Ryan Adams and the Power of Vulnerability
Or how we become alive.
“It’s so hard to be without you,
Everyday I find another little thread of silver
Waiting for me when I wake some place on the pillow,
And then I see the empty space beside me and remember.
I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn.
Nothing really matters anymore.”
Ryan Adams just released Prisoner, a powerful display of vulnerability chronicling the public separation from his ex-wife, Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore).
Breakup albums aren’t new. They often saunter along to the tune of “I’m fine, I don’t need you anymore.”
Prisoner is not that album. Prisoner chronicles every part of romantic separation: leftover love, loss, regret, remembering good times, remember bad times, what’s next. It’s all there.
Take this morsel from “We Disappear”:
“Was I alone, am I still?
Nobody gets in, nobody ever will.
You deserve a future and you know I’ll never change.”
Or this from “Shiver and Shake”:
“I close my eyes, I see you with some guy
Laughing like you never even knew I was alive”
Maybe this snippet form “Doomsday”:
“My love, we can do better than this
My love, how can you complicate a kiss?
My love, you said you’d love me now ’til doomsday comes.”
This exhibition of vulnerability doesn’t just make for good art — it’s an important function of how we live.
Vulnerability’s utility as a mode of living is understood by Adams. In an interview from earlier this year, he says of Prisoner’s songs:
“There’s something to be said for taking all that negativity and confusion and deciding: this is fuel, and I can burn this and make this into something, and the act of doing that is joyous. I can sing the saddest song with a bunch of people, and the feeling of sharing that energy activates in a way that either heals it or makes me feel like I’ve risen a thousand miles above it into space and I’m staring down on it as a little dot…it changes it dramatically and I really like that.”
Here, Adams is scratching the surface of something Madeleine L’Engle said plainly.
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
The most important word in L’Engle’s quote is “alive.” It is used here not as death’s converse, but rather as a more fulfilling version of the life we already have.
L’Engle’s meaning of “alive” indicates a lack of burden. One is free to live as they please once they rid themselves of personal encumbrances and insecurities. Those encumbrances and insecurities flee once they are honestly and willfully acknowledged. The weight of the internalized, often self-imposed troubles keeps us from being alive — truly living.
The catharsis of vulnerability is powerful. By pulling back the roots and undergrowth of our own perceived weaknesses, bearing them without defense, we garner strength.
That strength, that spiritual gusto, is the product of having nothing to hide and realizing you’re okay. In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho puts it plainly:
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”
Coelho is right. We often fear the idea of suffering more than the actual suffering. Likewise, the fear of being made vulnerable is worse than actually being vulnerable. There is a great fear within us that is poked, prodded, and stirred awake at the onset of questions like “What will they think when I tell them?” or “Will I sound crazy?” These questions are more turbulent than their answer, and they deter us from honestly evaluating what we fear to share.
What is often forgotten is the release, confidence, and relief that come with becoming vulnerable.
If being alive is hindered by internal burden, how can burden remain when one makes themselves vulnerable? The unspoken, unwanted anchors that hold us down can be eradicated by letting them be seen.
It is by opening up, be it with a friend, roommate, or family member, that we remove the weighty impediment of our burdens and become — as L’Engle describes — alive. With nothing unknown holding us down, we are free to set our sights on loftier goals and live a full life.
Brene Brown, a social scientist, said the following in her now famous TED talk. It serves as an ample parting word on the power of vulnerability.
“This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen …to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, ‘Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?’ just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, ‘I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.’ And the last [point], which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, ‘I’m enough’ … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
Adams sees that vulnerability is not just a powerful artistic device. It is also a powerful, meaningful, and purposeful way to truly live.
The last verse of the album contains its ethos. Fittingly, it acts as a summation of the entire album, as well as this entire article.
“[I] wish I could explain, but it hurts to breathe.
Didn’t fit in my chest, so I wore it on my sleeve.”