by Tina VanSteenbergen
Sitting by the pool of my hotel on a sunny San Diego afternoon, I had plugged in for a nice long writing session. Just as I put my headphones and the Vitamin String Quartet into my ears, a man walked into the pool area. He looked at me and asked, “Is the water cold?” We chatted for a few minutes about the weather not being warm enough to necessitate a dip in the pool before we came to the all-too-familiar awkward pause of a conversation reaching its end. I picked up my buds to get back to work, right before he stuck his hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Brandon. What’s your name?”
I shook his hand and introduced myself, shamefully preparing for the standard small talk that occurs more often than not: “Where do you live? What do you do? Any fun plans for the weekend?” As it turned out, Brandon had different plans for our conversation.
He instantly apologized for disturbing me with his high energy level. With an enormous grin on his face, he shared that today was his birthday, and he was feeling excited. Not just because it was his birthday, but because today he was going to, for the first time since he was kid, spend his birthday with his dad.
Brandon told me about his father’s service in the Navy keeping them from being able to spend much time together. He told me about his recent move out to San Diego to spend more time with his now retired father, how it was a little scary to rekindle a relationship with someone he hadn’t been close to in such a long time. He talked about how he should probably be embarrassed about the joy and excitement he feels when thinking about spending his 26th birthday with his dad, but that really, he’s just enjoying feeling like a kid again. For which he, one more time, quickly apologized.
But in that moment, his high energy levels were not what caught my attention. It wasn’t his big smile or his contagious excitement. What I noticed most, what struck me about Brandon, was his fierce vulnerability.
We teach the importance of vulnerability, about its necessary presence in real human connection. But so often, the stories we share and the examples we use to teach vulnerability are of deep, emotionally vulnerable moments. A powerful conversation about loss. The sharing of a trying emotional experience with a friend. Vulnerability is often taught through the lens of sadness, of heartbreak, of hurt. I truly don’t know if I’d ever thought about it outside of those kinds of experiences.
Until I met Brandon, that is. He wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t sad. He wasn’t in need of help or comfort. He was truly, unabashedly joyful. His heart was light. He was beaming. And yes, he was vulnerable.
We ended up pulling two poolside chairs together and talking for an hour or so—about his dad, my dad, our siblings, how we were raised, falling in love, being young and single, and how ultimately, we hope we wind up with people we love and can be parents to someone else someday. It’s probably one of the more powerful, more vulnerable conversations I’ve ever had in my life. No tears, no sadness, no consoling. Just sharing our stories, and sharing our joy.
Sharing happiness with others can sometimes be even more difficult than sharing sadness. Maybe we feel guilty, or like we’re bragging. Maybe we stop ourselves from sharing our excitement in hopes of not overwhelming or scaring others (perhaps why Brandon kept apologizing for his enthusiasm). Maybe we don’t think our joy is worth sharing with others. Whatever the pause, it’s real—letting others, especially strangers, into our joyful moments is not necessarily a practice with which we’re comfortable. Probably because it requires just as much vulnerability.
But here’s what I’ve learned from Brandon today: we have to. Vulnerability is powerful—it changes the way we build relationships, the way we connect with others. We know this. But not until today did I understand the power of fiercely positive vulnerability. Neither of us cried. We didn’t discuss dark times or share deep secrets. But we did have a truly powerful conversation, one that left me feeling not only connected to someone else, but full of the joy he was brave enough to share with me.
I’ve said it many times, but today I think I really learned it: vulnerability doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be dark and sad, dramatic or intense. It can be happy. It can be filled with laughter. It can be positive. Fiercely and profoundly positive.
I tried to thank Brandon for our conversation, but I don’t think he understood how powerful an experience he created for me today. He might not remember it tomorrow of even five years from now. But I will—because on his 26th birthday, Brandon taught me the joy of vulnerability.