Recovering from Radical Vulnerability

The practice of “radical vulnerability” has made it’s way into social justice communities over the past 5 years or so, and it’s something which I first encountered on Tumblr.

The premise – as I’ve seen it applied within my social context – is that candid public disclosure of trauma and other personal struggles is a radical act that fosters transparency, connection and trust within community.

I definitely think vulnerability can be a powerful thing in a therapeutic context, and that it is necessary for intimacy and emotional connections to form – which is important when we’re talking about nurturing relationships within community. But over the past few years, there’s something that’s been bothering me about how I’ve seen the concept of “radical vulnerability” applied. I’ve been thinking about how vulnerability operates within social justice spaces – who is comfortable being vulnerable, in what ways, and to what ends? In what circumstances is vulnerability healthy or appropriate, and when is it not?

I’m not sure of the original intended application of radical vulnerability, and so I don’t want this post to be a critique of the full potential of this concept. However I do want to critique how I have often seen it used in (mostly online) social justice spaces in recent years, specifically by white middleclass women and nonbinary people.

Many women of colour such as Rudy Hamad and Sherronda J. Brown have written articles within the past year about the weaponization of white feminine emotions in interactions with Black and Brown people. While this is a phenomenon that has been discussed and theorized about for years, awareness of a racialized and gendered emotional power imbalance finally seems to be making it’s way into progressive white consciousness.

These ideas about the weight of white emotion got me thinking: does the practice of radical vulnerability necessarily facilitate open and accountable discussion, or can it be another avenue for white people to center our emotions and shield ourselves from criticism?

The first thing that strikes me about acts of self-described “radical vulnerability,” is the often public nature of these disclosures. Vulnerability is generally something that happens between individuals in a form of mutual intimacy, but in a context of a broad-reaching social media post, there is a relatively low cap to the level of intimacy or reciprocity that can be had in that context.

Because of this public nature, radical vulnerability can feed into trends of obligatory disclosure, establishing an idea that those who publicly share their trauma or difficult personal realities are inherently “radical,” and “approachable,” and those who do not are not as friendly or open, have something to hide, or must not have their own traumatic experiences. This kind of thing is what lead to the 2013 Tumblr norm of (often extensively) “listing” points of privilege and oppression on one’s profile, which of course lead to many awkward interactions where someone who hadn’t listed some aspect of their identity would be assumed to be privileged by default.

We need to talk about is how the ability to disclose personal information safely can be a mark of privilege in itself. Survivors of sexual assault, for example, are not always safe or comfortable outing themselves to others, especially publicly, and have no obligation to do so. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a survivor talked over in conversations about sexual violence, because they’d never publicly disclosed their experience, and were thus assumed not to have had such an experience.

Among the white middle-class there is often a failure to appreciate the mundanity of oppression. Because many queer or disabled white people come into our experience of oppression later in life (even if that’s childhood), it often strikes us as something jarringly abnormal. We often don’t understand that for many people, the experience of violence is so commonplace that it doesn’t elicit the kind of public indignation that middle-class white queer people often demonstrate. For many low-income and racialized people, oppression is so pervasive it could not be expressed in a post, a zine, or a slam poem. Acts of self-disclosure are not inherently liberating – for many they can be emotionally draining, triggering, or the things that could be disclosed would be seen as “too much” for social media.

People avoid vulnerability for justified reasons, and we need to remember that we never really know who someone is just by what they say – or don’t say – about themselves on the internet or in public. In order to be vulnerable, there needs to be an expectation that you will be listened to, that your experience will be honoured, and that the disclosure will not negatively impact or re-traumatize you. For many people this is not the case, or they simply just don’t feel that they would get anything positive out of such a disclosure. No one owes anyone else their trauma or their life story, and likewise, the disclosure of intimate details of one’s life is not always an inherently positive thing.

It’s important to look at what exactly is being disclosed when we’re practising public vulnerability. I can recall instances over the past few years of people “vulnerably” disclosing times they enacted racism or transmisogyny, and then refusing to engage with the criticism that resulted. If potentially critical responses are not factored into the decision to disclose, then it’s not really vulnerability, so much as it is centring ones own emotions in situations where one has caused harm, and seeking to be absolved of guilt or negative emotions through performative disclosure.

Perhaps rather than vulnerability, what is really needed at times is to develop the radical ability to receive criticism, hold space for negative emotions, self-regulate and process them privately or within our close circles, so as not to rely so heavily on public validation.

