Use The Power of Your Vulnerability — Be Clever and It’s Your Greatest Asset

Or: be more like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice

Photo by Dexter Fernandes on Unsplash

What, exactly, is vulnerability? What image does that word conjure up? Most likely, it’s someone who’s at risk, feeling weak and unable to protect themselves against attack — of any kind. To be wounded. And still recovering.

It’s a universal feeling. We can all identify (whether we care to admit it or not). We’ve all been there and in all likelihood, in some way or another still are there.

We can also all agree that being vulnerable sucks and we would do anything to try and not feel that way. It makes us feel anxious, unsure, it makes us lesser individuals.

Because we know that what you need to survive and prosper is strength.

And modern culture happily reinforces this. We hear its mantras almost daily. If you’re not strong and independent, you’re not doing life right. The world is your oyster and the only boundaries you have are the ones in your mind. You can be anything you want to be — all you need to do is believe in yourself. Live your best life.

For the record, I’m not actually doubting the veracity of those ideals. But I am doubtful that anything could ever be that simple. Life is chaotic. It’s full of ups and downs. It is, categorically, not something you can always control.

So your journey to becoming a better person isn’t an instant, eureka moment, it’s not paved with banalities and inspirational quotes that make you feel your way to a better life.

It’s a journey of discovery, failure, acceptance — and there’s bitter pills to swallow along the way.

And so, you’d better get clever. It’s the only way to make all the pain count for something.

But what sort of clever are we talking here? Obviously, not the sort of smarts you get from uni. We all know walking disasters with a degree.

It’s about being emotionally attuned. Something that takes courage.

For me, emotionally intelligent and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice are almost synonymous. Maybe not at the beginning — nowhere near as much as she thinks, anyway — but she grows into herself throughout the book. Interestingly, she masters it when she’s at her lowest. It’s the perfect blend of experience, pragmatism and reflection. And we can do a lot worse than learn from her.

Back when I was pretty much the same age as Elizabeth (i.e. not one and twenty!), she was an absolute heroine of mine. Hardly unusual — that makes me one of hundreds of thousands of readers across the world. I poured over her sass, her wit and her dignity. She was irrepressible in stifling circumstances.

And yet, despite my great love of her story, I think I missed a central, key lesson of Jane Austen’s, back then. While I identified with Lizzy’s energy and spirit when I was young (or because I was young), now I’m older, I read the book with a different eye. Nowadays, it’s more about how Elizabeth both learns from the world and adapts to it, rather than conquers it.

Yes, her gimlet eye is still there, ever observing and making “sport” of others’ follies. But now I can see that Elizabeth wasn’t just a plucky young woman who made a few errors yet came through because she was so funny and likeable. Now, I can see that those very errors — or how she handled them — shaped her life. That was her forte — and her locus of control in the end.

Because intelligence and humility make for a powerful combination.

Like most of us, Elizabeth gets things right and wrong. She’s completely on the nose when it comes to her assessments of her family, her friends and the high and the mighty that she encounters. She excels in her observational skills and knows it. Revels in them, even. But because she’s charming, it’s hard to spot that she is, in fact, more than a little bit arrogant.

And so what happens to Elizabeth, could happen to any of us. She falters when it come to matters of the heart. Because where are we ever more vulnerable? Where do we ever need certainty more but are least likely to find it?

She’s in the thrall of Wickham because he shares her humour and easy way with people. She’s utterly wrong about Darcy, because he’s standoffish and hard to read — so she lets others influence her opinion. But mostly, her mistake is that she lets her heart rule her head, while believing herself to be too canny to do.

With Darcy’s letter, of course, she learns the truth. And it’s not just the truth about his past and his character either— it’s the truth about herself too. “How humiliating is this discovery…Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind!” What Lizzy learns is that her strengths were not enough to protect her. Quite the opposite, in fact, she’s as fallible as anyone else. Those she mocked, those she judged and those she rejected; she’s more like them than she ever realised.

