The Practice of Vulnerability
- The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
- What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
- Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
- Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.
That is the heart work we’re doing here.
Published: May 1, 2018
The Practice of Vulnerability: Skillsets and Soulsets for BEing Wounded
by laura brewer
I decided the single most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed. — Anne Lamott
Everything I’m about to say — from an evolutionary standpoint — is horrible advice and might get you killed. At the very least, it will lead to guaranteed heart break (most certainly yours, and likely others’), to absolute terror, to doubt, to confusion, to loneliness and despair.
It will also lead to profound connection. To unquestionable belonging. To total transformation. And to a maddening, exquisite, unquenchable love affair — with those around you, with people you’ve never met, and most important: with yourself.
This article is about the radical act of vulnerability — about willingly choosing to reveal the things about yourself that terrify and shame you, about choosing to put everything on the line for your own heart’s liberation, about learning to be a beacon of belonging, and about learning to stand for the practice of humanity.
You’ve been warned.
Vulnerability: the Art of BEing Wounded
The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility. ― Paulo Coelho
Vulnerability is one of my favorite words in the English language. The root of the word is vulnus, which means wound or to be wounded. (Reminder: this article may not be good for your physical health. It will however be critical medicine for the life of your soul, spirit, relationships, and heart.) Vulnerability then is the value, practice, and choice to be wounded — to be so open, so undefended, so you that you run the risk of heartache, disappointment, rejection, and annihilation. The wound might be caused by others, who belittle, reject, mock, or violate you for the piece of you you’ve shared that doesn’t fit into their worldview or heart. Or the wound might be caused by you. When we speak our truths — when we show up fully — feelings come along. Sometimes we break our own hearts with the pain of those feelings. Vulnerability is to allow that break — to allow the whole of the human experience, which includes feeling feelings we’d rather not feel instead of hiding them away.
So why would we do such a thing? Why would we accept the near guarantee of anguish? Why choose the possibility of being wounded? For two reasons.
First, in my experience, the anguish of denying your humanity (and the humanity of others), devaluing your worth (and the worth of others), telling yourself you’re too much or not enough (and telling that to others), and denying your heart’s wholeness and freedom … that is a far greater anguish. It happens to be the path most humans choose, ironically. It’s a set of lies most people prefer (because at least, then, they fit in). It’s the lover we settle for, because they feel predictable, simple, and safe.
The second reason we choose vulnerability is because we are a stand for love, for humanness, for wholeness, and for shared humanity.
Whenever I am working with groups for the first time, I have a practice of getting emotionally naked and inviting others to do the same.
It’s a practice I learned some years ago from my coach. I say hello to the group. And before I even introduce myself, the next words are: “what I don’t want you to know about me is…” And then I take a deep breath, get quiet, and turn inward. I find where there’s fear – real honest to God fear, and sometimes pain – and I speak it into the room. It’s a heart work practice I have, of daring myself to empty out my pockets; to put down performance; to take off my masks; and to tell the thing(s) I truly don’t want to be known by that group of people. It’s not going to confession; it’s not a tearful apology; it’s not woe-is-me. It is: this is my humanity. This is some of who I am when I have the courage to bare the most tender parts of me. This is how I reach for you, stranger, and how I let myself be seen and witnessed. Without apology. Without shame.
When I’m done, I take another deep breath and say ‘thank you.’ And then I invite participants into the same experience: “Turn — and without trying to get this ‘right’ — take a deep breath and share with the human next to you what you truly, deeply, most don’t want them to know about you. What is the thing that, if the status quo were left protected, you would actively work to hide for the next hour, the next day, the rest of the workshop, your lifetime?”
Time and again, what happens next is predictable – and mesmerizing. First, there’s awkward giggling when I start my sentence with “what I don’t want you to know about me is…” Then, after I share something raw and human, there is complete silence. Then, there’s nervous chatter when I invite and prepare the room to replicate the experience. And then, after saying “go,” there is noise. The deafening sound of emotion … intimacy … liberation. Healing happens. Courage happens. Risk happens. Pain, and suffering, and hope happen. Love gets brought to light because participants dare to speak the things they’ve worked (sometimes all their lives) to keep secret. When we speak our truths — especially the ones we work so hard to keep hidden — we are most often left with empathy, and radical connection, and a sense of belonging through our shared humanity.
