‘(Venetian glass) is fragile and easily harmed as the consequence of its search for transparency and refinement and its desire to welcome sunlight and candle light into its depths. Glass can achieve wonderful effects but the necessary price is fragility. (…) It is the duty of civilisation to allow the more delicate forms of human activity to thrive; to create environments where it is alright to be fragile. And we know, really, that it is not glass which most needs this care; it is ourselves.’
Alain de Botton
I remember watching some B-grade Western on midday TV, when one of the cowboys said about his friend,
‘He faints at the sight of blood like a woman.’
If a woman really fainted at the first sight of blood, she’d be in a lot of trouble every month. Cultures have always struggled with the balance between toughness and delicacy – who is allowed to express what, in which way, to what extent. Sometimes the punishment for getting it wrong – a man who is too effeminate, a woman who is too strong – can be severe. Sometimes we choose a certain group to express our fragility for us – the young ladies in the drawing room, busying themselves with delicate embroidery, forever blushing and fainting, while the men are galloping across the fields boldly exterminating wildlife. In reality we all carry both fragility and toughness within us, and there is a lot to be said for a certain amount of toughness – we usually learn this soon enough in the kindergarten or the school playground. We may not always want to show our fragility to the whole world, but if we deny our fragility, our vulnerability, we are living a life of delusion. And this delusion can lead to scapegoating – expecting others to express fragility on our behalf; and to being hard on ourselves for simply being human.
If it is indeed the duty of civilisations to ‘allow the more delicate forms of human activity to thrive’, as Alain de Botton writes, then it is interesting to reflect where, in our current culture, we allow this to happen. What are the public spaces in which fragility is allowed and protected? We often see people portrayed as either ‘heroes’ or ‘losers’. Un-judgemental admiration for the heroes, unthinking condemnation of the losers – a lot of our public discourse runs along those lines. Yet anyone of us could find ourselves, if we were unlucky enough to end up as a media story, as either hero or loser. I remember reading about a man who risked his life to save a number of people during a severe bushfire. A few years later, he was convicted of stealing bushfire donation money from the local primary school. Our fragility is always present with us – we are heroes one day, and far from glorious the next!
Fragility, as Alain de Botton writes, is the necessary price for allowing sunlight and candlelight into our depths. Meditation allows us to open to the more tender aspects of ourselves. We can be strong, and also allow space in our life for fragility and vulnerability. We can treasure fragility, as the Venetians treasured their beautiful, delicate glass.
Weekly practice idea:
Find some quiet time, perhaps ten or twenty minutes, and reflect on fragility, its precious beauty in your life. What could be a way for you to connect with your fragility, while keeping yourself safe?