I've been a fan of Brene Brown for a long time. She talks and writes a lot about vulnerability and how you show up in your life. I keep this in mind when I'm doing my job and interacting with family and friends. But I had not understood the true power of vulnerability until August 27.
I was facilitating a discussion group at the library where I work. The event was a community conversation, where people had the opportunity to join a discussion group and talk about their lives and aspirations for the community. Each group had seven people in it. My job was to guide the discussion and pose questions, ensuring that everyone who wanted to speak had the chance to do so. The idea behind the program was that when we share our stories we develop understanding and empathy for each other.
The stories I heard were stories of faith and service; of hope and love; of fear and escape. Everyone had spoken except Kyle, a tall slender man in his early forties with salt and pepper hair.
We were talking about injustices in life and I asked him if there was anything he wanted to share. There was a long silence and then he began to speak. His voice was so low that everyone leaned forward to hear him. He didn't look at anyone, just stared at the center of the table.
I've done my best to capture what he said here, but I don't do justice to its impact.
"I was on the 'spectrum' in grade school, although they didn't call it that then. I was considered slow and retarded. That's what the teachers called me, even in front of the other kids. I was bullied for as long as I can remember for being different. You don't think teachers would do that, but they did. I was so miserable and unhappy that my parents took me out of the school and put me in a private school for high school.
"But the damage was done. I felt I was worthless, that's what everyone told me and that's what I believed. When I finished high school - barely - I went to a community college, but I dropped out after one year. I had trouble studying and learning.
"About six years ago 100 scholarships were being given out at a local four-year college, where you could get a tuition-free degree in business administration. My wife convinced me to apply and I was the 26th person accepted.
"I wish things had been different for me when I was growing up, but having gone through the bullying, it made me understand how important it is to be kind to everyone."
No one spoke when Kyle finished. We had had a lively conversation going before he shared his story, but now we were stunned into silence by his story.
I thanked him for sharing his story, while he looked like he wanted to disappear. I wished I had told him that it takes enormous courage to willingly share the most fragile parts of yourself with strangers. Most of us play it safe; we only want to present our best selves to the world. I am forever grateful to have heard Kyle's story.
I will leave you with another quote from Brene: Everyone has a story that will break your heart. And, if you're really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees.