On being ... vulnerable

by Ingrid Sapona

The past couple weeks I’ve come across two examples of people dealing with emotional vulnerability. The scenarios were very different, but both caught me by surprise and had me thinking about ways of behaving when feeling vulnerable. 

The first was a discussion I had with my friend Tina (not her real name). Tina’s been going out with Sean (not his real name) for a few years. Sean seems nice and they seem like a good couple. Anyway, I was asking her how it’s going and she basically said, “it’s fine”. Tina’s eloquent and has a good vocabulary, so an anodyne “fine” clearly required exploration. So, I asked a few, more direct questions about the relationship. 

When I asked her if he says he loves her, she immediately said, “Oh no.” I was surprised, so I asked her if she ever told him she loves him. Without skipping a beat she said, “Yes, once.” When I asked how that landed, she said it got no reaction really. My ineloquent “Oh” in response prompted her to quickly add, “I’ll never go there again!” 

In discussing why she feels that way, it became clear that though she was brave enough to say it once, she thinks that by refusing to say it again she’ll spare herself humiliation on top of the pain she felt from the non-response response. I understand that, but her refusal to be vulnerable again increases the likelihood Sean will never risk bearing his heart to her. And that, of course, will only compound Tina’s heartbreak. I felt sad that she seems emotionally stuck, but for the time being, it seemed best to change topics, so we did. 

The other instance of emotional vulnerability revolves around the resignation of Toronto’s mayor, John Tory. For those who may not have heard the story, here are the basic facts surrounding the resignation: On Feb. 10th the mayor called an unexpected evening press conference to “update Torontonians on a difficult personal matter”. 

He then explained, “I developed a relationship with an employee of my office in a way that did not meet the standards to which I hold himself to as mayor and as a family man.” He said he recognized that permitting the relationship to develop was a serious error in judgment on his part and, as a result, he was stepping down. 

He said he deeply regrets having to step away from a job he loves in a city he loves, but he believes in his heart it is best to fully commit himself to the work required to repair his family relationships. He also apologized “unreservedly to the people of Toronto and to all those hurt by his actions”, including his staff, colleagues on city council, and the public service for whom he has such respect. 

And, to round out the story, here are a few other facts some have found relevant: Tory is 68 and has been married to his wife for over 44 years. The affair with the younger woman (she’s now 31) began when they worked together on Covid-related matters and ended earlier this year. 

Apparently, sometime in December The Star got a tip that Tory’s marriage was in trouble. Then, in February they learned Tory was seeing someone who was much younger. About that time word then got back to Tory that reporters were asking questions about it. The hasty Friday evening press conference was called after The Star notified Tory that it planned on running the story that evening. So, though the resignation came out of left field for Torontonians, subsequent Star articles revealed that since early February Tory had been discussing with many – including his wife – whether resignation was the right course of action. 

Naturally, there’s been a great deal of public and private discussions swirling around Tory’s actions and decisions. Some are keen to focus on the politics, others on the ethics, and still other on the moral issues. I have my own views in each of these realms, but what I’ve been most struck by has been Tory’s demeanor. He’s an excellent speaker and has always come across to me as measured and thoughtful. Indeed, his apology to Torontonians and to all those hurt by his actions seemed genuine and painstaking – not at all of the “sorry that I got caught” variety. But, however heartfelt the apology came across when he announced his resignation, it was his comments on his last day that made me appreciate the dignity of owning one’s own vulnerability. 

During the prepared remarks he talked about all the interesting jobs he’s had (lawyer, corporate executive, broadcaster, and commissioner of a professional sports league, among other things) but he thinks being the mayor of Toronto was the best job anyone could have. And he said, in quite plain terms, that it breaks his heart to leave the post, though he thinks it’s the right thing to do. He also noted that while he realizes that the circumstances that led to his resignation will “be among the things he will be remembered for”, he hoped that his other accomplishments will also be spoken of. 

I don’t think there’s one right way to behave when feeling emotionally vulnerable. I think to be human is to sometimes feel vulnerable. The question is, how do you react? I think Tina’s reaction was common: put up a wall of indifference in hopes that no one notices the hurt. Tory, however, showed it’s possible to manage vulnerability – and maintain dignity – by owning your feelings and shortcomings. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona 


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