About Vulnerability

Just fourteen years old, I got an idea in my head that I had to spend summer break in Germany. I’d studied German for two years at Zeeland High School, and felt I had the world by its’ proverbial tail. With a tenacity matched only by a wolverine, I began the ‘parental persuasion’ exercises to make my seemingly impossible goal come true. Granted, I did not come from a family of limitless financial resources (we were comfortably middle class) so the money factor alone for such a trip could’ve killed the deal for me right off the bat.

Parental persuasion was a forte of mine at the time, and after a bit of time my parents got used to the idea (as much as they could have really). Now, the real challenge began. How was a fourteen-year-old young man going to live for a summer in Germany? I was a bit too young to backpack the foreign land (I would do this later in life), so we opted to find a family I could room with for the period. Now, who was crazy enough to sign up for an ignorant 14 year-old kid from the States to crash their peaceful summer?

It’s funny how life has a way of working out, but a preacher at my family’s church had a connection in Germany that he was willing to pass along. (This made him vulnerable I’m sure, as I was considered a naughty teen at the time). Both doctors, my potential host family had done this type of thing before, and was considered to be “salt of the earth” people. Their English was proficient, and with only two years of German, I had a difficult time putting sentences together; so this was beneficial. They owned a lovely home/doctors office in a little village located in southwestern, Germany where they lived and worked.

Contact was made with the couple through a letter explaining our request and a follow-up phone call by my dad a few weeks later. I was elated to hear that the couple would open their home to me that summer in Wassermungenau, West Germany. On a side note, it is only now that I realize how hard this must have been on my parents at the time. Although I was nearly an adult, I was going thousands of miles away from home to a strange house and strange people to live for a summer. What an act of unselfish love and admiration by my parents to loosen their grip on me. I can only imagine how vulnerable they must’ve felt during these times.

Time disappeared in light speed fashion, and the school year dissolved about as quickly as it came on. Suddenly, I questioned my desire to do this trip. Although the plane tickets were purchased and the details were finalized, I was deeply frightened and would’ve backed out if given ample opportunity. Why is it that difficult life-changing experiences are so easily and frequently avoided? Why is it that life-changing experiences are so difficult to go through with? With a stick-to-itiveness matched by few my age, I forged ahead with the adventure forsaking my own common sense.

Why in the world did 14 year-old boy need to make this “pilgrimage” at such an early age by himself? Did I have something deep-rooted to prove to my family and friends? Was I running away from something at home? I don’t believe I could’ve answered those questions honestly back then, nor would I have the slightest clue about what was going on inside my head at the time. Only today, do I realize that I had the need to take my comfortable existence and turn it upside down for a spell. I was lashing out against the normalcy of my life, and had to take on a personal challenge that would lend a huge amount of uncertainty all at once. Little did I know I was yearning to feel inexplicitly vulnerable in the hopes to further build my character and develop my impressionable soul.

For me, it was a summer trip to a foreign land that first got my juices flowing. For others, it may be a fishing job in Alaska, driving a racecar, jumping out of a plane, leaving the house with no makeup, or leaving someone your comfortable with that may rouse the feelings of vulnerability. I’m convinced that in true times of vulnerability, we will grow our lives ten-fold over the times that we feel comfortable in our skin. The days leading up to this monumental act were challenging me, but also assisted in the ultimate outcome and lessons I would take with me the rest of my days.

Burned into my brain to this day was an important trip with my parents to a local five and dime prior to my departure day. My parents had insisted on buying me a new watch for my trip, as my existing one was showing signs of age and would frequently fall behind. I guess I didn’t understand this gesture completely at the time, and to this day it brings tears to my eyes when I ponder it.

