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Vulnerability in an age of crisis

overcaffeinated convictions

My first ‘big quarantine cry’ occurred during a late-night Modern Love TV show binge, which seems pretty on-par given my previous columns. It was one of those ugly, red-faced, snot-running cries; it was relentless, continuing for hours on end. 

I share this because, lately, we’ve been talking a lot about vulnerability. ‘‘Vulnerable" is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” Another Oxford definition is “(of a person) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.”  From nostalgic guest opinion pieces to tweets detailing the horrors of our quarantine experience to Tom Hanks becoming sick, we’ve discovered that everyone and everything is vulnerable. 

In the age of this global pandemic, both definitions of vulnerability  apply. 

Vulnerability has always been a difficult concept for me. I’ve read that to be vulnerable is liberating and a sign of resilience. A Forbes magazine article describes How Vulnerability Can Make Our Lives Better. However, in fear of oversharing, a long-standing habit, I’ll tense, holding space for only the parts of myself that are appealing to others. And in my experience, many at Duke—and in life—feel the same. 

My reaction is so common because in those two previously-stated definitions—in vulnerability both as a choice and as an inescapable condition—there lies an absence of security and an existence of pain. 

My first instinct was to write an Op-Ed about the Duke Mutual Aid group, about how the Duke Community beautifully coalesced to support vulnerable students and workers. Though it is heartwarming to see community organizing, to tell only that story would be merely splashing the surface of the deep pool of crisis-response. This specific narrative would be confined to my limited perspective, that of a financially-stable, white, cisgender girl raised in a two-parent household. 

Even in my small sphere of the Duke Mutual Aid Fund, folks already vulnerable-by-condition were required to make themselves doubly-vulnerable by requesting aid. Duke workers used their less-than-living conditions to advocate for better treatment: again, a double vulnerability. Internationally, photos like one of an infected 87-year-old being wheeled out to view the sunset, or a bruised nurse, have reached virality due to their powerful depiction of our pandemic. In a review of Chanel Miller’s Know My Name for The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes, “When trauma is transformed into art, there will always be a paradox at play: The art’s existence is beautiful. But it shouldn’t have to exist at all.” 

The stories of contract employees facing eviction or the photos of dying patients are manifestations of trauma and vulnerability. They shouldn’t have to exist at all. 

Often in the face of a crisis, human beings are required to be strong while simultaneously being giving and caring and kind. But this consolidated cluster of emotions does not account for one important and healthy response: anger. Rage is protective, although often gendered and racialized, instigated by perceived emotional or physical attack, instigated by vulnerability.  

I am indeed angry. The coronavirus cannot be simplified to an unstoppable pandemic sweeping the globe; the existence of this multitude of trauma and pain is predicated by the abysmal and intentional dereliction of our institutions. Senator Richard Burr’s engagement in insider trading and Trump’s denial and racism towards East Asians have demonstrated that our federal elected officials have not failed, but rather neglected us; to call our policymakers ‘failures’ credits them with trying. Duke’s statement about continued pay for contract workers, which passes through various language loopholes including ‘currently assigned’ and ‘full time’—and eliminates many eligible employees—has demonstrated that our administration has neglected us. Perhaps most importantly, lack of healthcare funding and a secure social safety net juxtaposed against calls for private industry bailout has demonstrated that our system has neglected us. The emergence of coronavirus may have been inevitable; however, it never should have been indomitable.  

I am also angry because I have never seen my father more emotionally exhausted than when he arrives home from hours of testing individuals for COVID-19, experiencing the effects of our lack of resources firsthand. I’m selfishly angry that as a pulmonologist, my dad will be spending hours at the hospital in the future, treating patients with severe cases of the virus, although he’s in a vulnerable age category himself. I’m angry that so many people are experiencing worse than I; that for countless students and workers, this pandemic means loss of housing, loss of food security, loss of a relative. 

I am open about my disdain for negligent positivity; saying “everything is going to be okay” can be dismissive to those who cannot imagine a time in which everything was okay. Some people will not get through this pandemic unscathed. Some people will not get through at all. Some people’s bodies will, but their minds will not. 

There may be one path to resistance, however. Although COVID-19 has brought death and exacerbated societal inequities and increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, this virus has united humanity in our shared vulnerability. The levels of this vulnerability differ immensely, but no one is immune to the disease or its emotional toll. So we paint pictures, through words and photos and sometimes memes, attempting to send some sort of artwork into the world. 

I know one thing to be true: if the pain is universal, the healing must be too. 

To be honest, my first ‘big quarantine cry’ was mostly induced by the plot of Modern Love Episode 1. Nonetheless, it felt amazing. And in dissecting my own internal roadblocks, I have discovered that, above all, I must allow myself to feel. My disdain for negligent positivity aside, this realization is a personal realistic positive that has arisen from our current state of affairs. 

I can grieve the pandemic. As can anyone. I can be angry. As can anyone. I can acknowledge my privilege while granting myself the space to understand my inflated anxiety levels. As can anyone.

I am rooted in vulnerability. As is everyone. 

Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Mondays.

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