Aloneness, Belonging, and the Paradox of Vulnerability, in Love and Creative Work
Wisdom on the elementary particles of our shared humanity from Alain de Botton, Brené Brown, Elizabeth Alexander, and other visionaries across the spectrum of the creative life.
By Maria Popova
If we are not at least a little abashed by the people we used to be, the voyage of life has halted in the windless bay of complacency. This renders the interview a curious cultural artifact by design — a consensual homily of future abashment, etching into the common record who we were at a particular point in life, in a particular state of being, with all the temporary totality of thoughts and feelings that we so often mistake for final destinations of personhood. An interview petrifies us in time, then lives on forever, the thoughts of bygone selves quoted back to us across the eons of our personal evolution — a strange and discomposing taxidermy diorama of life that is no longer living.
But a great interview does something else, too. A great touches the nucleus of being and potential, untouched by the forces of time and change.
One January afternoon several selves ago, I entered the corrugated black walls of a snug recording studio at the School of Visual Arts to sit at a microphone across from a woman dressed entirely and impeccably in black — a woman all stranger, all sunshine. I didn’t expect that, over the next hour, the warmth of her generous curiosity and her sensitive attention would melt away my ordinary reticence about discussing the life beneath the work. I didn’t expect that, over the next decade, we would become creative kindred spirits, then friends, then longtime romantic partners, and finally dear lifelong friends and frequent collaborators.
Over the years, I have witnessed Debbie interview a kaleidoscope of visionaries — artists, writers, designers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, poets. Every time, guests leave the studio with that distinctive glow of feeling deeply understood and appreciated, a little bit more in touch with ourselves beyond our selves, reminded of who and what we are in the hull of our being, in that place from which we make everything we make as we go on making ourselves. In the nearly two decades since the birth of Design Matters — born in that primordial epoch before podcasts, when Debbie actually had to pay for the radio waves transmitting these conversations — she has interviewed more than 450 creative people about the arc of their lives. Roxane Gay — once her interview subject, now her wife — describes the resulting totality as “a gloriously interesting and ongoing conversation about what it means to live well, overcome trauma, face rejection, learn to love and be loved, and thrive both personally and professionally.”
The best parts of the best interviews from this immense body of work are now gathered in Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People (public library). Pulsating through them are a handful of common themes — the elementary particles of which any creative life, any life of passion and purpose, any fully human life is built — none looming larger than the relationship between vulnerability and belonging, which constellates our entire cosmos of being: what we make, how we love, why we long for the things we long for, in love and in work.
Rippling the surface of the creative ego is the most visible type of vulnerability, inescapable for anyone who makes what they make with the whole of their being: the self-doubt that seems to always accompany any wholehearted ambition. Artist Maira Kalman captures the nuances with endearingly unselfconscious candor:
I’m constantly tormented. I think that’s the nature of creating anything — that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t have doubts. There is the duality that you have tremendous insecurity and a tremendous drive.
But insecurity is, in some deeper sense, the opposite of vulnerability. V-Day founder and Vagina Monologues creator V looks back on her brush with death — which jolted her from a lifetime of trying to render herself invulnerable behind the armor of achievement and awakened her to a creaturely belonging with all of life — and reflects:
When I woke up from that surgery… I had tubes coming out of every part of my body. I had bags. I was hooked up to machines. I had a scar down my entire torso, but it was the first time in my life that I was a body, that it was fully a body. When you sit in a room and the doctor looks over at you and tells you the odds aren’t good, you die in that moment. There is a death that happens in your body. Then what begins to happen is you realize how much you want to be alive, and how beautiful life is, and how you want to actually live in your body and live fully in your life force.
That tough veneer doesn’t let us feel our fear. It’s an invulnerability, even though underneath it we’re horribly vulnerable. Now, what I feel is that I’m vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable. We’re human beings on this planet Earth. We have no idea what we’re doing here. The greatest joy is living in that vulnerability. Which is different from insecurity.
There beneath the surface waves of insecurity, in the deepest undercurrents of the soul, dwells our most elemental vulnerability. Brené Brown has made it her life’s work to dive into and study those depths. She tells Debbie:
Vulnerability at its heart is the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control perception.
The one thing that we all have in common is… the paradox of vulnerability: that when I meet you, the very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability, and the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability.
We try to control perception by simulating invulnerability from behind various masks and armors. Among those most prevalent and pernicious in our culture is the broadcasting of busyness — this compulsion to signal that our valuable time is highly valued by others, that our presence and attention are in high demand, that how much we matter to the world exceeds the atoms of time at our disposal. (Autoresponders, particularly among creative people with no boss or client, are an especially unfortunate manifestation of this — rather than making the implicit and humane assumption that our response times are a natural function of their load and priorities, and therefore the best we can do no matter how long or short, an autoresponder makes a performative martyrdom of our own choices about how we are prioritizing our time and creative energies.)