Carefully, we selected a new Timex gold-plated watch with leather straps, fashionable yet simple in its appointments. Mom and Dad knew that I was heading into the “unknown” and would definitely rely on knowing the accurate time especially when catching connecting flights. Their years of experience told them that any sensible traveler would require a reliable timepiece, and this was their gift to me. A watch was one tool they could arm me with that could deliver me from potential problems when I was out of their sight. It was not an expensive watch, but to me it was a symbol that added a slight familiar comfort to my travel abroad. I couldn’t tell you how many times I looked at that simple watch and the thought of them delivered me from any fear I may of had. In a sense, it served as my compass guiding me through the dark of those mysterious times.

Funny how we forever remember things that mean the most to us, and easily forget the trivial and insignificant details that come in and out of our lives that may seem so large at the time. It’s the gestures that genuinely touch our heart that make the most impact on our souls. On the summer morning when I turned an old chapter of my life to a new one, my parents were there to cheer me on from the other side. Their tight hugs and encouragement that helped me board the plane at such an early age meant the world to me.

I will never forget these few minutes before boarding that plane. One of the most pivotal times in my short life, these few moments are directly responsible for who I am as a person today. I was scared to death. My parents were visibly scared for me. Vulnerability and raw fear was in the air, but we embraced it and ran with it instead of being run over by it.

I knew my life had already evolved as I watched the ground slowly move as the plane began its taxi for takeoff. Feeling a great deal of fear and apprehension, I had to fight hard to keep back the tears as to not draw attention to myself from the other passengers. Even in my vulnerable state, I was STILL worried about what others thought of me. “My, I have a lot to learn this summer.” I reflected to myself in a slight whisper.

Landing in Munich nearly twelve hours later, I sleepily debarked the plane and made my way through customs. I’m sure I was very wide-eyed, and naive looking to any people that may have noticed me wandering through the busy airport to retrieve my luggage. Reality quickly set in forming a sour lump in the pit of my stomach. Not hearing a word of English was eye opening, and didn’t help my nerves. I wanted to be back at home where everything was ‘normal’, and where I could feel ‘comfortable’ in my skin again. Grabbing my heavy suitcase off the moving belt, I made my way to nearest exit where my host “father” was waiting for me.

The next few hours are very much a blur to me. I find that meeting new people can be incredibly draining (both mentally and physically), and the whole weirdness factor of this arrangement did not help matters any. Bits and pieces of our early and awkward conversation appear to me at times as other parts may fleet away quicker than they appear. I liken the experience to being really drunk, near blackout, as this is the only way I can begin to describe it. After a few hours of driving from Munich in his silver Opel, we made it back to the little place I would call home that summer. A place like no other on earth.

Picture the smallest town that you’re familiar with and then slightly grow it in your mind to get how large this place is. It’s the largest tiny town you’ll ever visit. Everyone knows everyone else there, and word of the new American among their populace quickly spread throughout town. It is in between two larger villages where the soccer fields seem to double as the town square. Surrounded by vast fields of tall grass and wooded trails, the main drag of this town consisted of a few shops, a tiny hotel, a quaint post office, a petrol station, a few churches, and a small school. Every building there had to be hundreds of years old, adding to the natural, old-European charm of this place. I can still picture the steeple of the local church rising up from the wheat fields, with the sun shining illuminating it from behind. Magical and enchanting is the only way I can describe it to give it any real justice.

Jurgen Singer was a rather portly man, with short speckled gray hair and a well-defined goatee. His eyes appeared weathered, but friendly—this is a guy that’s seen a lot in his life. In his late fifties, he knew what he liked and what he didn’t. He had a hankering for his dog Francie (a wiry little wiener dog), his pipe, his violin collection, and a nightly shot of vodka after his meals. He didn’t like people telling him what he could do and wouldn’t do. I guess you could say he was a bit of a chauvinist. A doctor by trade, he would make house calls (I followed him on a few) and operated a small clinic inside his home. Jurgen carried his “man-of-the-house” mantra/persona wherever he went. Everyone in town had much admiration and respect for him as was evident in the way they talked and interacted with him.

