S1 E11: Noah benShea on the Strength of Vulnerability

Best-selling author and speaker Noah benShea sits down with Meadows Chief Creative Officer Lee Pepper to unpack why being vulnerable is often the first step toward healing yourself and healing others.

Podcast Transcript

Lee Pepper: Noah, you have been such an inspiration to a lot of people in recovery over the years that I’ve worked with you and known you, and so I wanted to start today’s conversation, talking about vulnerability. It still saddens me that so many people that reach out for help, they’re not able to follow through and I think there’s obviously stigma and shame, but I think sometimes we forget that we’re asking these people to really open up and be very vulnerable at a tough stage in their life and I wonder if you had any thoughts around how we can address and encourage people to open up and trust and be vulnerable?

Noah BenShea: Well, I think first of all in Western society, the concept of vulnerability is held as penurious or pejorative almost in itself. If we take the concept of a bow, the bow has to be vulnerable enough to bend, but when it bends, there is its strength. What doesn’t bend breaks in life. That’s the reality of things. For us to think that because we’re vulnerable, we’re weak, it’s losing the opportunity to gain our own strength.

There’s a wonderful story that when fear knocked on the door and faith answered, there was no one there, but faith is a verb. The ability to be– to understand that we live in a transformational experience. You may not know that you live in a little blue ball spinning in space at 1,000– 20 miles an hour, but has nothing to do with the truth of it. There’s no mission accomplished in this life. We’re all in a state of transformation.

There is quite a part even from addiction, there is the vulnerable terrible threes, there’s a terrible 22s, there’s a questionable 37s sevens, there are, I’m not certain, 47s, there are I’ve been there before 55s, there are, oh, my gosh, where are we going at 66 and I’ve been here too long at 77. There’s all of these states of vulnerability. The question is, what does one do with this in our lifetime?

A lot of times when we want to share strength with people, we forget that we really need to do, is have the courage to be vulnerable with them, to understand that it’s the silence between the notes that makes the music, it’s the space between the bars that holds the tiger, that vulnerability is a sign of strength just now arriving.

Lee: I think that that illustration of the bow is so appropriate and I hope you won’t mind that I’m going to use that in some articles and content because I think that’s so appropriate. It’s one of those images that probably people that are my generation and younger now, probably don’t have as much connection to that. I think that’s a great reminder. Maybe that’s something that we could use when we’re speaking with patients.

Noah: One of the things that along this– Just to speak to a second, when you think of how great religious figures, how people in different cultures meet each other, when you’ve had a successful performance, what is it you do? You bow, you bend. It’s a reflection of success. It’s a reflection of self-honoring, to bend, to witness that you bend in this lifetime. Vulnerability is courage in the making.

Lee: We hear that a lot from people that say, “Well, I want to do it myself.” For a certain segment of the population, that’s possible, but it’s also okay there to reach out for help. I think this is a great metaphor.

Noah: If you were drowning off shore, you wouldn’t hesitate to call for help. One of the realities though, and I’ve often talked about that, people in the field of helping people deal with addiction and recovery are lifeguards. When you trained as a lifeguard, you were taught that when somebody was calling for help and you went out to get them, they would be thrashing so hard or not appreciative of you being there that you had to be very guarding of yourself because you might get drowned trying to save somebody.

You can’t always be sure that somebody who’s drowning and calls for help is going to be appreciative of the help or welcoming of the help even as they experience it. Of course, there are those people that– Who are calling for help and that are 10 feet from shore and somebody will say, “You were calling for help and you were 10 feet for shore, and I threw you a five-foot rope. I was willing to meet you halfway.”

Are you willing to come out to that person? Are you willing to commit? Are you willing to make yourself vulnerable to be a lifeguard to help other people come to the other side. There is heroism, both in recognizing a need for help, and certainly heroism in those who are prepared to offer help.

Lee: And I like that description of heroism because as I wanted to bring up this whole idea of shame and stigma too because I think for a lot of people there, they don’t want to take on that mantle of being heroic but the shame and the stigma is so heavy on their shoulders that it really is heroic when they can overcome that and be vulnerable and reach out for help whether it’s for themselves or for somebody in their family.