With her usual sympathetic intellect, Brown captures the tender humanity beneath these maladaptive self-importances:
Exhaustion is a status symbol because we desperately want to be seen, we desperately want to belong. We want to believe we’re lovable. In the absence of connection, there is always suffering, so we want to feel connected.
The paradox of vulnerability, with its underlying longing for connection, comes most fully and ferociously alive in the sea of love. Alain de Botton, who has written about the subject with such uncommon sympathy and sensitivity over the arc of his own creative life, unravels the paradox in his conversation with Debbie:
There’s a real tension in love — at the beginning of love, particularly — between the desire to be honest about who one is and the desire to win the affection of another person. Of course, ideally, we can both be honest and loved for being honest. That’s the dream.
But the dream is too often dampened by our sense that we are too imperfect for the total acceptance we imagine love to be. We instead turn to safer counterfeits of love that allow us to dream a perfect dream, channeling the paradox of vulnerability into the paradox of the crush. De Botton observes:
There is often a desire to escape oneself in love. It’s not so much that one wants to be welcomed by another person. It’s that one wants to forget oneself and immerse in the perfection of another… We have this enormous capacity to locate perfection elsewhere, and this is what the crush is all about… The crush is the instantaneous certainty of the location of the ideal, and there’s an awful lot of projection and deception — self-deception — in it… The more information you know, the more you’re forced to realize that actually they are an independent person outside of your fantasy… The less information there is, the more our unconscious can hold onto this rather peculiar piece of emotional trapeze work.
We reach for such counterfeits of love because the terror of real love often feels too great to bear — the terror of being known and cast out of love, which is a miniature of the ultimate terror, the ultimate vulnerability we are born into: being cast out of life. This is why, wherever real love exists, the terror of its loss is the most fearsome of terror — and why the fact of its loss, when it comes, can feel unsurvivable. A generation after Mary Gaitskill offered her splendid advice on how to live through the death of a parent, Saeed Jones reflects on this in the context of his mother’s death:
The finality of death with one of the people who made you is such an overwhelming and fluid and evolving revelation… It’s a proof of love… Love is almost like gasoline reserves in your body, and you don’t know how much is there until it’s all burned out.
No one has better captured this notion of death as a lens on love — and a reamer for widening our definition of love — than poet Elizabeth Alexander. Reflecting on the sudden death of the love of her life — the subject of her stunning memoir The Light of the World — and how the experience fomented the vision of love in her now-iconic inauguration poem — “love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light, / love with no need to pre-empt grievance” — she tells Debbie:
While I am a great believer in intimacy between two people, between lovers and spouses, with your children, I also believe… that we cannot only belong to our romantic units… If people in heterosexual nuclear families think that it’s all about them and their shimmering perfection in their homes and that their love can stay there, they are mistaken. You have to belong to more, and then hopefully — this is not why you do it — the village will have your back when you need the village, which we all will at some point.
Indeed, if the paradox of vulnerability has a solution, this might be the most reliable clue to it — this inquisitive insistence that our deepest sense of connection and belonging is found beyond the simple units of romantic love, beyond the likes and the other superficialities of affirmation, beyond the sham of busyness and performative achievement.
Brené Brown considers this with an eye to another visionary’s koan of a statement to another great interviewer in another era — Maya Angelou’s 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, whom she told that “you only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.” Brown tells Debbie:
True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in, and belonging to, yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require that you change who you are. It requires that you be who you are.
We’re in… a spiritual crisis of disconnection. I define spirituality as the belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something bigger than us. Some people call that bigger thing God. Some people call it fishing. Some people call it art. Spirituality is no more, no less, than the belief that we’re connected to each other in a way that’s unbreakable. You cannot break the connection between human beings, but you can forget it. We have forgotten that inextricable connection between human beings.
And yet our capacity for true connection and intimacy with others springs from our capacity for solitude, for intimacy with ourselves — for, as the poet May Sarton wrote in her exquisite ode to solitude, “there is no place more intimate than the spirit alone.” A century after Rilke contemplated the relationship between solitude and creativity, observing that “there is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear,” and that “people are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy [but] we must hold ourselves to the difficult,” Brown adds:
People are afraid to be alone because they don’t belong to themselves. True belonging is not just about being a part of something but also having the courage to stand alone when you’re called to stand alone: when the joke’s not funny; when you don’t believe in something; when you have a different opinion; when you’re at family dinner and people are saying things that you actually find hurtful. When you’re called to stand alone and you can’t, then true belonging is very elusive. Your level of belonging will never exceed the level of courage you have to stand alone.
Published February 22, 2022