I’m pretty sure that Jurgen picked up that I was very nervous from the beginning, and did his best to make me feel at ease. He opened his home to me, and introduced me to the love of his life-Ursula, and his little dog Francie. Ursula was a warm looking soul that seemed very happy in her existence. They had three boys, which lived in various parts of West Germany, and made their livings as white-collared professionals. All were married except for one that was engaged at the time.

The doctors shared a charming home surrounded by foliage, flowers, and water. Loving all things musical, the two were proud to show me their vast collection of musical instruments, which included a rare Stradivarius violin dating back to the early 16th Century. Oriental rugs adorned their home leaving only a partial view of the polished maple floors. On one side of the house was a great garden area and reflecting pond where they spent the majority of their time. A covered patio area (fully open to the garden on two sides) was a favorite nesting place for the doctors and any house visitors alike. A large table and plenty of seating made this area perfect for entertaining or enjoying a light bite to eat in the misty, dew-filled summer mornings.

Following the brief tour of the home and grounds, Ursula showed me my room upstairs where I could settle in for a few minutes before dinner was to be served. I was delighted by my spacious accommodations and the view of the town that it afforded. Filled with memorabilia and pictures, I quickly deduced I was staying in Hans’ old room. Unloading my luggage the best I had energy for, I stopped and paused and looked at my watch. Thoughts of my parents entered my mind and asked to phone home to let them know I had arrived safe and sound. I think my upbeat mood and outlook made them feel a bit more secure about my situation, although I don’t think my mom could sleep soundly the entire time I was away.

Five short hours after I debarked the airplane in Munich, I was sitting and enjoying my first authentic German dinner compliments of the Singers. The homemade sauerbraten was to die for, and the kartofel salat (potato salad) was exquisite. It’s amazing how food will break the ice in any culture. I made sure to present them with a pair of custom-made wooden shoes as a symbol of my Dutch heritage as a thank-you present for their hospitality and opening their home to me. Inscribed, the one shoe read “Danke Schon” and the other “Von Dusty ‘89”. I’m sure these shoes are collecting dust in a closet at their house as you’re reading this.

Then, after dinner was finished, the words any young teen loved to hear were verbalized in heavily accented English.

“A shot of vodka for digestion?” Jurgen inquired in his deep voice almost announcing it like a broadcaster inflecting his statement at the end.

“Come again?” I retorted.

“A shot of vodka for digestion?” He repeated just as loud and eloquently.

At this point, I knew I heard right, so with as much grown-up gumption I could muster, I agreed.

“Ya, das ist sehr gut,” (yes, this is very good) I responded in broken German as I shook my head.

Taking a shot of vodka was a ritual for him after every evening meal. He wasn’t going to be impolite and not offer me the same luxury. Now keep in mind, this guy was a doctor, so I wasn’t going to argue with him on his methodology here. In fact, I was pretty much convinced that he was the coolest elder I knew at that point. We did our shot, and a bit of snuff (finely powderized tobacco to “clean” out the nasal passages) and sat with bellies full.

We shared and got to know each other better before I could not keep my eyes open any longer. Exhausted from my travels and this intense interaction, I retired to my sleeping quarters. But before going to sleep I reflected on one baffling detail of the day. Did the little dog Francie understand the German commands the Singer’s spoke to it? I thought dogs only understood English up to this point. Throughout the evening I spoke to the dog in English only to receive very blank stares back. Disheartening. You see, I fancy myself as a bit of a Dr. Doolittle, so the fact that the dog wasn’t reacting to me stumped me. The minute I barked a few commands in German tongue (must have been one hell of an accent), the dog flipped an ear. Was this a sign of comprehension by Francie? Interesting thought I had stumbled upon here, one that would surely fascinate my audiences back at home.