That’s the second reason we choose to cultivate and practice vulnerability. To be a beacon of belonging — to act from, with, and toward the belief that there is nothing that doesn’t belong in the human experience. There is no part of you that I won’t be with, because there’s no longer any part of me I run from. I trust myself to tend to my wounds, and to love you while you tend to yours.
The Ingredients & Practice of Vulnerability
Real dishes break. That’s how you know they’re real. — Marty Rubin
Brené Brown — Jedi Master of Life — defines vulnerability this way: “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of the outcome.” That definition has become the foundation of my understanding of vulnerability and is the heart of my practice. But what’s involved in that? How do you do it? What else does the willingness to be seen require? I’d like to offer that vulnerability involves three core components:
- The willingness to be seen
- The value of discomfort
- The skill of letting go
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The willingness to be seen
Bravery is not being afraid of yourself. — Chögyam Trungpa
The willingness to be seen means: the choice to stop performing who you think you should be in exchange for raw and radical honesty about who you really are. The choice to share the softest, most real parts of you. Freely.
There are three domains of depth, in my experience, to the willingness to be seen. At the first and most core tier, you need to be willing to see yourself. The reason so many people perform aspects of who they are/think they should be is that we live in a society that has a whole lot of systems and structures which fuel the pressure to conform (gender roles, sex and sexuality norms, religious biases, a certain archetype of professionalism, a certain archetype of and preference for whiteness, certain ways of being, etc.) – and, the truth is that most people aren’t willing to face themselves. As much work as I’ve done in my life on vulnerability, authenticity, and identity development (and I’ve put in a lot of deep, inner work), I can tell you that I only faced my whole self – my entire identity, my whole humanity including all of the fears, insecurities, the fullness of my shame, all of me that I’m currently aware of – for the very first time at age 34. Two years ago. And only then because I was forced to. Up until then, I conditionally and selectively faced myself. The pieces I thought too much, too ugly, unloveable, shameful … I either tiptoed around and into them just enough so that I could say I was doing my deep inner work and not be lying, and/or – I ran far and fast the fuck away and buried the scariest stuff way underneath the ground and faced the things that felt more faceable. So, domain one – it’s the hardest, most courageous realm of work and being. Seeing, honoring, and being with your whole humanity. And it’s a prerequisite for the next two tiers – at least in their fullness.
Domain two: the willingness to see others. In their full, unscripted, imperfect humanity. To be with any/all pieces of their experience, their pain, their feelings, their identities, their preferences, their pasts, their shame, their insecurities, their strengths. Without micromanaging. Without conditions (conditions are different from boundaries). Without looking away when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable. Without selectivity about which pieces you’re OK with and which pieces you aren’t.
This means accepting each distinct piece of who they are so that you are able to see them as whole.
This is hard. It sounds nice. But it’s really fucking hard. Can you be with someone when they are in the throes of shame, or pain, or insecurity – without taking anything away from them, without changing the situation or who they are? Can you be in the full throes of their strengths and skills without judgement, without shaming them, with complete acceptance and celebration? The reason this is so fucking hard is because, in order to do that, you must first be OK with your unabridged shame, your unrestricted strength, the totality of your pain. I cannot see, let alone be with, your whole humanity until I am able to see – and be with – my own. What space can I make for you if I can’t make that space for myself? From what source do I think I can love you if I haven’t done the work to cultivate that source within myself? This shit’s hard. Welcome to vulnerability month.
The third tier of depth in the willingness to be seen is the discovery that there’s no difference between the first and second domains.