Noah: Absolutely. I’ve heard people say to me, “I really agree with what you’re saying Noah, but I know that God never gives us more than we can carry.” I said, “Not so fast.” Sometimes life does give us more than we can bear, and it’s not our job to remind people that in addition to what they have to bear, they have to bear my expectation of what they can bear.

There’s stuff in this lifetime we’re all going to bend, we’re all going to need help at some point in our life. Let me tell you a story that speaks to this I think, in a particularly pointed way. I like watches. Consequently, I get mail about people selling watches. I get a flyer from someone that tells a story that in 18th century in France, if you’re a wealthy person in your pocket you would have two pocket watches.

The reason you had two pocket watches is because pocket watches were inclined to run down so when one ran down, you would use the other to set the first. Isn’t this like life? In this lifetime, at some point we’re all going to run down. At one point we’re all going to need to stop and be reset by somebody next to us. Now in case you want to be self-congratulatory, you’re the person that allowed the person to set themselves off of you. Remember, you too will run down.

In this life, we’re all vulnerable. We all need to have a time when we stop and bear witness to what’s going on. The ability to gain personal transformation in this life requires self-witnessing. You have to be an honest witness to yourself. When you hear in church, “I need a witness.” What that first means is we need to be a witness to ourselves, to what we’ve done, to do our own penance. Now, when we say this to people, it’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people to do because there’s so much social stigma, both social, both incarceration, social shame, what other people think about you. What will they think? What will they say?

Consequently, when there’s shame, we are hidden. When we’re hidden, we’re not honest. There’s a great quote from Oscar Wilde that, “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” If someone feels they can be anonymous, when they feel they’ve got protected, then they can come to it with honesty. From honesty you can give witness and without honesty, you cannot give witness and you are a subject to your own blindness and repeated, repeated.

This happens in a couple of ways that I want to speak just for a moment in response to your question. A lot of times when I’ve been asked to come and speak with people dealing with addiction, I’ve heard people say, “I’m such a failure, I’ve disappointed my parents, my wife hates me. I know I let my kids down. I just mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. and they can’t–“

I said, “Wait a second. Don’t confuse self-abuse, with self-accountability. When you’re in self-abuse of, when you diminish yourself, then you doubt what you can do and you won’t be able to do anything.” Tell a child they’re a fool for long enough, you’ll be a prophet. When you’re doing self-flagellation, you think you’ve done something. You’ve had some kind of cathartic release but you’ve done nothing other than to make yourself less and for less you won’t be able to make yourself more.

This does not excuse yourself from self-accountability. It’s not about self-abuse, it’s about self-accountability, and that’s the situation. The other part of this which is so sadly traumatic is that in a huge percent of the population that finds themselves subject to addictions, spousal abuse, child abuse, any of these things, it is passed inter-generationally.

What that means is that you oftentimes come from a family where there’s dysfunction in this regard and you have to bear honest witness to that. A lot of times, people say, “I don’t want to say something negative about my father.” I said, “This is the same thing. You don’t have to be abusive of your father. You just have to be accountable and the reason you have to be accountable is because if you don’t change, if you don’t self-witness what’s going on then that is the legacy you’re leaving your children.”

Sometimes people will look at me and they’ll go like, “You know Noah, I’d never have the courage to do this for myself but when you put it that way, I have the courage to do it for my children.” They say a politician is somebody who thinks of the election, a leader is someone who thinks of the next generation. It’s about that, about being self-witnessing, being self-witnessing to those who came before you in order that you’re not obligatorily assigning the people who come after you to the sadness that you’ve relegated your own life to.

Lee: Noah, you have a quote and I’m not going to do it justice but when I describe it, you’ll know what I’m talking about that where do stars live?

Noah: I’m from a blue collar family. When I was raised, you could say something with insight but you better pretty brief about it. The shorthand is where do stars live? In the dark.

Lee: Yes, I love that quote and I think when I’ve said it to people struggling, I think that a light, a star, almost pops on.

Noah: The shared humanity of this, that every star we see that’s in the dark, if that star could see back in us, we’re surrounded by the darkness. When they asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the David, he said, “All I did was chip away the parts that didn’t belong.” Michelangelo had to chip away the blindness. They have a famous statue of a winged angel and they said, “How did you carve this?”