Till this moment, I never knew myself.” The world is not divided up between the weak and the strong, the right and the wrong. It’s a whole lot more messy than that.

You may still be thinking that a fictional, middle class, English gentleman’s daughter of the 1790s doesn’t qualify to be a vulnerable, literary character. Or are not convinced that she could be an example for us today. And I would agree were her story simply about nearly choosing bad men. (Though, to be fair, Bridget Jones got a lot of mileage from this.)

But I would argue that the very reason that she still can be so important to us is because she takes us outside of our 21st century sensibilities. Austen makes razor-sharp observations of her own time. But read from our current perspective there is a) still much to identify with and b) much there that shines a light on the sicknesses of our era.

We know that Elizabeth was bound by the lack of rights for women in her time and pressured by a constant need for propriety in her behaviour. That has an icky, asphyxiating air to someone reading Pride and Prejudice now. But in part it only feels different to how things are because of how open and explicit they were about status and hierarchy. Stepping out of line meant facing real consequences.

Whereas today? Much has improved over the years with regards to social mobility and equality. So, on the plus side, we are now free to rise up from humble origins and reach our potential. On the downside, we must take responsibility for every feeling and every decision we make, to look inwards when we need to find someone to blame. That’s a lot of pressure.

Except, evidently, we are not as free and unrestricted as we like to pretend. There is more than a whiff of bullshit to our modern attitudes.

And that’s because we’re only encouraged to see half of what’s going on. Firstly, the fact is that we are restricted and limited, and that’s reality. None of us are truly free. That may be down to poverty or prejudice. Or it may be down to your background or past traumatic experiences. Very often, it will be down to bog-standard everyday hurdles such as work, family or lack of time. Whatever it is, life is not a level playing field.

When our lives are in a slump, it’s easy to look at inspirational writing and ideas to motivate us to change. And we should. I’m not arguing against that.

But we need more to get our teeth into. ‘The sky is the limit’ is not something I can imagine making much sense in Austen’s time. It’s too insubstantial. Life is about consequences as well as dreams and we don’t usually have the luxury of forgetting that. And in our goal-driven culture, do we not forget to factor in values? To give a purpose to our lives, beyond success?

This is why there is no one size fits all perfect life in Pride and Prejudice. Everyone does things their own way, with what they have available. The characters encompass goodness and virtue and its rewards (Lizzy’s sister, Jane), down to earth common sense (Lizzy’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas), the raised-eyebrow & amused observations of Lizzy herself and Darcy’s suppressed integrity.

And all of them both gain and suffer because of these very traits. Life doesn’t necessarily follow a trajectory. In fact, it shows that the very best of our character and personality can become the very worst of us given certain circumstances.

Consequently, the most touching parts of Pride and Prejudice for me centre around humility. In order to turn the situation around, to get what they truly desire (which Lizzy has only recently even discovered), Lizzy and Darcy have to admit to being imperfect and vain. Both must apologise and, not only explain themselves to one another, but actively make amends via their actions too. They both swallow their pride as it’s the only way forwards.

As Lizzy states, sometimes, it’s only when you mess up in the areas you believe yourself to be strong in that you really know yourself. You rarely learn by being certain of anything. And it’s a hard experience to go through. You expect to fail if it’s something you’re weak at. But when you believed you were doing good, that’s when you’ll be left having to pick up the pieces, dealing with the shock.

But that’s your opportunity to save yourself from yourself. Lizzy could have fallen for a cad and missed her Darcy, but for her coming unstuck by her own judgments. Never be too sure that your goals or your dreams are exactly what you think they are. Or that they’re taking you where you need to be. Don’t be afraid to go backwards if it tests your beliefs or reveals the truth.

Characters in novels are often strong, brilliant and flawed. But to be brilliant and flawed at the same time, like Lizzy? That feels much more human to me. In reality, our strengths are not fortresses, there to protect us. They’re fragile, like us, and can be broken down. But sometimes, that’s where your story starts to get really interesting.

English. Shortish. Oldish.

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