This week I had the privilege of listening to Terry Waite. In 1994, some thirty months after his release from almost five years as a hostage, most of it in solitary confinement, often chained and with no access to ordinary daylight, he wrote in the postscript to his book Taken on Trust:
It will take a long time for me to understand what was happening to my soul during those long years of silence. I hope that my continued feeling of vulnerability, developed as a result of being treated as less than a person for so long, will enable me to be of more constructive help to others who struggle. (p. 460)
These words may at first sight seem surprising. One might have thought that someone who had undergone such trying and challenging experiences, who had been confronted so cruelly and for so long with the awareness of their own frailty and susceptibility to the whims of others, would shun nothing so much as the sense of vulnerability. Would one not want to feel safe, protected, as close to invulnerable as one possibly could?
Yet Terry Waite wrote, and he referred to it too on Wednesday evening, of the importance to him of just the opposite. He didn’t speak about the value of feeling vulnerable per se, but rather of using such vulnerability to care more deeply for others. For the first time he read in public poems he’d written over the past few years, poems of great tenderness, from which it became clear that the solitary imprisonment and torture which he’d endured had not confined his heart and soul. On the contrary, their world had somehow expanded outwards to embrace concern for all vulnerable life and the experience of having no door through which he could physically pass had fashioned windows in his heart through which the needs and suffering of others could enter in many ways.
On reflection I realised that Waite’s words were reminding me of a passage from another thinker, also a minister of the church, whom I very much admired, the writer Albrecht Goes, a friend of Martin Buber and a close friend of my grandfather. Addressing a Jewish audience in Hamburg in 1962 he said
I believe we have learnt all over again what the countenance of a man who is truly able to help men looks like: It is a face from which stubbornness, cocksureness, the worshiping of success, rigidity, and a pedantic clinging to principles increasingly vanishes to give way to other, greater, realities: astonishment, the ability to be frightened, defencelessness, reverence, awe, gratitude. (Men of Dialogue, p. 270)
He was of course speaking about the legacy of fascism, but he might also have been addressing certain aspects of our society today where for many assertiveness, power and image are considered of such importance. I feel sure that Terry Waite and Albrecht Goes would have understood one another immediately.
They would both too have understood the lady who came to see me a while ago. ‘How are things going?’ I asked her. There had been many tensions in her family. ‘Much better’, she replied, ‘My life is changing’. ‘How is that happening?’ I enquired. She answered, ‘Through realising that I may be wrong.’ She continued, ‘You see, for all those years I thought I had the truth. I couldn’t see the world from the point of view of others. It’s different now; I’m beginning to understand.’
It takes great courage for a person to be vulnerable, and real love to turn that vulnerability into – love.