He said, “I just set her free from the marble.” In order to see the truth, we just have to have the courage to see our blindness. To hear the truth, we only have to listen to our deafness. To know the truth, we only have to understand our ignorance. If we come prepared to witness our blindness, our deafness, our ignorance, then we’re already on the road to healing.

Lee: Noah, I wanted to just thank you for your words of wisdom and I also wanted to ask you, what are you reading these days? Because I always love to peel back the layers, get inside your brain a little bit. What is inspiring you right now?

Noah: The word inspire means, from the Latin, to be filled with breath. In the Book of Genesis, when the first person is created, it’s that God – in the Book of Genesis taken by Muslims and Jews as well as Christian – blew into the red earth. The word is Edom, it’s red. The name Adam comes from that. The first person that was born with the breath of God but how long can you hold your breath?

The only way you can take a breath is if you release your breath. In order for Adam to take a breath, he had to release his breath. When he released his breath, which was the breath of being inspired by the divine, by what is holy and sacred and cosmic and everything in your life, however you come to do it, you see it, then it was passed to the next person and the next person and the next person.

While we think of conspiring as penurious or pejorative and planning something negative together, it too from the Latin means we’re breathing together. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention and bear witness myself that when I am in the company of others, when I am conspiring with others, breathing together, that I am in a state of gratitude because in their breathing out, I was allowed to breathe in the divine breath, the first breath, and I too am responsible for honoring each breath I take by knowing it is a borrowed breath that we are lent.

In my case, I’ve been lent to try and lend words and insight so that I can be a source of strength to others and that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what I’m trying to remind myself and be. I used to say that I was sending myself telegrams and I looked around and nobody understood what that meant so I said, it means I’m sending myself. Those are the texts I’m sending myself to remind myself to really cherish the company of those around me.

When I meet somebody who is in a state of suffering or in a state of loss, a state of confusion, I say this too is my brother, my sister. That we all bleed is the shared brotherhood and sisterhood of this reality. In this lifetime, no one knows what you’re thinking. Your thoughts are particularly– You’re in your own private world but when you recognize that, then you realize that every other person is in their own private world with their own private torments, their own private demons.

When you understand that, then what allows you to bear witness to your privacy, allows you to be empathetic to the company of those around you and even if you’re a scientist, you’d understand that it used to be if we to sit here and having this conversation, people would say like, “What is the space between you and Lee?” I’d say, “There’s no space between Lee and me.” What do you mean there’s no space? I said, “You’re seeing with blind eyes. If you could see with microscopic eyes, you would see anatomically that this area’s filled with atoms of air and this that are cross-connected. It isn’t like air is painted on top of my skin. It’s interacting with each other.”

Even as we know it sub-atomically, we’re all interacting with each other. Only caught in our own blindness because we can’t bear witness to it. If you want to know how this works, you watch a movie. A movie is a series of stills happening at a speed that is set to your eyes. If you saw any faster, would go like, “There’s a still life, and there’s a still life and there’s a still life.”

If you saw any slower, it would all be a blur. So much what we see in life is tied in to our own blindness. If you look at an electric light when Edison did it, it’s a bridge between two points. Between those two points, there’s no light but the light that you see is tied to our ability to see light. What’s incredibly important is for people who are dealing with addiction, recovery, however we have the weakness in our life to know it may be your hyper personal experience and you may feel that you’re alone and we are all alone but we’re all alone together.

Lee: Tell me a little bit if you can Noah, about some of the work you were doing at some of the medical schools. I think in particular, you were doing some work out on the West Coast. I wonder just based on those recent comments, that that must have played an important role in how you dealt with the medical community in trying to, I don’t want to say improve but to communicate differently?

Noah: Some people reached out to me. I was a visiting Professor of Philosophy at UC San Francisco Medical School. I was asked to be a resident philosopher for the Department of Internal Medicine at Cottage Healthcare System and people asked if they could take thoughts of mine and put them on every patient’s tray in the Cottage Healthcare System with a notion on the patient’s side that when people felt emotionally affirmed and more comfortable with themselves, they got better faster. What a surprise that is.

At the medical schools into the department of internal medicine, there’s a lot in medicine where doctors move from being very bright– Young people move from being very bright students to shamans without passing through life experience. You have a lot of people that haven’t really– They’re not quite sure how do you in fact relate to each other. In those circumstances, oftentimes people retreat to science.