Disoriented and still jet-lagged, I awoke the next morning not quite comprehending where I was. Once my actual location sunk in, I struggled to get out of bed and go down stairs. A huge amount of psychological energy was expended to make that walk to see what breakfast would hold. Here I am, a guest in a strange house, with strange people that didn’t speak my native tongue all that great. Wild stuff for a teenager to swallow. Stuff that builds a huge amount of character. In retrospect, this feeling of vulnerability would shape the rest of my days and give me the skills to put myself in exceptionally uncomfortable real-life situations in the future. Every minute of those vulnerable feelings was amazingly painful yet liberating for me. I disregarded my inner fears, seized the moment, and made the ominous trek downstairs to see what the day would bring. If we were shooting the movie of my life, some sort of victory music would’ve sounded during this walk. My prize at the end would be a whole plate of sausages, breads, jam, and stinky assorted cheeses.

Life went on during my stay, as both doctors continued seeing patients and working their normal house calls. This meant that most of the days, I was left to entertain myself until they returned around in the evening. For a kid in my shoes, that meant ample opportunity to find trouble without hesitation. There wasn’t a rock that I didn’t turn over in that little town. Taking every piece of mental stimulus in, I quickly became the word on the street for my comedic antics. The more I tried to fit in, the more I seemed to stick out. My weaknesses included hanging out at the little grocery store looking at the “liberal” magazines, sipping bottled Coca-Cola and smoking Marlboros as I strolled the main drag, eating a long lunch on the patio while drinking German beer, talking English to confuse Francie, and watching for any cute German Frauline that may show a bit of interest my way. I may as well been a Martian in that little town, at least then I might have made the local newspaper. Can’t you see the headline? “American Teen Ruining Our Ambience”.

One of my fondest memories occurred just a short week after my arrival in Wassermungenau. Parked in the garage was an orange Garelli pedal moped that looked brand new. Fascinated by my discovery, I played around and discovered that the thing ran rather well. So, only with a spirit carried by a fourteen year old I started hinting around to my host family. Having access to my own “wheels” meant I could take my show on the road, and travel to nearby towns and pubs. I got goose bumps just thinking about it. My idea was met with open arms, and the little yellow Italian moped saw the open road once more. Score one for the little American.

Up and down the streets I would zip around as fast as possible. When this got boring, I took my riding off-road through the countryside trails and dirt paths. There were miles of opportunity in the form of trails lying before me, and almost always a back way for anywhere I wanted or cared to go. Everyday, I would push the limits of the little moped and go that much further than the day before. Dust balls flying behind me as I floored the cycle as fast as it would go. I’m sure the natives thought I was really peculiar buzzing around town like a hornet on that yellow moped. I thrived on the thought. This was great for me, as a few Deutschmarks would buy days worth of petrol for the moped, so the adventures were seemingly endless. Freedom in the form of a Garelli moped. Poetically speaking, my “wings” had arrived.

More often then not, my moped would drive me to a local pub or beer garden to pass time. Granted, I was fourteen at the time but this was no cause for concern with the local pubs. As long as I slammed my money down, they would keep pouring. Life seemed to be in more perspective as I lost feeling in my body from the buzz. The dumb American will learn his lesson eventually, I’m sure they thought.

After a few too many stout German beers in a neighboring town one day, I set out for home on my orange rocket. It was near dinner time, and the doctors would be looking forward to taking me on the town. I had to rush home, as I was nearly four miles away and late already. In order to avoid possible harassment from the police, I took my famous shortcut on a hilly dirt trail. Flying like a bat out of hell, I pushed the limits of my impaired driving, and the scooters off-road capabilities to the extreme. Miscalculating the firmness of the trail, I took a pin-tight curve too fast, and flew off the moped, flipping head over bottom landing on my side. A dust cloud plumed over the scene, as I landed with a thud, my moped sliding to a violent stop.

Dazed, I stood up and tried to dust myself off. Making sure no one witnessed the wreck I did a 360-degree look around to survey my surroundings. No word needed to reach my host parents about this one. My knees were skinned, and blood began to trickle. I had dirt down my entire right side were I had landed. My head throbbed all of a sudden, and the nice buzz I had just a few moments back was quickly squashed. Worried more for the property that wasn’t mine, I inspected the moped for signs of damage. A mirror was bent, and pedal showed a bit of damage, but all in all it could’ve been far worse. The true test would be if the moped would run ever again, so I gave it a kick. Sure enough, the little champ gave a sputter first and after a second try turned over for me. My luck wasn’t completely depleted it seemed.

