This morning two stories in my Facebook feed did a little dance around one another. The first was a post from the Detroit Metro Times which linked to an Al Jazeera America story about small creditors who are left out of the negotiations in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. (Unfortunately most of the commentators on the Metro Times blog chose to comment on Al Jazeera rather than on the material of the story.)
Like pensioners and bondholders, these tort claimants are unsecured creditors who can walk away from the bankruptcy with only a small fraction of what they are owed as the city seeks to resolve its mammoth debt. But unlike pensioners and bondholders, they have been excluded from the process, given no seat at the table in the high-stakes negotiations over Detroit’s bankruptcy or the plan that has them taking a staggering 80 percent cut.
After reading the story, I returned to Facebook and the next post was from TED. A link to Brene Brown’s viral talk “Listening to Shame” with one quote highlighted; “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
I thought about that word “vulnerability” as it applied to a man featured in the Al Jazeera story, Dwayne Provience. Provience is a father of three, who was wrongly convicted of a murder at age 26 based on the perjured testimony of a homeless man who said he had evidence on the crime he had not witnessed in order to reduce his own sentence for breaking and entering. After spending a decade in jail, he was finally exonerated with the help of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic. After he was set free, his lawyers fought on his behalf to get a financial settlement from the city to compensate him for his wrongful imprisonment. They fought their way through a series of appeals and were “on the goal line” when Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection and all judgements were halted.
I thought about what “vulnerability” means as it is used by Brene Brown, and what it means when applied to someone like Dwayne Provience. Before he went to jail, Provience had no education and little money. (He went on to earn his GED in prison.) When the police came after him, guns raised, he was vulnerable. When he went to court in an overburdened system, in a financially struggling city, he was vulnerable. Now as the city invites large creditors to the negotiating table to determine who gets what, he is vulnerable.
This is not the kind of “vulnerability” anyone in his right mind would hold up as a virtue or a gift. Compare this to what it means when someone like Brene Brown– and I count myself among these fortunates– talk about strength through vulnerability.
“Vulnerability is not weakness,” Brown says. “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief — this is my 12th year doing this research — that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.”
We are not talking about being afraid that we will not have food, or that we can’t afford to live in an area that is free of crime, or that we might be pulled over at a stop sign and be mistaken for a murderer. When people like us use the word we usually mean emotional vulnerability. We are afraid of a loss of status and self-esteem. We are afraid we might not be as admired as we would like if we admit our imperfections.
Indeed, that sort of vulnerability is our strength, because if that is the only way we are vulnerable then we are lucky indeed. We are lucky indeed.