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Open arms

February 23, 2024

Ada Potter

When I was in high school, my rowing coach told me I needed to be more vulnerable. That was the last criticism I expected to hear. I valued vulnerability. I knew that opening up to people was how friendships were formed. I took theater classes where I practiced getting outside of my comfort zone, making a fool of myself, prolonging eye contact and expressing raw emotions. I wanted so badly to be vulnerable. But, no matter how hard I tried, I was not opening up the “right” way.

Desperate to “be vulnerable,” I experimented with oversharing. Once, on a date, I found myself, completely unprompted, asking “Do you ever talk to yourself?” and going on to share my most interior thoughts and conversations with myself. My oversharing was received with confusion. Why was I sharing this? Why now? With the help of a joke, the conversation moved on. In hindsight, I can say that was not the kind of vulnerability that builds relationships. But at the time, I thought that turning myself inside out was how to be vulnerable. It is not.

For some guidance on healthy, effective vulnerability, I turn to the plant kingdom. The vast majority (70-90 percent) of plant species open themselves up to relationships with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. The plants invite the fungi to grow into their roots, where the two organisms can exchange resources. These plants and fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship: The plant gives the fungus carbon from the air, and the fungus gives the plant phosphorus from the soil. This phenomenon is called endosymbiosis, because there is an intimate relationship between these two species (symbiosis) and because the fungi penetrate all the way into (endo-) the root cells. This endosymbiotic relationship allows plants to thrive in soils where they otherwise could not. In order to develop this relationship, the plants need to be vulnerable. So, how do they do it?

Symbiotic relationships are successful because thepartners compartmentalize: They draw boundaries. Rather than turning themselves inside out, and giving their partner free reign, successful partners keep some of themselves to themselves—they do not overshare. In their relationships with AM fungi, plants only invite the fungi into their root cortex cells. Through root cortex cells opened up for collaboration, a plant can trade carbon and phosphorus with its partner. The needs of the relationship determine how much the plant opens up.

The plant is not avoiding vulnerability. On the contrary, the endosymbiotic relationship with AM fungi is a radically trusting one. Allowing fungal hyphae to reach, like fingers, into the inside of the plant root cells is a more intimate move than many symbiotic partners take. Still, the plant maintains sovereignty over its core, even as it opens up.

Sovereignty is important for vulnerability among people too. Social scientist Dr. Brené Brown urges us to be more vulnerable to treat “America’s crisis of disconnection.” But she encourages vulnerability with a “strong back, soft front” approach, previously described by anthropologist Roshi Joan Halifax. In her metaphor, having a “strong back” means having confidence in oneself and not being unduly influenced by what other people think. In essence, having a “strong back” means having self-sovereignty. Halifax tells us that “If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open.” How do we strengthen our backs? If we get better at setting, holding and respecting boundaries, we will gain a stronger “back.”

A plant persists in relationships with fungi thanks to its boundaries and its self-sovereignty. The plant holds the fungus accountable to giving it phosphorus in exchange for the carbon it provides. The plant continues to photosynthesize and reproduce—staying true to its evolutionary goals. In this way, the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the fungus is maintained and stabilized. If the plant did not set boundaries, if it allowed its fungal partner to penetrate its every cell and make its decisions, there would be no relationship. Then there would only be fungus. Fungus and dead plant material.

Reflecting back on my high school years, I think I could not effectively be vulnerable because I did not yet have the “strong back” of self-sovereignty. I did not know who I was and what I wanted. Instead, I let my actions be determined by a need for social approval. I turned myself inside out, so that every part of me could be seen and approved of. But turning oneself inside out is not the strong vulnerability that I wanted so badly.

I have learned, instead, to hold my core steady and extend an open palm, or my open arms, as much as I need to to invite a handshake or a hug—a hug that I am only able to offer because my back holds itself up.


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