Finding strength in vulnerability

Helen De Cruz
6 min readFeb 25, 2023
Egon Schiele, double self-portrait. Schiele's self-portraits, in my view, are brutally vulnerable and this makes them enduring

A new headline in the Atlantic reads, "Are colds really worse, or are we all just weak babies now?" The writer, Katherine Wu, argues that there's no evidence that colds are worse now than they were in 2019. We've been coddled, spoiled by social distancing, into no longer being able to deal with a silly little cold.

In moments like this, I find it useful to remind myself that in the US conservatively over 1 million people died of a transmissible disease from 2020 to 2023, life expectancy took a plunge (in the US, for the first time since 1918), and so many people are unable to work due to long covid it is affecting the workforce.

But headlines like these also reveal something deeper — not just denialism that downplays the severity of a virus but a deep discomfort, and denialism, of our vulnerability.

You can see this in the shift of who is "vulnerable" to severe outcomes of Covid. The medical peer-reviewed literature basically says everyone although some people are more at risk than others (receipts here of the recent peer reviewed literature, showing how Covid affects every system of our bodies).

But most societies were quick to triage the population into "healthy" (strong) and "vulnerable" (weak). Who was weak also shifted. In 2020 and 2021, this included old people. Though they are still the bulk of covid deaths, they’re no longer considered vulnerable; it now only seems severely immunocompromised who should shield themselves from covid. And there’s no clear plan of how to protect them (with antibody treatments becoming ineffective due to mutations on the virus), so the plan is basically for them to be cut out of society.

Overall, people are strongly encouraged to think themselves invulnerable. Reminders of vulnerability: masks, memorials, the presence of sick and disabled people, make us uncomfortable and lead to backlash.

This got me thinking of how vulnerability is ignored, and how this widespread denialism makes us more vulnerable. It's not only in public health.

The UK national covid memorial wall, commemorating the many people who died of covid

Take our vulnerability to mess up and make mistakes. When that happens, you can find yourself trapped in an internet storm (aka "being cancelled"). People dread it so much that you can get cancelled they do not speak out.

Attack helicopter

We have these internet storms (the Isabel Fall one a recent notable example where an innocent writer and editor found themselves at the receiving end reminding us that people who are subject to an internet storm are sometimes innocent) because we do not want to acknowledge that people are vulnerable and fallible. In a society where we all have to hold up the mask of invulnerability, there can be no error and no forgiveness. There are just fake people going about their perfect lives who are never wrong or never make an error of judgment. As a result, people often refuse to acknowledge if they messed up, because acknowledging this is to admit weakness and weakness is never allowed.

We fail to acknowledge vulnerability in human relationships. The Danish theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905–1981) famously argued that vulnerability lies at the center of human interactions, not only intimate ones, but all human interactions (see this paper). You place yourself into the hands of others. This places an ethical demand on us when we interact with others. But, for Løgstrup, when we trust someone, we open ourselves up to the possibility that this trust will be betrayed. We do not expect to be betrayed of course, as Annette Baier puts it, but we are opening ourselves up to the possibility that it might happen.

Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905–1981)

Løgstrup even says that when we trust someone, we surrender ourselves to the other. It may sound hyperbolic but I find it helpful, especially if you have been harmed by someone you trusted and think “How could I have been so stupid?” Someone confided to me that she had been raped by her ex-boyfriend, because he asked to come and talk things over after the breakup and she felt it would be good and he deserved closure. "How could I have not seen that coming?" she agonized.

For Løgstrup, human relationships bring goods we want to realize, but they also make us vulnerable to betrayal of trust. We can’t always be vigilant. Doing so would make our lives lesser overall. Løgstrup was keenly aware of this as he was part of the Danish resistance in WWII. He realized then that though it's possible to be constantly on the lookout for betrayal, doing so is not living a full life. It's a shadowy half-existence where you feel numb and cut off from everything.

This is why I think there’s power in being vulnerable as well as in acknowledging vulnerability: it helps us to see ourselves as interconnected, and not cut off from, marginalized groups (e.g., disabled people) and makes solidarity easier and in solidarity lies strength. We can see ourselves as part of a bigger whole, where these people have fallen into circumstances that (if you are wealthy, non-disabled) you are also potentially vulnerable to.

On the other hand, once we start drawing up boundaries, then we make the whole structure of society more vulnerable. For example, when we fail to acknowledge the vulnerability to financial luck and circumstance then people become on the whole more vulnerable to destitution, homelessness, and extreme financial distress. If we deny intrinsic vulnerability, anyone who is poor has only themself to blame, and if they really did an effort they could pull themselves out. As a result, we're creating nations (as FT editor John Burn-Murdoch puts it), such as "Britain and the US [which] are poor societies with some very rich people."

Acknowledging that vulnerability is a salient feature of human life and not an individual failing also allows us to collectively build safety nets, ranging from sick leave, disability benefits, old age pensions. It also allows us to build infrastructure that provides cushion against afflictions, such as health and safety regulations, traffic regulations, clean water, and more. This makes our societies overall more robust, more resilient against catastrophic events, paradoxically, less vulnerable. Whereas keeping up the illusion of invulnerability makes us more vulnerable. If you are careful you will not start a house fire but it is overall better that there are good fire regulations for buildings so that if a fire occurs, the damage is limited.

It's important acknowledge your own vulnerability as a mortal creature who can (or perhaps is) sick or disabled. As someone who can be betrayed. As someone who can, and eventually will, die. The illusion of invulnerability will never be maintained forever. People in the past knew this. They used cognitive technologies, such as a ring to remind you your end will come (in 17th century England) or in myth such as the Greek story of Achilles and his vulnerability.

People who have had a life-changing event know this, it's salient in their minds, for instance, people who have had cancer, lost a child, or are struggling with long covid.

The collective reaction to this pandemic worries me because what it centrally involves is a denial of vulnerability. We've doubled down into denying that we're vulnerable. After World War II, many social institutions came into being because our vulnerability became so salient. Our vulnerability to political manipulation, to death by violence, to disability and sickness. Now, we have done the opposite and have set up our societies to become collectively weakened and to fail. We've become these immutable bastions of invulnerability, these isolated islands, who cannot find recourse when life will, inevitably and sooner or later, hit us and shatter that illusion.