Attention White Gays: Stop Using Queerness as a Band-Aid

White people can also use experiences of oppression to obfuscate our whiteness and class privilege. Marielle Devereaux points out that, “some white gays believe that their status as a ‘minority’ translates to being worse off than straight people of color, which erases the experiences and oppression that people of color face.”

In social justice spaces where we are attempting to centre the voices of the most marginalized, it’s a lot easier to feel like your opinion holds weight as a neurodivergent queer person (for example) then as a middle-class white person, even if both are true. The “radically vulnerable” disclosure of an experience of oppression can, in certain contexts, be used to distance ourselves from whiteness by centring our identities along other social lines.

True vulnerability is an important part of establishing trust in relationships, and trust is essential to building community. But when it comes to the normalization of intimate public disclosure, we have to be sure that building trust and accountability is actually what we’re trying to do. While I don’t think that this practice is always necessarily harmful, it is a tool that can be used in different ways depending on the intentions of the person using it. When those who practice radical vulnerability tend to be white middle-class people, we should be critical of whether this tool is being used to build connection, or to center the emotions of the privileged.

Across an Ocean

 At some point, I hope
You will see yourself
through another's eyes
and feel like a stranger.

At first glance
They are a distortion
Culminating all that is not you.

You catch a glimpse of yourself
reflected in their gaze
And you become a distortion
of all that is not them.

And we could get trapped in this hall of mirrors forever.

But if we surpass this
To cross our borders of self
We discover
We are not looking into a reflection
But staring out across an ocean together.

The Earth as God’s Witness

This is the first sermon I wrote, which I preached at the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church on March 3, 2019.

The readings for this sermon were Genesis 4:1-11 and Matthew 5:33-38.

I am hoping to take some time this Sunday morning to contemplate the role that compassion plays in our lives , the gift of creation, and our responsibilities to each other and to the world.

Nothing that I have to say is new, in fact most of what I have to say you’ve probably heard before in one form or another.

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the phrase, “you already know everything you need to know about religion.” While this phrase may sound counter-intuitive given that we meet at church every week to learn from the bible, my interpretation of this phrase is that the goal of spiritual practice is not necessary to discover new and innovative ideas that no one’s ever thought of. Rather, faith is the practice is of remembering, of gently bringing us back, over and over, to the truths that are constantly enduring, the answers that have always been there, when we remember to look.

God is the summation of infinity. The source of all light and matter in the universe. And the picture of God as our father, resembling a wisened old man, is a useful personification, helping us engage with concepts far beyond our limited human comprehension. We have a mental image that we draw upon when we think of God, and this image may have certain similarities or differences between different people. The personification that we create allows us to relate to God in terms that are familiar and comforting to us. And to be eternally present in our lives as a source of familiarity and comfort is one of the forms of love that God provides us.

But we must be careful that we do not limit our perception of God by how we personify him. Genesis 1:27 states that God created human kind in his image. This is one of the first challenges the Bible presents to us. We are called to know the Holy Spirit as vast beyond what any single form could express, and to see it manifested in every person we encounter in our lives. However strange or difficult or unfamiliar, we are asked to see the person in front of us as a person who has been created in God’s image, and is one manifestation of his infinitely creative wisdom, equal to us in his eyes.

To dismiss the humanity of any person is to place ourselves above an aspect of God, and this is a danger to our souls and a major obstacle in our path to liberation through Christ. The path to goodness can present unique obstacles in itself, as the temptation of ego is constantly looking for ways to creep into our spiritual practice, persuading us to think of ourselves as more good, more holy, or more deserving than someone else. The world is full of suffering that riddles our hearts with insecurity, wanting so badly to feel acceptable that we will dismiss others to affirm ourselves. But there is no need. God’s love and mercy is so vast and infinite, it can envelope us completely with room left for everyone else. It is this love that we are called to enact on the Earth.

