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When we think of vulnerability, we normally think of it in terms of weakness. Afterall, if you are vulnerable, you are by definition susceptible to harm or damage from some threat. That threat can take various forms, including military attack, disease, emotional hurt, and crime, to name just a few.

But strange as it may seem, vulnerability also has a positive side to it — one that gives it a great deal of power. Vulnerability can be an asset for those who have the courage and virtue to wield it properly. In this post, I will discuss two contexts where vulnerability can be a strength – love and conflict.

One of the most important ways that we can attract love is by making ourselves vulnerable to the other person. For example, by sharing personal information – particularly that which might cause us embarrassment or which we might otherwise wish to conceal – we invite in the other person’s affection and love. There are a number of reasons for this. The eminent psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm has addressed this notion in his book The Art of Loving, wherein he writes that in order to be loved by someone, we must be known to them. And likewise, in order to truly love someone, we must know them. Knowing someone in this context requires that the person to be loved be open about who they are, which in turn requires the sharing of intimate information. In the case of someone who withholds such information, they are peddling a false or incomplete portrait of themselves, and so the other person is directing their affections at nothing more than a straw man.

The voluntary donning of vulnerability through openness towards another person about personal matters has another effect in the area of love. By making oneself vulnerable in this manner, you show that you are willing to give the other person power over you, leaving that person to conclude that you trust them. Making yourself vulnerable to the other person in this way can be a gift more potent than any piece of jewelry or fancy dinner could be.

Vulnerability makes one more attractive to another in yet a third way. By making oneself vulnerable, a person makes themselves appear more confident. Afterall, it takes courage to open oneself up to another, as there is a risk that any such information will cause the other person to think less of them or to use the information against them. The willingness to take on such a risk requires confidence that the person disclosing the information can withstand any negative ramifications of the information’s disclosure.

In a conflictual situation, vulnerability can also be a powerful asset. On the battlefield, for example, if you are willing to intentionally show vulnerability to your adversary, you are showing them that you do not intend them any harm. Of course, this can be a dangerous game to play if your adversary chooses to exploit the vulnerability you have shown them, instead of reciprocating and offering its own signal of non-hostile intent.

I was introduced to this use of vulnerability by watching episodes of Star Trek when I was younger. In a typical episode demonstrating it, the Enterprise might find itself in a dangerous situation with one of the Federation’s adversaries (such as the Romulans) and wanted to signal to them that they had no hostile intent. So, the Enterprise would lower its shields as it entered the scene, enabling the adversary to easily destroy the Enterprise if they so wished. As noted above, this was obviously a risky strategy, but it always worked, and when the confrontation was over, everyone would go home unharmed.

Of course, the Enterprise could use also use this method in a more devious manner. In this alternative approach, the Enterprise lowers its shields to lure their adversary in by making them think that the Enterprise was disabled. Once the adversary was close enough, the Enterprise “turns the lights back on,” surprises the adversary, and opens fire. As an act of subterfuge, this tactic can only be used but once with a particular adversary, as it is very doubtful that they would fall for it a second time. As someone who has dedicated most of his career to the pursuit of peace, I prefer the former use of vulnerability to this more duplicitous approach – and the use of it in love above all other uses.