who came across as tired, or grumpy, plain or stodgy, came to life in the writing exercise. The man who talked too much lost his wife last year, and both his children died in separate car accidents.

The plain woman had just spent 18 years nursing an ill husband who died last year. The snappy American girl was brutally rejected by her alcoholic mother. As crusts fell away, our humanity emerged. It was a passion to study, to stand up for the weak, to create, to leave a mark on the world. This is power.

Hurrying, thinking all this, in cool sunshine, absorbing the spires of the colleges, the willows sweeping the river, the bright eyes of the students working here for the summer, the cyclists expertly navigating past the cobbled stones and groups of Japanese tourists, I almost didn’t see her.

Then I did. A girl or woman, on a three-wheeled bike, with her red hair streaming behind her—a pre-Raphaelite painting. She peered over the curved bridge and in a flash, toppled over, a hazy mangle of red hair, wheels, strewn books, rolling apples. Two people rushed from the other side of the bridge to help her up. One ran up behind her. I ran back. We all helped put her together, mount her bike while she repeated, “Sorry, sorry, sorry...”

She was thankful and sorry for wasting our time and able to say it because she was strong. We were able to help because we didn’t feel it made it small but helped us be part of humanity. There are so many ways of doing this. Building, helping, standing up for the weak.

This week the conservative Foreign Office minister Sayeeda Warsi resigned over the British government’s “morally indefensible” approach to the crisis in Gaza. It made news because people rarely take a stand for the vulnerable. Whether or not you resign from a writers’ group because someone is being bullied, or you help someone up off the floor, I’ve learned knowledge and vulnerability allow us to be connected, strong, humane.

Perhaps we need more books, less masks; more fragility, less arrogance to give us the courage to speak up for what’s humane.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur