The Freedom in Vulnerability

By Mary Ellen Ostrowski 

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable/ It means to show up and be seen/ to ask for what you need/to talk about how you’re feeling/to have hard conversations.”- Brene Brown

Lately, I have been thinking about the idea of vulnerability frequently. In the VVC program, it is something we talk about often, particularly in the context of the formation of community. This program calls us to give of ourselves in many ways, not only to our neighbors in need but to each other.

One of the best and most challenging parts of my role at St. Vincent de Paul as a Patient Advocate is hearing stories from the patients I have the privilege of serving. I am continually overwhelmed by the honesty of the clients. We live in a society where it is considered rude to ask someone how much money they make, and where talking about personal or financial hardships can be uncomfortable. However, in my work, neighbors are so forthcoming with their stories, even when they could feel embarrassed or humiliated that they are in a place where they need to ask for assistance. I don’t know if I would have the strength to be as vulnerable as they are to me, most of them with a kind word to say, a smile on their face, and a grateful heart.

Vulnerability also extends way past finances. Many neighbors share stories of their struggles with family, with stable employment, and with being stuck in a cycle of poverty. I am amazed at my clients’ willingness to share their struggle with me, someone they just met. I am a very private and guarded person, and many times I like to put a smile on my face and act as if everything is fine, even if it’s not the reality. My clients challenge me to be more vulnerable with my hopes and dreams, as well as struggles with my family, friends, and community members this year through VVC as well as with neighbors.

Even the task of coming to St. Vincent de Paul requires an attitude of vulnerability, especially in our culture which glorifies autonomy. We live in a world in which it reciprocation of good deeds is expected. If I buy dinner for a friend, they will pick up the tab the next time we go out. If a neighbor shovels snow in my driveway, I will make them hot cocoa.  For most of us, myself included, it is difficult to admit that we are unable to return a favor for someone and to just smile and accept charity with a simple thank you, knowing that is all we have to give. When I am talking to a neighbor who is upset or frustrated, I try to think to myself, how would I be acting if I were unable to provide for my family? Or if I was ill because I haven’t been able to afford prescription medications? Can I really say that I would be jumping at the opportunity to receive assistance from someone? I don’t think so. I really do not like asking for help from family and friends, and like most of us, I don’t like admitting my own weaknesses.

However, there is a certain freedom in admitting you don’t have everything together. We are able to serve our neighbors in a more complete way when we understand and embrace our own weakness when we can stand in solidarity with our neighbors in their time of vulnerability. As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “…we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves.  We draw from all our experiences.  Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve.” We serve with our whole selves.  I am excited to be challenged this year in vulnerability, in opening myself to my community so we can truly know and truly love each other.

To learn more about VVC, visit

Grounded in her faith, Mary Ellen has an optimistic outlook on life. Through intentional decision making and dedication to personal prayer and reflection, Mary Ellen strives to grow as an individual on a daily basis.


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