God works through human beings as his instruments, and people will challenge us so that we have opportunities to grow and to practice the endless compassion of Christ. If we found every person we encountered to be understandable, relatable, and agreeable, then our moral development would stagnate. Compassion develops like any skill, through practice, and the more severe circumstances we are able to respond to with compassion, the more skillful our hearts become, and the closer we grow in our connection to God. This world has been all but broken by greed, war, discrimination and violence, and each of us carries unhealed wounds from the life we have lived. So with every person, especially those who challenge us, we are called to see them for who they are. Not as a reflection of ourselves, but as a child of God, and a person burdened by the unique traumas of their life. By keeping in mind the universal nature of suffering, our capacity for understanding becomes infinite. We can remind ourselves that when others fail to treat us with compassion, they are acting out of their own pain, or entitlement, but we can come to understand that their biases and inability to perceive us as children of God mean nothing about our inherent worth.

The gift of life on this Earth is something so unique and spectacular that nothing we do with our lives could ever truly repay the privilege we have been given. All that is asked from us is to conduct ourselves with a responsibility and appreciation for this holy gift. Our responsibilities to God can be broken down further into our responsibilities to ourselves, to other people, and to the Earth itself: the plants, animals, water, soil, and air that God created. Especially in the context of the current state of the world, these duties of responsibility are something that we must hold in our hearts and take with us to prayer and action every day.

When God created the Earth, and all creatures upon it, he entrusted this land to us. Since we were created in God’s image, we were given the divine and serious responsibility of acting as stewards of the Earth, maintaining this environment for ourselves and for all of God’s creatures. This right to dominion has been often misinterpreted as entitlement, and for years through unsustainable industrial development, deforestation, resource extraction, and colonization, we have treated the Earth as if it is ours for the taking, with hardly a thought to the consequences for the planet, and for future generations. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Whereas the plants, and animals bare no duty towards the well-being of humanity, we as people bare sole responsibility for our impact on eachother, and on the natural world. Whatever happens to our planet, through action or inaction, only humans will be held accountable.

I chose the reading today of the story of Cain and Abel, because I think this is a particularly poignant example of our responsibilities to one another and the cost of failing to meet those responsibilities. In this story Cain, being envious of Abel, not only fails to exercise compassion towards his brother but fails to meet the most basic responsibility of not committing violence against him. Rather than celebrating Abel’s well-received gifts, and seeing him as an example of how he could please God as well, he responds to his brother’s success with self-focussed insecurity, and lashes out, killing his brother. Then, when questioned by God as to his brother’s whereabouts, he offers the dismissive reply, “am I my brother’s keeper?”

The brazenness of this response is highlighted by the obviousness of the answer. The most basic and fundamental lesson of God’s teachings being that we are to treat others as ourselves, to know ourselves and each other as part of one being in God.

In response, God tells Cain that the Earth has told him of his crime, since his brother’s blood has soaked into the Earth. I find this an interesting illustration of the interconnectedness of our actions and their consequences on our environment. In this story, the Earth is personified as a living being which bears witness on behalf of God. We often think that harms that are done in private will bear no consequences, but we can see that the Earth takes on the repercussions of every harm that is committed upon her. Every drop of blood that has ever been spilled on the Earth has absorbed into the soil, and flowed into the water. To think of it in this way, we can see that, the harm we commit against one another, and the harms we commit against the Earth itself, cannot be separated. Violence has far-reaching consequences and injures not just it’s target, but taints our whole environment.

In our world today, we can see how acts of war have become not only more violent in their human impact and more impersonal in their execution, but also have taken on a character of salting the Earth. American and Canadian military intervention in the middle east has lead to previously unheard of levels of pollution, the dumping of toxic chemicals and the use of depleted uranium rounds, which irradiate the land on which they are used. Western military forces have become one of the leading sources of pollution in the world. It seems truer now more than ever that violence harms not only people, but the ground on which is it committed, and our Earth system as a whole.

This story is also useful for illustrating the mindset that inspires violence. The murder of Abel is the first instance of violence that occurs in the Bible, and I think this story demonstrates something very universal about the nature of oppressive violence. Cain was the older brother of Abel. During the time that this story was written, the position of being the eldest son was something that held a significant amount of authority within a family, the eldest son was often regarded as second only to the father, and I think that is something that needs to be emphasized in interpreting this passage. God had no preferential regard for Cain as being the eldest brother, he saw only that Abel had given the better offering out of the two, and praised them as he felt they deserved.

When a person is born into a position of esteem, this position often causes a sense of entitlement, where we may expect ourselves naturally to achieve greater things or receive greater praise than others. This can even cause people to act in ways that are resigned or lazy, since we may feel a sense of inherent value that does not require us to prove ourselves by our actions. But God will only judge us by our actions, and pays no regard to these constructions of social heirarchy.

