To Be Totally Vulnerable With Someone

Here's a piece of a paragraph about being totally vulnerable with someone from a David Foster Wallace short story. The protagonist – Schmidt – is briefing a focus group:

… Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness …

Schmidt / Wallace says this type of intimacy and openness and display of vulnerability can only transpire in a good marriage. Whether it's a marriage or a very special friendship, it's clear only the most intimate relationships can play host to a person's confessional, private fears. Forming these relationships is hard: Some people never are able to find a person to whom they can be vulnerable in the way Wallace mentions (even if they're married).

I've blogged in the past about two related concepts. First, I've wondered whether you can be truly honest with anyone in your life other than a paid professional therapist. Other than some outside professional who's paid to listen to you, every other person in your life, no matter how close you are to them, has an agenda and bias and you censor yourself to respond to that agenda. Second, I've noted that the concept of a singular "best friend" seems limiting — the idea that one person can fulfill most of your emotional needs. Rather, the "composite best friend" means you have a handful of people who are close to you who stimulate you and engage you in different ways.

Bottom Line: Most people crave intimacy and an opportunity to share all their deep dark private insecurities. Those who can fulfill this need through a single soul mate or through close friends I think overall have a richer life. Cocooning against the world is not, really, a sustainable long-term position.

19 comments on “To Be Totally Vulnerable With Someone
  • I was definitely in a relationship recently which reflected this sort of ability mutually between us. I had known the girl I was with for the better part of a decade before we became a couple and we were really good friends prior to that.

    Interestingly enough, it also ended abruptly and for no apparent reasoning on her end (that she was willing to speak of). Quite unfortunate ending, but one of the truly best experiences I’ve had.

  • Ah, the sophisticated cynicism of postmodern hagiography.

    Jonathan Derbyshire’s paean to the sainted Cobain-hood of a spiritually ill man made me feel as if I’d been hit on the head and wakened as a subsidiary character in Arno Schmidt’s book, The Egghead Republic.

    Who knows, maybe I am. This comment practically wrote itself.

    Schmidt’s book was prescient in a twisted way, as perhaps the ‘cognoscenti’ know.

    But here again, Derbyshire enjoins us to worship at the altar of the deranged and the pathological.

    “Who else could have written a story about a marketing executive who plans to inject deadly cultures into a snack he’s testing with focus groups?”

    Hmm, let me guess: that brilliant mathematician, the Unabomber?

    Wallace was, by his own description, an “infantile transplant” who had been reared by a mother who pretended that her small child was actually denying her oxygen by speaking incorrectly.

    Yes, I would say that seems a bit excessive.

    You don’t think it might have had something to do with why he became “that kind of genius, whose understanding of the workings of his own fiction was… largely separate from ideas of audience”?

    Or that this could possibly be one of the reasons why he came to believe that each of us is “sort of marooned” inside our own skull?

    Believe me, I know the feeling.

    So I should allow a man who believed that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people” to be my ‘priest’ and tell me “what it is to be a fucking human being”?

    I don’t think so.

    It’s certainly no mystery why Wallace was “tormented by the thought that the ‘antagonistic elements’ in his fiction might in fact just be manifestations of a pathological exhibitionism”.

    Or why he grappled obsessively with spirituality and values in insanely detailed style, and in language of ‘polyesterish’ banality (like that bit about the repulsive nest of moles and the weird deep yellow viral infection of the toenails).

    To say that to be Midwestern is to be “marooned in a space whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual” is one of the most ridiculous statements I’ve ever heard. I’m sure just about any non-postmodernist Hoosier would agree with my judgement.

    So Wallace doesn’t settle for simply unmasking the ‘event’ as a sham. Well, neither do I.

    The ‘infinite jest’ he hurled at mankind and the universe is what drove him to suicide.

    At least Jonathan Derbyshire got one thing right– Wallace really was the ultimate victim of his own interior war.

    Only a postmodernist could fail to see that such a bleak and barren philosophy leads to death and destruction.

  • Most people conceal their vulnerabilities even from themselves and so even if you completely trust your partner it can be hard to achieve this level of intimacy. I think the hardest part about achieving this intimacy is not in revealing the painful truths to someone else, but rather revealing them to yourself.

  • Vince,

    I’ve sometimes enjoyed your pithy punches at flimsy fetishes. Not that I am any great fan of DFW, but here I would allow him the luxury of narrative license. A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral. Not just the post modernist on him you vent your ire, even the elders like Michael Angelo have seen the angel in the marble and carved until he was set free. If Wallace had held the nest of moles as a mirror on the innermost fears that craved for an outing in people that he tried to capture, why not just let him?

  • Chris — I’m sorry to hear this, but heartened and inspired that you are able to see that experience as so positive despite an ending that — based on your description — could leave you justifiably upset.

  • So I should allow a man who believed that it is fiction’s job to “aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people” to be my ‘priest’ and tell me “what it is to be a fucking human being”? I don’t think so.

    You don’t need to have him be your priest, but it doesn’t mean you need to discard wholesale his thoughts, such as his one in this post on vulnerability which I think is spot-on.

  • What Justin said – spot-on. I think this also goes some way to answering those who say they don’t think self knowledge is important. If for no other reason than you want the gifts of human intimacy, it sure is.