Distinctions, components, & suggestions for being seen
So how do you “be seen?” There are many micro-level beliefs, values, skills, and practices that make up the willingness to be seen (and the willingness to see others). I’ll offer several to examine:
- Practice feeling. When I was 27, I was called a “cold hearted, unfeeling bitch” by a colleague. Those are his actual words. And he was right: I was (no self-flagellation here; I say this objectively, and without shame). As a gay kid in the south, feelings got me into trouble. Feelings jeopardized my safety. So I learned to turn them off. I didn’t turn them on again, meaningfully, until 28 and it’s a daily effort still. To be seen means you must learn to feel — to hold your feelings, to hold the feelings of others, and to share your feelings which is a part of what makes our human experience human.
- Trust is a product, not a prerequisite. One of the biggest, most preventative and limiting myths out there is that we need trust before we take risks, that we need relationships first before we can reveal, that security is a prerequisite for intimacy. Bullshit. Are those things nice to have?—yes. Are they necessary?—no. In fact, when trust, relationships, familiarity, comfort, and security are in place first, vulnerability is a much more difficult act. Remember, vulnerability — being seen — is to run the risk of being wounded and, sometimes, wounding others. When we stack security blankets around our “vulnerability,” it is less so. I’ve learned to see intimacy and trust as products of, not prerequisites for, risk taking, allowing myself to be seen, and vulnerability. It’s changed my life.
- Reject performance. So many of us walk through life playing the part. Of the perfect daughter; the most awesome partner; the best parent; the true friend. We have learned to perform certain archetypes, norms, and rules for who we think we are supposed to be. Being seen is the willingness and choice to put down that performance. Not just to loosen your grip — but to throw that shit off the cliff. This means learning to become a truth teller: to and for yourself. Which means learning to ask – and answer – the questions: what do I want? What do I need? What are my boundaries? Have I stated all these things directly? My coach, Rich, recently challenged me about this topic. He knows my past, and knows that I have a fear of being rejected and a tendency to stay hidden – to hide parts of myself – as a result. He knows that this fear got locked in deep when I was publicly outed as queer and shamed by a group of people I trusted and loved. Recently, Rich gave me a challenge: to try to be so me in places that I might run the risk of getting kicked out. Because: that’s what happened 20 years ago. I was me – I was seen – and then kicked out. This challenge has been incredibly edgy, and really liberating. Rich sometimes says it like this: “your job is to be so provocative – so totally you – that you empower people to be a hell yes or a hell no to having you in their lives. To hearing your message. There’s nothing in between.” All of that is about putting down the charades. So: where can you be so fully you – so totally in your essence, so full of everything that you are – that you might be kicked out?
- Be an anti-shame lighthouse. Society has a whole of things to say about a whole lot of things that we should feel shame about. Being seen means learning to say “to hell with that.” It means learning to do the deep, painful, courageous work of healing the shame you carry around; and it means honing your capacity to not inflict shame onto others. There’s no way out but through here, friends. To be seen is to dare to be who you are WITHOUT inflicting shame — onto yourself, or projecting it onto others. It doesn’t mean you can’t feel shame (see bullet point 1) — it means you won’t use the shame that you feel. You will not motivate yourself by using shame (“I should do X, Y, Z”), you will not believe the thoughts you have that try to shame you (“You’re too much this and not enough that,”), and you will not engage with others while under the influence of thoughts you have about their being too much this, not enough that, etc. (those are just projections of the shame you feel about yourself). You will also not lead and manage others from that place. That is what being an anti-shame lighthouse is. That is being a beacon for belonging. And that is some badass humanity right there.
- Belonging vs. Fitting In. It’s not your job to fit in. In fact, the more you do it, the less welcoming you make the world. The more you reinforce that there’s a “right” way to be, and the more you you give up in order to do it. Your job is to do the deep inner work to, eventually, believe — with your whole heart — that you belong. You may not look like the folks around you; you may not talk like the folks around you; you might have had radically different experiences; and, you belong. And so do they. When you believe that you belong in a way that’s steeped in radical acceptance, you emanate that others also belong — just as they are. How can you create a sense of belonging rather than a culture of fitting in?—at work, on teams you lead, in places you take up space, in relationships? Belonging requires the willingness to see yourself in your entirety, and that you learn to embrace others (without caveats, without conditions) in theirs.