Without realizing it, those in positions of privilege can come to form their identity around a sense of innate superiority over others. Because of this, one can feel especially insecure or affronted when those we perceive as being beneath us surpass us in their accomplishments. When this happens, the entitled response is to suppress and deny the accomplishments of others, or be made to feel inadequate by them, which often leads to lashing out. In this way, the source of much oppressive violence is really a reactive defence of our own sense of superiority over others.

The word of Jesus, taken here from the book of Matthew, calls us to take a different path. To love those who love us, those who are similar to us and who do not challenge us, is easy. The real challenge and responsibility we must take up is to extend love beyond what comes easily to us, to regard everyone with equal compassion, as God regards us with equal compassion.

When we are able to move beyond the reflex of entitlement, we open up the possibility of a response that is based in love: to dismantle our own egos, and view ourselves as implicated in the success of others, to celebrate their success as our own and learn from them, to teach others, and to lift them up beyond ourselves.

As individuals we are all merely cells acting and interacting in different ways and taking on different roles in the formation of the body of Christ. While we have an autonomous form, our lives are constantly being created and sustained through a divine, harmonious and extremely complex network of forces, beyond our ability to comprehend. The cell works in cooperation because it understands that it’s existence is only contextualized within the body, it’s well being is dependant on the well being of the body, which is made up of other cells, and even if it was able to exist on it’s own, it would be devoid of any purpose in doing so. It is amazing that, being the complex and intellectually developed creatures that we are, we so often struggle to act with the wisdom of the smallest and simplest organisms on Earth. But these endless examples of cooperation that exist within nature surely reflect the intended design of all of God’s creations, including the higher calling of human kind.

It is always when we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals, contained of ourselves and in competition with other beings, that we become vulnerable to enacting evil and damaging others, the whole we are a part of, and ultimately ourselves. But when we can adopt the perspective of ourselves as inextricably interconnected beings, and consider carefully not only our actions, but the ripples that extend outwardly – and inwardly – from them, we will find ourselves more naturally acting out of love.

Jesus says that it is not that which goes into the body, but that which comes from the heart, that defiles a person. All sin, all violence, all entitlement and all oppression, stems from the heart, and we can see these things that come from our hearts forming our relationships with both other people and the Earth. But then by the same logic it can be said that it is not the rituals of performative charity that purifies us, but that which comes from the heart: our thoughts, words, and deeds stemming from true love for our siblings, for creation, and for God. And loving action that comes from the heart has just as much power to radically transform our relationships.

To even be a cell in the body of a plant is surely an incredible blessing, as it is a miracle to have been brought onto the Earth as a living thing in any form at all. Surely then, how many magnitudes greater of a blessing is it to be born a person? Regardless of our circumstances, appearance, abilities or any superficial qualifications, the gift to be able to live the life of a human being on this Earth is a divine gift beyond what any words could ever express. And every other beautiful, flawed, unique person who lives and struggles on this Earth has been granted that same gift.

Ultimately there is not a thing in this world that we ever deserved, or that we were owed. Every breath we take, every meal we eat, every moment of wonder at nature and the mere fact of our existence are sacred gifts which we can do nothing to repay. We can only act in the humility that signifies our understanding and appreciation for the true glory that we’ve been invited to participate in, and to act as grateful caretakers to all other people, living things, and the natural forces that sustain us in this holy project of creation. I see this as a truth that, when we bring our hearts back to it, has the power to transform us and the world in which we live.


I’ve been fairly active in a lot of different spaces online for most of my adolescent and adult life, from Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, to a brief stint in Medium and WordPress. Over the past year I started writing articles, giving talks, facilitating adult education workshops, and occasionally preaching in real life, and people keep asking me if I have a blog. I’ve moved through a lot of different phases in my online life, from blogging about relatively single-issue trans activism, to making YouTube videos about anti-fascism, to branching out into much broader areas of political interest such as social, economic, and climate justice, decolonial solidarity, community organizing, spirituality and recently Christian theology. I needed a new space to flesh out my ideas and share my writing in an organized way, So… Here it is!

I’m not intending this space to have a very strict focus, I’m hoping to post essays about social and political ideas and current events, as well as poetry and personal reflection-type stuff, but I’ll try to give it some semblance of organization. I’m excited to get started!

photo credit Matt Gardner 2019