    But cocooning against the world, Ben, is entirely sustainable. A lot of people do it, to different degrees. Some of the most seemingly open, outgoing people are cut off from the prospect of being known, even if it’s what part of them wants more than anything. When push comes to shove and they are faced with the possibility of being seen by another – truly seen – it’s often too much to bear. Only if they are dedicated to suffering in the short term the discomfort of openness can they stand a chance of breaking past this mammoth obstacle.

    (How this manifests in their behavior in relationships, with regard to sex especially, is very interesting but perhaps too tangential.)

  • I can’t say myself, but it could conceivably be more painful to be half-insulated, half-exposed. So you have a glimpse of what others have, and can even get close to the halo of intimacy, but never quite touch it. Who knows?

  • For some reason, I can’t sign in to TypePad here.

    Krishna, flimsy fetish is a perfect description of the exaltation of such a weak and flaccid style as Wallace’s.

    Artistically, Wallace was an infantile solipsist who never grew up. No disrespect to you, but as a writer he isn’t worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as a master of his art like Michaelangelo.

    It’s sad to see the ‘insights’ of a man who failed at the task of living life held up as brilliance.

    Then this idiot Derbyshire compounds the foolishness by making Wallace out to be some sort of Cobainesque saint, as if that were praise. I’m a fan of Nirvana’s music, but Cobain was a pathetic loser at life.

    I read as much of that terribly written 15,000-word article Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone as I could stand.

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read these words: “It’s difficult not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of.”

    Not only was Wallace a lousy reporter, he lacked judgement.

    He was talking about a man who when he returned to the US from his captivity as a POW in Vietnam and discovered that his wife Carol had been disfigured and crippled in an automobile accident (she was confined to a wheelchair and was forced to use a catheter), became involved in several extramarital affairs.

    Then McCain, ever the political opportunist, began the courtship of his future wife Cindy, the beautiful daughter of a millionaire beer distributor. In 1980 he petitioned a Florida court to divorce Carol. A month later he married Cindy.

    This is Wallace’s hero.

    The reason Wallace suffered so many self-doubts is because he had good reason to. He turned in a sloppy, disorganized pile of a half-realized manuscript, Infinite Jest, (infinite dreck, really), and was surprised as anyone to find it hailed as a work of ‘genius’.

  • Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.
    –Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Great post Ben. I struggled with relationships for years. I mostly avoided them. It wasn’t until I went through a period of desperation and was forced to reconcile with myself that I was able to have true loving relationships. Being peaceful within oneself, has allowed me to see myself through my makers eyes and not those around me. Today, my insides match my outsides.

    I recently got married to my soul mate. On our fist date I purged myself to her and told her all my faults and past. Granted that may not be the best approach if you’re trying to impress someone, but I had learned that I could be accepted for who I was. Not only did she accept who I was, she was inspired by my honesty and ability to move past my struggles.

    For the first time in my life, I felt as if I was gaining something in a relationship and not loosing a part of myself. We share everything, a firm believer in “I’m as sick as my secrets,” there isn’t anything we don’t share. I truly believe life is a blessing and its better when you have someone to share the little things with.

    For me, I had to discovery how to be intimate and have a relationship with myself before I could truly experience that with someone else.

    To Thine Own Self Be True
    — William Shakespeare

    Thanks Ben for that post, great!

  • I think you’re right on Justin! I was unable to give others the opportunity to truly accept me for me until I had done the same. Sometimes I catch myself saying out loud and to myself.. “Jared, that was stupid, don’t be an idiot.” Which my wife responds, “hey, don’t talk to my friend that way.” She reminds me to be kind to myself.

    Thanks for reminding me of that Justin.

  • There is nothing else in life that makes me feel more alive than being vulnerable with another… to have that kind of connection which is truly intimate. I’ve often wondered why we can bare our bodies so freely while our souls remain fully cloaked. Loneliness is a lack of intimacy of this nature. I think Mother Theresa said there’s no greater poverty than the lack of love. And for me, this is the missing component.

    Thank you for this post Ben!


  • Sorry, Ben. I got carried away. This wasn’t the place for that. Delete my comments if you like. I suppose I have such a prejudice against Wallace that I couldn’t see past it.

  • True, Ben. Now that I’ve come down from my berserker rage, I’ll try to speak to your points rather than Derbyshire’s (bad habit).

    Disregarding the somewhat repellent images Wallace conjures to make his point, I agree with you and him on this.

    I suppose one of the reasons I have such a virulent response to his writing is that he seems to delight in such concatenations of repulsiveness, which I found a bit jarring in the context.

    It distracts a little from the poignant emotionalism evoked by the thought of a couple sharing “the intimacy and openness and display of vulnerability”. Sometimes (not so much here) when I read his stuff I feel as if I’ve been whipped by a verbal sadist.

    Therapists certainly can serve as useful outlets for emotional discharge, but I have limited faith in the discretion and detachment of a paid professional therapist, especially in a small town, no matter the requirements of professionalism.

    In other words, I wouldn’t be too honest in expressing myself to one. I would go with Wallace’s poetic, almost emo, sentiment of “pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness” to a trusted partner, but I would never make myself that vulnerable to a stranger, therapist or not.

  • Finding someone or a group of people we can share our most private fears is challenging. Those relationships can take years to foster before we can feel comfortable revealing that kind of depth. And there’s always the trouble of delicately balancing how much we reveal without the other person feeling uncomfortable or awkward.

    It takes a certain personality and person to be able to meet that level of intimacy. And those are rare finds …

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