- Self-compassion vs. Self-confidence. In this work to see yourself, you are going to meet tender places. Places that ache; places that have been neglected; places that haven’t seen light in years. The purpose of seeing yourself is not that you emerge more confident — less afraid (though you might). The purpose of seeing yourself is so that you come to know and love all of who you are, which requires and will hone a deep sense of self-compassion. And when you become more able to apply compassion to yourself, you become more able to apply sincere compassion to others. Strive for self-compassion rather than self-confidence (which, ironically, is often just another mechanism for hiding).
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The value of discomfort
…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. ― Audre Lorde
To value discomfort means: to learn to value – to preference, to be fine in and with, to relate to, to hold – discomfort. The skill and will of practicing vulnerability requires discomfort. If you’re not in discomfort, you’re not being vulnerable. Remember vulnus. Being wounded usually isn’t mild discomfort — it hurts! The willingness to be wounded requires discomfort. Until you’ve practiced the shit out of it (and even then), there’s not much that’s comfortable about being seen. But if freedom, healing, and humanity is what you’re after, learning to value and to practice discomfort is an essential path. Not because healing must be painful – that’s not it at all. Please don’t take this and run toward martyrdom. I am not talking about discomfort for discomfort’s sake. I’m talking about the art of going to unknown places – potentially scary, potentially painful places so that you can see them, and in seeing them (in yourself, and in others) create healing and liberation. Opening the door to those chambers requires discomfort and sometimes pain – but the work you do once inside the room, when you’re with the pieces of you that you find, that may or may not be uncomfortable work. You’ll only know when you get there.
Distinctions, components, & suggestions for valuing discomfort
So how do you “value discomfort?” What does this look like as a practice?
- Befriend your toughest emotions. Well, befriend all your emotions. But the not-so-much-fun-to-feel ones like loneliness, despair, heart break, sadness, guilt, shame, longing … learn to be with them as you would a friend. Learn to put your arm around them and say, “I know this sucks…and I love you,” instead of “what do you think you’re doing here!? Go away!?” Vulnerability is one part being with yourself in your raw human experience, and one part the ability to be with others in theirs. If you have a habit of pushing away feelings and choosing comfort, it’s hard to meet others — or yourself — in their pain and mess. The foundational part of this practice is learning to allow all your feelings, and learning to be with them without pushing them away.
- Play with a paradigm of discomfort. The only way you learn to value something (as in: value its presence in your life) is by inviting it into your life, exploring it, spending time with it, and learning from it. So how can you – with a sense of play and curiosity – invite more discomfort into your life? A few questions you might spend a little time reflecting on each day:
- Where/how can I be so me that I might get kicked out?
- What would discomfort that values liberation do/say right now?
- How could I make myself less comfortable in this situation?
- What feeling or part of myself (or the person in front of me) am I avoiding looking in the eyes right now?
- Comfort freak. Control gives us comfort. So all this time you thought you were a control freak, surprise! — there’s a subtle distinction. We use control in order to feel comfort. Where can you actively practice needing less control? Again, the point is not to eradicate the feeling of discomfort — it’s the opposite. It’s to learn to feel it, and trust that you can handle it. And as we learn that you can be with discomfort, we see that we need the sensation of comfort – of control – less. When we cling to comfort, we tend not to allow certain things in – feelings, thoughts, insecurities, sometimes people. Vulnerability is about being in and with it all – being all of who you are, and welcoming others to be all of who they are around you. Which requires less addiction to comfort, and therefore less addiction to control.
- Courage as a verb. Mary Daly said: “you learn courage by couraging.” Choosing discomfort (for liberation’s sake … for healing’s sake) is an act of courage. Choosing vulnerability is an act of courage. And like trust, courage is a product and a practice — not a prerequisite. Practice, practice, practice.
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The skill of letting go
Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. — Helen Keller
Sometimes called groundlessness, letting go means putting down the need to know, the desire to be right, the preference of certainty, and the fairytale of safety and control. There is no vulnerability without it. I warned you in the first paragraph: in practicing vulnerability, you may suffer a fatal wound. This is not a safe world in which to reveal yourself — especially if you’re indigenous, queer, trans, a person of color, or marginalized in your identity in some other way. We’re going to talk more about that in a minute — what that means for those of us who hold lots of privilege, and what that means for those of us who generally aren’t safe in the world because of who we are.