How in the world would one explain this one? Visibly bruised, dirty, and reeking of beer I prepared for the inevitable busting encounter just a few short minutes away. To my chagrin, both doctors were home. Sneaking into the house and slipping past anyone I locked myself in my bedroom to clean myself up. Shorts came off, and a new shirt was exchanged for the soiled one. It’s amazing how sober one becomes after an experience such as this. Looking for my wallet and passport to put in my pocket, a sinking feeling hit the pit of my stomach. Um, where in the world was my wallet and passport? Panic quickly ensued. Loosing your passport in a foreign country will not win you any awards with the U.S. Embassy and proves to be a relative nightmare compared to most other mishaps.

Searching all over my room to no avail, led me to a grim realization that frankly petrified me, as would anyone else in my shoes. I had lost my wallet (with a lot of money) and my passport in my fall (or worse, somewhere before). One could live without the money, the passport with be a slightly different story however. Any bit of the buzz left my body at that point and now I was on a very important mission later coined: “save my butt”.

I put myself out there and exposed my true self to my German host parents that summer of ‘89. They knew I was searching to find my place in the world and that I was incredibly vulnerable and frightened at the same time. Not that you want to open yourself up to just anybody, but if you don’t open your heart and trust once in awhile you’ll never enjoy the gifts that people will give you. I was honest with them. When they asked me a question, I answered them. I asked them frank questions as well. We talked, learned, laughed, and cried with each other.

That summer I asked to visit a concentration camp. You may cringe to think that Jurgen’s father was a ranking Nazi soldier. We talked about that, and also about the American perception of Germany and what was being taught in the schools here. Did we view them as warmongers? Did we learn that they were intolerant of other human beings? We talked and shared about such topics openly. I often wonder if I would be as open with my dialog today, as an adult. Sometimes, we can hide in the shadow of being a “kid” and not knowing better to take our chances. Perhaps we could learn a lesson from this innocence and direct honesty. Too often we’re afraid to express our true selves and miss out on sincerely learning about the person we’re interacting with.

In our pursuit to be “effective” adults that everyone around us recognizes and respects, we too often loose the innate ability to feel vulnerable. We’re wired as humans to feel a wide array of emotions that can mold and shape what we are to the core. It’s our experiences and how we handle/deal with them that have a hefty impact on how we view and live life. Too often, we try to manipulate our environment in such a way that true emotions cannot break in. We shut out or mask our true feelings, viewing them as “inherently weak” and “not a respectable”.

Our society, celebrating strength and independence as King, tells us to remove ourselves from situations in which we feel vulnerable or exposed. True vulnerability is considered a sign of powerlessness, and as such, is avoided by men and women alike. When a woman in a relationship begins to feel vulnerable or exposed, she typically puts a wall up to keep her partner from seeing these feelings. A man whose mother is dying of cancer holds back tears at work to hide his true feelings of vulnerability. What are these people missing?

When we are vulnerable, we open ourselves up to like a book to others. They see us for who we really are, and not the facade we normally portray. This is no easy task, as the shear experience itself can leave us relying on others to get us through. Painful and often uncomfortable, showing our true selves leaves us exposed to the reality of the people in which we surround ourselves. This reality boils down to either they will assist us through our trials, or they will leave us to fend for ourselves. It is through this reality that we see who our true support system is.

What we often fail to remember is common human decency will show itself when we least suspect it at our point of vulnerability. I know I’m skeptical about this concept–as it goes against what we’re taught to believe from early on. The six o’clock news will make anyone wary of others and our social condition. Perhaps the people you surround yourself with at work, church, school, or socially are not the type that you would trust your new-found vulnerability with. Maybe then, you ought to look at your life, and whom you surround yourself with and make a few deep-rooted changes.

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