25 April 2015

Embracing Vulnerability

Was it love? They didn’t know what to believe, between their respective words and their own conflicted feelings. Both had been through previous relationships, satisfying ones which had made them happy but which had now ended, ending well, perhaps ending too well to be able to be open again to living experiences both negative and positive with someone new.

In Hanoi, Vietnam

They weren’t of the same age, they had at times opposite attitudes towards life, they maybe even had different aspirations. Heck, they didn’t even live in the same city. Yet both knew something greater could flourish from the exciting sparkles their differences produced. Vulnerability was something they had always successfully hidden from their friends and colleagues. They were maybe too proud to admit their stubbornness, even if they were a little disconcerted with the uncertainties of life and its endless opportunities in all possible directions, but they seemed to irremediably come back to one another, reading in each other’s eyes the profound affection they shared for one another and the fulfilment they could touch at the tip of their fingers.

A newly-wed couple in Hoi An, Vietnam
A newly-wed couple in Hoi An, Vietnam

Was this the life of the newly-wed couples and women I photographed in Vietnam? Had they left someone behind or were they in love? Would there be a Florentino Ariza waiting for his loved one at the twilight of their lives, like in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera? Or would pride or shame be in the way, just like Salman Rushdie’s mother who exchanged the love of a man for the love of her at-the-time unborn children, and who wasn’t required to – but did – live lonely once her husband had died and her ex-lover still wanted to see her again (in Joseph Anton: A Memoir)?

At the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

C.S. Lewis: "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken”. Happiness and vulnerability are often the same thing. A certain degree of safety is perhaps necessary at first, just like some amount of water, soil and light is necessary for a flower to start blooming; but life is also subject to the changing weather of our complex imbroglios, of our annoying postures, of our inevitable ups and downs: isn’t it also the embracing and possible overcoming of those conflicts that makes a bond gradually stronger?

In Hanoi, Vietnam

C.S. Lewis goes on: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable”.

At the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam

My own heart is more than a little bruised by now. And I’ve hurt people in the process, sometimes even without realising it (yes, I’m that bad). While I’m deeply sorry for causing pain – and I always struggle ever forgiving myself – I cling to the belief that I have learned, that I am still learning, what it means to love, that it’s also acceptable to take risks even when I am scared, that it’s perhaps even preferable to not overthink everything to be able to simply enjoy life, alone or with someone special. That the truly worst-imaginable scenario actually never happens… well, maybe I shouldn’t say that, my opinion may have changed upon watching Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), a recent Argentinian film of tales depicting fairly extreme human behaviour.

In Hanoi, Vietnam

The last story of the film, a wedding party, is truly memorable: once things start going wrong with the bride having doubts about her husband’s fidelity, you have no idea how bad it’s going to get afterwards. Remembering her evil dance with his ex, the “sympathising” cook, and the disheveled half-drunk groom slowly and terrifyingly picking up the cake knife, I can’t stop smiling… although I perhaps shouldn’t, especially after having seen another, different but still delightfully scary, film, Gone Girl. Tip for men: first question on a date should be whether she has watched that film – if yes, run for your life, you’ll be forever thankful (I know I joke a lot, but that’s some serious advice). I cannot help but end this post by sharing this awfully sexist quote which made me laugh a bit too much when I first came across it: “Life is a bitch – and then you marry one.”

In Hanoi, Vietnam

PS (1st May): as an ironic twist of fate, the day I published this post on embracing vulnerability was the day a colleague of mine died on Everest as a consequence of the earthquake in Nepal. I knew Dan Fredinburg only a little, having briefly worked with him seven years ago at Google. When he was asked what was the greatest risk he had ever taken, this was his response, which moved me to tears when this was shared with me a few days ago:

"While climbing Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain in Oceania, a fellow climber fell, lost a lot of her blood, and nearly died of hypothermia. Had we returned on the 6 day trek through the jungle that we used on the way in, she would have certainly died. To rescue her, I smuggled her through Grasberg Mine, the largest gold mine in the world. Along the way, we risked being shot by mercenaries, had our friends kidnapped and held hostage, and then were ultimately arrested and imprisoned inside a jail inside the gold mine. And I was on Mt Everest this year when an ice serac fell into the icefall and killed all but my team on the mountain. Afterwards we executed body recovery and then climbed back down through the damaged route. But these were mostly calculated risks.

If I had to select the greatest risk I've taken in my life, it has been to throw myself into a romantic relationship with someone to reach a point of deep, illogical and visceral love. To a point where emotion and human connection overpowers any reason and safety. To be vulnerable psychologically and emotionally. This is real risk, with the greatest reward."