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Twists and Turns: Celebrating Vulnerability

 
“When I check out a piece of land that is up for sale, first I look at the trees.  If they have trunks with bends in them – straight up, then a curve, then straight up again – that’s a sign of unstable ground.  A landslide tips the tree to the side, and then the tree grows straight up from that bend.  You can guess at how long ago the landslide happened by estimating the age of the tree when it bent.” So said my dear dad, Don Burklo, back in the day when he was a real estate broker selling undeveloped land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On my daily hikes in the Sespe Wilderness above Ojai, I admire the yuccas.  At the end of their life-cycles, they shoot up tall stalks that burst at the top with masses of gorgeous white flowers – in bloom on the mountainsides right now.  Then the stalks and the rest of the plants dry out, fading from green to white.  The dry stalks are stiff but light in weight – perfect for walking sticks.  I collect them, trim them, and give them away to friends.  Because friends need support! 

As I consider yucca stalks, I remember Dad’s sage observation.  When stalks first emerge, they shoot straight out of the middle of the mass of sharp, green spikes, regardless of the terrain on which they grow.  But shortly after that, they begin to grow vertically.  So all yuccas that grow on mountains have a curve at the base of their stalks.  Show me a yucca stalk and I can measure the steepness of the land on which it grew.

It may not be a mountain.  But all of us are up against something in this life.  And letting it be obvious opens us to deeper relationships. 

To this day I am haunted by a conversation I had a few years ago with a student at USC right after her friend and fellow student committed suicide.  “I thought I knew her,” she cried, keening over with grief next to me on a bench on campus.   “On Facebook, her life was perfect.  I didn’t know she was suffering.  I thought we were close, but….”  She didn’t know what her friend was up against.  She didn’t know her friend was on a slippery slope.  If there were signs at all, she had missed them – and felt awful for failing to notice.

That wrenching moment seared into my soul a conviction that I and my office had to do something new and different to help prevent the next suicide.  And that led me to start a “belonging” initiative through our office.  We convene “campfires” where students ask each other questions that can lead to deeper relationships.  We hired a wizard of a teacher, Cat Moore, now our Director of Belonging, to create a popular no-credit class called “CLICK”, imparting friendship- and community-building skills.  We train student club leaders in methods of encouraging real friendships to form among their members.

 Very many relationships on campus – and in the wider world – are transactional.  I hang out with you because doing so can help me get ahead.  And vice versa.  It’s an especially insidious feature of life in Los Angeles, where so many people are in the “gig economy” – actors, musicians, creatives – and depend for their sustenance on developing a network of contacts that can keep them in the Hollywood game.  On campus, we have 1,200 clubs for 45,000 students.  I’m convinced that a large percentage of these clubs exist for the purpose of students being able to put on their resumes that they were “presidents” or “founders” of something, making these groups transactional from the start.  And I’m told that we have sororities and fraternities in which the number (and “quality”) of social media contacts of students who “rush” is a criterion for admission.  When I worked at Stanford, I knew several students – all white men – who had some form of the word “president” in their email addresses.  They were entirely focused on one goal: becoming President of the United States.  All their relationships were transactions aimed at reaching this destination. 

What is sacrificed at the altar of transactional relationships?  Vulnerability.  You don’t want folks to see the twists and turns of your life that might un-burnish your reputation.  But without vulnerability, there’s no real friendship.  And if we curate away from view our failures and foibles and flaws, we starve ourselves and others of love.  Because love is attention.  It is attentively seeing and sharing what is, as it is – not what we want it to be, or think it ought to be.  Love is letting our kinks give us an authentic character that makes us believable, and that inspires vulnerability in others.  If that student had let my young friend know about the ninety-degree turn her life had begun to take, she might be alive to tell the rest of her story today.

So let us look for signs of unstable ground beneath the feet of those we love.  Let us attend, and let us be attended-to.  Let us be like the trees and the yuccas on the sides of mountains, uninhibitedly letting the awkward stretches of their lives be seen – for the sake of love, and for the sake of life itself.

 

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of six published books on progressive Christianity, with a new one coming out soon:  Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org. 

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