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Note 80: Without armour…or not at all
Going from armoured to clothed to naked
I often think about shame and vulnerability.
Some of that’s because of my work, which frequently has me exploring with people the less-pleasant aspects of themselves. And then this week, while watching the new season of Shadow and Bone on Netflix (a fantasy series based on a set of YA novels), I heard a line that resonated deeply. One character said to another:
I will have you without your armour… Or I will not have you at all.”
The context was that the character being spoken to had a history of keeping closed off rather than risk being vulnerable.
The Bible opens with a story about a man and a woman who are described as, “both naked, but not ashamed”. But then they mess up and try to pass on blame rather than take responsibility, and shame suddenly appears in the picture. They end up clothed: covering up in front of each other, afraid and ashamed to be truly vulnerable.
You can see how that’s all of us still. A lot of effort in relationships goes into figuring out how “naked” we can afford to be. There are people with whom we are comfortable “wearing little”, and others with whom we will not turn up in anything less than “fully clothed”.
But as that line from the show indicates, to protect themselves, people sometimes go beyond clothes to full-on armour. In the show, the character with the “armour” had experienced severe trauma, which is in fact what often underlies people feeling the need for armour. Experiencing loss of agency, or to continue with the clothes metaphor, being stripped—made “naked” against your will, sometimes literally—leaves a person feeling violated. When able to clothe themselves again, it’s not surprising that there’s a desire for stronger, more protective clothing. For armour.
The problem, as with any kind of protection, is that keeping things out tends to entail keeping yourself in. Fences can too easily become prison walls, and armour can too readily become insulation. As CS Lewis so astutely pointed out, to protect ourselves from the possibility of pain and loss will also mean cutting ourselves off from the possibility of joy and love. There is no intimacy without the risk of being hurt.
Understandably, if you’ve been “stripped”, you might well consider that a perfectly acceptable trade-off. For those who want more though, who long to learn to be vulnerable again, that involves coming back to relationships: whether that’s with loved ones, good friends, or a therapist or counsellor. Those relationships can become a safe space within which you can relearn trust and start to take the risk of taking the armour off again, one bit at a time, and maybe eventually even getting to taking the clothes off.
And with time, it might even be possible again to be “naked” without shame. The process is never easy, but progress is possible.
We all have bits we cover with armour, and bits we cover with clothes.
The cycle of life
Speaking of being vulnerable, something I’ve been doing a bit more this year is submitting essays to publications on Medium. It feels risky because there’s always that possibility of having your work rejected, isn’t there? Anyway, I had an essay published this week in the Better Humans publication, about what learning to cycle as an adult has taught me about life in general.
Here’s a bit from the opening:
I’ve wanted to learn to cycle since I was a child, so I’m really a few decades late here. (There was that one time when I’d tried a couple years ago, but after two hours of falling and failing to move my friend’s bike — and despite his immense patience — I felt no closer to being able to cycle than when I began.) I don’t regret it, though, because it turns out that there’s value to learning stuff as an adult that most people are expected to learn as children.
As a beautiful Nigerian saying puts it: “Whenever you wake up is your morning.”
Check the essay out below. If you’d be so kind as to clap, leave comments and share it—well, stuff like that factors into Medium’s decisions about what to share more widely, so I’d be very much obliged to you.