There was a wonderful physician up there in palliative medicine who is just brilliant and he said to these young– He had asked me to come on. He said, “When you go to see a patient, don’t just do something, sit there.” What we know is the sheer presence of a person next to a person, the sheer visceral tangential moment when you’re next to someone reminds people that they’re not alone and out of the alone of that experience, there is stress and out of stress, there is not healing.

The other line that I came away with and they asked me to speak to was no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. This was the role of caring, presence, listening, acknowledging shared humanity, acknowledging shared vulnerabilities and out of that comes a healing that isn’t microscopic, comes a healing that is not a surgical conclusion.

This was not to replace any of those things, it’s just why not put– You asked what image of the bow before. Why not put another arrow in every physician’s quiver? In addition to being you understand this and this and this and everything is polysyllabic and in Latin and that’s it. How about having with company of being able to sit there and the presence of someone and let them know that you’re feeling for them.

Lee: I think Noah, one of the very first times that I went to an alcohol and drug recovery center, it was in Memphis. I was there in detox. I was talking with the duty nurse and there was a young woman who had just been admitted and she was obviously having a difficult time early on in detox and one of the other nurses just came over and just sat with her and put her arm around her.

It was a very touching moment because there was nothing else that could be done medically, she was already going through a medically assisted detox. What she needed was that human compassion and companionship too that she’s not alone in that moment and I think the work that you were doing there was really important and I hope that that’s something that is going on still today where we’re not forgetting that element.

Noah: I think it’s through the right people trying to share some information about this, some carrying information and docs like Sam Weinstein. I remember hearing you talking and having interview with Sam and talking about an experience where they had come to everything they could do.

Lee: That was a great story. I do remember hearing that.

Noah: Because I asked him, what was a transformative moment in his life? He talked about a physician that he’d studied with who allowed him that moment when there was nothing to do but to put your arm around someone and just say, “I’m here for you.” It didn’t even require putting– There was nothing like an arm around the shoulder. It was just the visceral presence in each other’s life.

If you want to know, does this work? If you wonder when people can cut you off emotionally, if you been in a relationship or married and you come home and you can sense something with your wife is going on and you say, “What’s wrong?” She says nothing, right? Well, you know you’re in for a long nothing. The idea is that what isn’t said between people is also heard.

The idea of that presence and that was a very early experience that Dr. Weinstein – Dr. Sam as I called him in the conversation – related to and I think when there’s things like that happen and they distinguish you in both in your education and your experience and your ability to be a healer, it’s worth reminding a lot of people out there who still hope to be great docs. That really requires them to be really good people.

Lee: I remember and to give a plug I guess to that podcast that was on the Scrubbing In a podcast, but Dr. Weinstein, what I took away from listening to that Noah, was there’s this moment when there’s nothing else to be done, but there really is more to be done. He and his mentor were in connection with that and they knew that there might be nothing else to be done at that moment say, clinically or medically but that’s not to say that there’s a lot more to be done. I think by him–

Noah: Exactly. Just on that point in Western society, we tend to think that if you’re not doing something, you’re not doing something. When someone said that, they say, “What does that mean?” I said, “Let me give you an example of what that might mean.” I said, “A woman is six months pregnant. She’s sitting on the couch by herself. If you look at that woman sitting on the couch by herself at six months pregnant, and you say, “She’s not doing anything.”

Really? She’s six months pregnant and you’re telling me that because you can’t see anything that she’s doing nothing? That she’s supporting another life, that she’s nurturing another life. In this lifetime, we have to understand that don’t confuse that doing something necessarily means you’re doing something because sometimes in life, the fastest way to get where you’re going is to put your foot on the brake, not the gas.

Sometimes the faster you go in life, the sooner life is a blur. The Japanese have a great proverb that says, when you’re in a hurry, go slowly. Just again, don’t confuse doing and being. Don’t confuse that.

David Condos: Noah BenShea is a poet, philosopher, and author whose words of wisdom had been featured all over the globe from Starbucks coffee cups to speeches at the Library of Congress. You can find out more about what he’s up to at www.noahbenshea.com.

To check out more episodes of this podcast and find all kinds of other resources and tools from Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, visit www.beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening and I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.