80 Years of Desert Island Discs: The Radio Show That Taught Me the Value of Vulnerability

Desert Island Discs celebrates its 80th birthday today. Like many, I’m a fan. I know the language he speaks well. And yet, despite his popularity, he speaks a language that many of us are afraid to converse in; the language of vulnerability.

I discovered Desert Island Discs as a child, while flipping through radio stations during a long, hot, boring summer of the 1980s. I was an avid reader and immediately loved its form of storytelling of real people with real lives. I didn’t know the person who was being interviewed, I just knew that certain songs on the show made them cry.

The whole premise of Desert Island Discs is one that puts someone in a place of vulnerability. They imagine themselves to be destitute, stranded on an island, with only eight songs, a book and a luxury item with them. The pieces, chosen by the guest, are played and we are invited to travel through their memories through music with them. It has vulnerability at its core.

Throughout my life, I’ve been accused of making myself too vulnerable by being too “sensitive” and “thoughtful”. I marvel at life with the same sense of inspection one has when solving a Rubik’s Cube. I was told that if I wanted to get ahead in life, I shouldn’t be so “open”. But the exploration of vulnerability is what made Desert Island Discs a national institution. We appreciate someone’s personal journey, first through their own words, then through their choice of music. We rejoice in the outcome of formidable and remarkable characters. Right now they are stripped of their OBE, Oscar, Booker Prize, or whatever separates them from us, and we are left with what connects them to us: pain and joy.

I’ve always been okay with showing my vulnerability; that’s why I write. I’m happiest when I openly bleed all over my keyboard. A friend once told me that she could never be a writer, she would feel too exposed, too vulnerable. But there’s no point in writing if you’re going to leave out your humanity.

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I don’t want to be someone who wonders if someone I care about knows how much I love them. I want a person to know how much she means to me without ambiguity. So I’m vocal with my feelings, which makes me vulnerable. Having a strong emotion that is not vocalized is hell for me, a form of confinement syndrome. There is a lack of harmony in thought, feeling and non-action. I would burst if I couldn’t express my love for someone or something. It was this vocalized honesty and vulnerability that made Desert Island Discs a success; a person who has climbed Everest is the same person who has a song that can move them to tears.

Mutual vulnerability is how we bond. This allows us to say “me too”. No one warms to a tough, steely exterior. We are vulnerable because we are situated. Where we find ourselves socially and economically has important consequences for our chances of survival. And this awareness of our vulnerability to life, and to each other, makes us better people. We become less self-satisfied. We see opportunities, outside of ourselves, and that helps us become who we are.

Desert Island Discs, with its easily recognizable music, feels like a balm in its old familiarity. It became “our song”. The seagulls transport us to a place that perhaps recalls our own childhood. He gives us what the Welsh call “hiraeth”. Basically, it means a mix of homesickness for a house you can’t go back to, a house that maybe never was; and a longing and sorrow for the lost places of our past.

Desert Island Discs has stayed with us for 80 years because it speaks to us in a way that we are often afraid to speak to ourselves. It’s about love, loss and truth. But at its heart there is a message, and we are all happy to hear it – that, in fact, no one is on a desert island.

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