Is Our Vulnerability Driving Us to Distraction?

There’s something about being with people I don’t know, like getting on an elevator with strangers or sitting alone in a coffee house, that makes me feel vulnerable. It’s not anything I can put my finger on, but I feel a slight unease. In those moments, I sometimes avert my gaze, reach for my cell phone, or busy myself in some way.

It occurred to me when I wandered my neighborhood recently and noticed how many people were “engaged” with their phones that this behavior is, at least partly, a response to a sense of vulnerability, a sort of existential unease.

Let’s admit it, when we check our phones in public, we send a vibe that we’re busy, we have friends or loved ones who need us, or we’re in demand at work. “I’m loved, I’m important, even though I’m alone,” we seem to say, thumbs poised over the tiny letters on our screens.

Is this the feeling behind our “disease of busyness” that Omid Safi so beautifully captured in this On Being article? I think it has something to do with it. What would happen if we sat with that uncomfortableness, let it be? What if we resisted that impulse to reach for something to distract us?

And what if we asked ourselves what I believe the real question is: Are we any less valuable if we don’t feel needed, in demand, busy, or loved at a particular point in time? Do we think that not appearing important or connected means we don’t matter? Are we diminished if there is no email, text, or call to answer? If we’re not “in demand” is there meaning to our existence?

Yes. Of course. But tell that to the impulse that arises again and again.

Writing this, I have to laugh at myself and at that pesky egoic nature of ours that—if I may anthropomorphize here—must constantly justify our existence and importance in the world. Is our pull to know we are valued at the heart of our reluctance to embrace our vulnerability? Is it the source of our vulnerability? If so, it’s a poignant irony. While our vulnerabilities and frailties are what cut through our egoic shells and connect us in profound ways, they are the very things we reflexively avoid.

It’s not just the big moments when we feel exposed by a mistake or broken open by great loss, vulnerability arises in us everyday. It’s there when we walk into a room of strangers, when we don’t know something we think we should, when we get lost, or when we do something for the first time.

If we can learn to sit with momentary unease without having to distract ourselves, might we build our potential to avoid the dis-ease of busyness and disconnection? Isn’t a little discomfort worth greater, deeper, and more meaningful connection? 

Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.