For right now, I want to talk about the emotional letting go of safety that’s required for all of us in terms of vulnerability. Letting go means, whether literally or emotionally or professionally or romantically (really in any way that ends in “ly”), that you’re willing to lay aside the desire to feel safe. There’s a difference between actually being safe and feeling safe. A lot of times we conflate the two: one is about danger, the other is the sensation of fear and anxiety we get when we know we don’t have control over an outcome, person, or situation.
It’s incredible how much of my life I live trying to establish the feeling of safety — of control. Of security. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Except that it doesn’t. I am no longer a cave woman. I am a spirit and soul and body that longs for my spiritual evolution — that longs for my emotional healing and freedom. That wants to expand and explore until my last breath. That sort of living requires learning to let go of the desire to feel safe. Learning, evolution, spiritual expansion — that all comes when we go tight-rope walking in our heart-land without a net. And the things is, as we all know but like to pretend otherwise, we’re never in control anyway. We’re just micromanaging and engineering a situation — or a person — so that it looks to us and feels to us that we’re not out of control. But of course we are. We’re spinning 1,000 mph on a tilted ball in the middle of space and we’re going to die. It’s at times a terrifying fact to confront, especially when we’re holding our children or on a walk with our partner(s) or enjoying laughter with our closest friends, that: we are never in control of anything, we never will be. But. We also don’t need to be. Vulnerability is settling into that truth: it’s the surrender into our complete lack of controlness, and the willingness to live and interact with others from that place. That soft, groundless place that lets go of the desire for control, the desire to engineer the feeling of safety, the desire to pretend that there’s something we could ever do to acquire it.
Now, let’s come back to the reality for people who live their lives in actual danger — who don’t feel safe because a part of who they are is threatening to white dominant norms in our culture, and so they often aren’t safe. To the beautiful trans people, indigenous humans, people of color, women of color, queer folk, and women broadly who are reading this: I know there are times when you don’t feel safe because you are not safe. The violence against you is real. People of color, particularly trans women of color, are murdered every day. I am not asking anyone to carry a torch of vulnerability at the expense of possible additional trauma, violation, or threat to your actual safety. To be you is to be vulnerable in the most fundamental ways, not just to feel vulnerable. I acknowledge, with pain in my heart, that the America we live in right now is threatened by you and especially by a liberated you, and that makes the inner vulnerability work we’ve discussed so far in this article even more dangerous for you than most of us can ever understand.
For those of us who hold privilege: we have a unique responsibility to be in our vulnerability more often, in as many places as possible, so that we are actively building a world more capable of seeing, and being peacefully and lovingly with, all the parts of all the people. Even when it feels unsafe for us, it’s usually not dangerous. Vulnerability isn’t just an individually radical act — it’s also a collectively radical one, because it demands collective wholeness. The more those of us whose identities and privileges give us more safety in the world choose to be seen and do the deep work of learning to be seen and of learning to see others (and of working to be with ourselves without shame), the more we create a culture that can do the same. I cannot hold your humanity until I learn to hold my own. I will project shame onto you until I have learned to heal my own shame. I will see you as a threat if there are still pieces of me I am threatened by. That is just the reality of things, and the longer it exists, the longer it is a threat to our collective. We need a world of people who believe in and make space for the wholeness — for the full humanity — of everyone. The pathway there starts with the radical, disruptive act of being 100% you — of revealing you (to yourself and others) — and learning to do that without shame. AND of learning to do it in a way that does not take space away from others, but makes space for others. It’s not about being you for your freedom at the expense of others — it’s about being you (and giving up the safety of neatly fitting into societal norms, archetypes, and expectations that are literally killing other people) for your freedom AND the freedom of others. Letting go of control is a critical place to do this work. As long as we have an inner urge to “allow,” that’s us selectively and conditionally doling out permission based on what — and who — makes us feel safe and comfortable. We have so much work to do. Without martyrdom. Without applause. Without acknowledgment.
