In youth and age vulnerability is obviously more apparent. They are times we might be unable to defend ourselves physically or psychologically from things we encounter, things that leave their mark. Times we’re much more reliant on those who happen to be around us. But maybe we’re always vulnerable – in our past, present, or some future moment – simply as part of being human?
That could be framed in terms of mortality: how physical existence is inherently precarious, susceptible as we are to illness or accident; but also those social, personal and interpersonal realities that can affect us deeply at any point in our lives.
Every stage of life presents us with differing needs and risks. In youth we’re so dependent on environment, on ideas and people we encounter; experiences which have power to shape us for life. Then, our strengths, weaknesses or wounds can become compounded by paths we take into adulthood: our relationships, patterns of behaviour, inner stability or worth. So much in life builds on what’s gone before.
So it could be reasoned we’re always, in a way, vulnerable. It seems many, if not most, people have areas of physical or psychological insecurity that could be exacerbated or shored up during the course of a lifetime. Much as we might like to insure against or push it from our minds, we all have that impactful past and live in anticipation of a more dependent future.
In many ways, our relationship with the world is slightly tenuous: we need to form social, emotional and practical ties within our environment to meet our needs for shelter, psychological security, and so forth. Our ability to understand how to do so – to recognise both our strength and vulnerability – might be the territory of education, therapy, or social networks.
In that light, how should we act? How should we treat others, and ourselves? Knowing we’ve all been influenced by the past and may bear some wounds as a result; knowing we can all be hurt now, by ourselves or by others; knowing that everyone’s just as vulnerable, much as we might seek to cover it up (Notes One). How we relate to others and deal with all that’s making its way into society are fascinating, if confronting, questions.
Because, arguably, dealing with vulnerability is the foundation of law, regulation and human rights: all the ways we expect and rely on such principles to underpin our shared existence by keeping everyone safe, ensuring that practices or people who pose a risk are ‘controlled’ somehow, and hopefully spreading social values that sustain ‘good’ ways of living alongside one another (Notes Two).
Dealing with human nature presumably comes down as much to relationships and attitudes as it does to social systems we may all turn to when needs arise. At times, we all need different levels of support, consideration or care. But the extent we may be able to contribute to the security, stability and strength of society through everyday actions might also be worth considering.
Notes and References:
Parallel to this, some of Emerson’s thoughts around what it is to be human were explored in The idea of self reliance.