This past week, all of Austin was mandated to boil our drinking and cooking water. City officials said the drinking water had gotten muddied and potentially contaminated. So, like everybody else in town, I sighed more than necessary and got out my largest pot every evening and boiled water for at least 3 minutes to purify it. It was a teeny bit of a chore, but minor hiccups to my relatively easy life can teach me so much. So I started paying attention to the way a pot boils.
Have you noticed when you boil water on the stove, that at about minute 10, just before the water turns to a boil, things get louder in that pot. The heat has risen and a change must occur. The tension has mounted. The bottom of the pot is covered with tiny bubbles that are ready to burst toward the surface of the water. This is the moment right before the boiling point.
And as I observed this thing called the boiling point, I thought about how hard it is to finally ask people for help. It’s so difficult to be vulnerable about the areas of our lives where we’re most prideful. It’s really only at our boiling point that we finally break down and say, “I’m all out of choices. I need help.” It’s an amazing juncture actually. All kinds of miracles, like laughing fairies, scatter into the world when we reach toward a neighbor, a friend, a family member, and say, “I’m terrified, but I’m going to be vulnerable about my needs.” When the heat in life turns up, we often come to our boiling point of vulnerability.
Two weeks ago an acquaintance of mine stopped me at the YMCA. I was immersed in an old Friends episode on my phone (not even close to getting up to exercise). “Hi Jess. Can I talk to you for a minute?”
I looked up. All over this women’s expression was that tangle of embarrassment, exhaustion and tension. My stomach did a little flip. I’ve looked like that before. “Sure, of course.”
And then she said what we all know is so hard to say. “I’m not doing too well.” She rubbed her eyes, tears welling up. “Could I come over to your house and talk? I think I’d like to talk to you and B. Sterling. I feel like I should ask the two of your for advice and help.”
This woman had reached her boiling point. That place where the heat of life can work in your favor because it forces you to be vulnerable about your needs with a few key people.
Of course I answered yes. And she and her kids came over. I served us all a C+ dinner and then as our kids played and fought and interrupted, she poured out her story. As she talked, her posture shifted. She had started out hunched and closed and then with every detail of truth about her pain she opened… became unimpeded, unfurled like a flag. B and I aren’t saints, and she didn’t have to, but she confessed a whole mess of mistakes she’s made. Financial mistakes, relationship mistakes, parenting mistakes. The kind of mistakes you don’t laugh about or tout on social media. She didn’t excuse them or try to blame. She simply said them in a small but brave, vulnerable voice. And when she was finished talking, her whole body breathed deeply.
As I listened to her get really honest, I thought about several things. First, that she could have made a really different choice that day at the YMCA when she hit her boiling point and then asked to talk to me. The news headlines are plastered with suicide reports because people hit their boiling point and don’t reach out for help. They don’t know who to reach for or can’t summon the courage to do it. Pride, shame or illness truncate their efforts. She could have drowned her sorrows in addiction and distraction. But instead, at her boiling point she made a messy, beautiful lunge toward vulnerability. Our modern guru on vulnerability, Brene Brown sums it all up best, “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 what you’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.”
Everybody has a network of people. And since that evening in our living room, B. Sterling and I have been able to help this woman by connecting her with others in our circles and their resources. It’s like an assembly line. If everyone carries the burden for a small amount of time, we can do so much good work together. And I’ve watched her changing, walking a little taller, getting stronger as the shame gets exposed to the light.
Water boils at 212 degrees F. And once it’s boiled it doesn’t look any different. But for humanity, endowed with the hand-print of a loving God, reaching out at our boiling point can begin the most radiant thing you’ll ever see: transformation.