Distinctions, components, & suggestions for letting go
- This one, my friends, is largely an independent road. I can’t tell you how to do this one, except to say that we all try to cling to and grasp for pleasant things/experiences/people. We want things to be the way we want them to be. The alternative is learning to accept and be with the way things are, and to learn to stop resisting/fighting against reality when it’s not the way you want it to be. In and of itself, letting go requires vulnerability — and — vulnerability requires letting go. If deep down I’m clinging to an expectation about how our conversation goes, or how you receive me, I will perform instead of bare. I will anticipate instead of be. Only you know the aspects of your baggage that have become too burdensome to carry. Only you know the old beliefs you’ve outgrown that keep you small and prevent your magnificence from shining through. Only you know the old stories, people, thoughts, and habits that it’s time to grieve and bury — so that you can heal. Vulnerability is groundless. There’s no safety net, by definition. Let go of the rope.
- Observe where you’re holding on. With compassion, do a scan of your life. Of work, of relationships. Of the thoughts in your head. Where are you clinging to the way you want things/people/situations to be instead of surrendering to how they are
- Release blame and take personal responsibility. In situations that aren’t what you want them to be, where are you blaming someone else for that? Blame is a form of clinging to the way you want things to be rather than the way they are, because you’re creating a set of justifications for why something should be a different way. Scan: where are you blaming someone else? What would radical personal responsibility there look like?—for the sake of healing. For the sake of letting go of should and being present with what is, so that you can be clear about what you want and take responsibility for that, too. It’s OK to want things to be different — but the change is on you.
- Practice presence and mindfulness. This might be a good time to go revisit April’s Heart Work on slowing down. Any time we’re in thoughts about the future, we aren’t here. And here is the only place we can be — the only place change can happen. Whether with deep breathing, or a physical practice, or meditation, or little reminders on your phone…find a way to be more here, more often.
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Vulnerability & Justice
Deep speaks to speak; real speaks to real. — Jesse Jackson
In case it isn’t clear, there’s no path to justice without a strong practice of vulnerability. At least: not at this moment in time. Which means our message of, desire for, and work to bring about justice is incomplete if it does not involve vulnerability. Here are a few ways radical vulnerability and justice live in relationship:
- Vulnerability is required for learning — primarily to change behaviors and acquire new ways of being. For those of us who identify as white, this is a huge part of our life-long work. The collective and social ego we inherit — our white conditioning — is seductively laced with oppressive behaviors. Behaviors and “personality traits” that control and limit other people’s’ abilities to be free, to be whole. Our work is unlearning — and learning new ways of being that don’t seek to exert power over or control.
- Justice work requires letting go of the need to be right — and the need to be right is often driven by our fear of groundlessness, our fear of letting go.
- Justice is not comfortable for folks with privilege, because it requires that we put more of ourselves on the line — our hearts, our beliefs, and our bodies — alongside our sisters and brothers and humans who don’t have the choice. Learning to re-relate to privilege also often feels like loss; realizing you’ve unintentionally made liberation systemically harder for others, and even benefit from their lack of liberation, is painful and shitty — to say the least. And. These are the places we must go, eyes-wide-open. These are the places we must learn to feel into, with self-compassion, and with ruthless courage to change.
- The willingness to be seen is a radical act — it’s holding the intention for a society that isn’t yet there, and that we’ve never had a precedent for. It’s radical to believe and to actively work for a space in which everyone not just can be whole but IS whole and is safe in that wholeness. Right now this is a radical belief and act because it’s a dangerous act. The wholeness of marginalized people has only ever been denied by the supremacy of whiteness — white norms, white capital, white power, white preferences, white comfort, white people. Our demand that — and our audacity to live as if — things must be different will cause dangerous disruption to a system. Which makes our ability to operate with that intention and to learn to practice a different way of being both a radical and essential act for a pathway to a culture in which everyone can take up space, everyone can belong, everyone has access, and everyone can thrive.
Where to Go From Here
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. — Anais Nin
You tell me. Where are you going from here? And why? What are you committing to? Not because someone is telling you you should, but because your wholeness can’t live — can’t be free — any other way.
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