Last week I sat for two hours in a periodontist’s office while receiving a dental implant. My mouth was adequately and expertly numbed, and the only discomfort I felt was the anxiety I experienced when the periodontist began to drill into my jawbone. There was not much to do but keep my mouth open, and think – and pray. Both of which I did.
I thought about the remarkable privilege to have the financial resources to cover the procedure (insurance covered only a portion); that the professionals working in and on my mouth demonstrated at every turn that they knew what they were doing; and that I was in a tiny sliver of the world’s population that had access to such quality care. And as my mind continued to absorb these and other elements of privilege, I gave thanks, and began to pray – for the people in Gaza. People who don’t have access to the most basic medical care, much less high-end dental care; who may have some meager financial resources, but those are of little use in a landscape where continuous violence and destruction has reduced life to a struggle for survival. And I prayed that somehow that the chasm between my good fortune (in every sense of that word) and comfort, and the destitution and degradation of Gazans – and countless other groups across the world who are under siege, can be bridged.
In my last two weekly posts I have written about the mandorla (the Italian word for almond), which is the shape that is created when two circles intersect.
The mandorla is not a physical space, but an existential one. You don’t need a ticket to get in, nor pass some test, but simply to have the desire to enter that psychic and spiritual arena; and be open to hearing from people who come into it from another circle. Normally, I think of the external things we bring into the mandorla: our attitudes and positions on immigration, guns, abortion, race, Israel/Gaza and so on. And to create processes and norms for how best to listen to one another, for the purpose of finding common ground. (Braver Angels, a growing national movement, is deeply committed to this). All of this is important, and necessary.
As I reclined in the periodontist’s chair I realized that there are internal dimensions that we also bring into the mandorla. Attitudes and perspectives that we take for granted, and may be hidden from us. There are many levels of risk in entering the mandorla: the external risk of being open to hear opinions that we find to be misguided, misinformed, or simply wrong; but deeper than that, entering the mandorla on an internal level exposes us to a level of vulnerability, which may reveal our internal prejudices, projections, and preconceived ideas. Entering the mandorla isn’t as risky for me, given that so many social systems provide me with various advantages. Several years ago, while describing my work with Braver Angels and my ongoing commitment to conversations across difference, a close friend and colleague, a woman, responded, “you know, Mark, almost all of those sorts of conversations are framed by people in power, most of whom are white men.”
Oh. Of course. But I hadn’t seen that. I often forget that I bring with me, into every entry into the mandorla, a resume of privilege – white, male, tall, and a significant degree of authority (being a bishop). Those attributes do not prohibit me from entering the mandorla, nor do I think I should be punished for them – BUT, taken together, these privileges can become conscious or unconscious barriers to my vulnerability. And restrict my openness to others.
Vulnerability is often confused with weakness. It is not. Vulnerability is an essential ingredient of what it means to be human. Instead of fighting vulnerability, or demeaning it, we need to honor it. Vulnerability is the pathway to courage. It can bring us closer to one another. Twenty years ago, during the most intense debate about gay ordination and gay marriage in the Episcopal Church, I was in a facilitated daylong clergy conversation about the issue. There were six of us; three of us were in favor of gay marriage and gay ordination, and three were not. One colleague, who I knew well and whom I trusted – even though we disagreed, said something that I found particularly offensive. “I can’t believe how arrogant you come across,” I said to him. He immediately responded: “you have been arrogant all day, and if I didn’t like you as much as I do, I would be done with this.” Once we claimed our mutual arrogance, which was our hidden mutual vulnerability; that was when the true and honest conversation began. Neither of us changed our positions, but we were able to engage more in harmony with one another. A reconciliation of sorts took place.
That was hard work. And it almost didn’t work. And there were all sorts of factors that made it a bit easier to claim our respective vulnerability: we shared the same vocation, age, life experience and gender.
There were dozens of safeguards in place during my sojourn in the periodontist’s chair. Nevertheless, I still felt a bit vulnerable. It can’t compare with the vulnerability of people in Gaza, or Israelis who are still reeling from the October 7 attack, or the thousands of places across the globe where people live in continuous, if not constant fear. Claiming vulnerability is not an end. A common liberal trap is to think that because we can share a bit of vulnerability with others, we have done the work. No, we need to build on that vulnerability. It can bind us to one another more tightly, to a degree that we are more readily able to commit to act, to witness, and to offer healing. That is the work we need to do. Claiming vulnerability gets us started.