Opinion | Considering Vulnerability

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By Marc Stier

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability since I hurt my back last summer. Since then, aside from three-week periods after I got two spinal injections a few months apart, I’ve stood and walked with pain and have had trouble moving around. And that’s left me feeling vulnerable.

Feeling vulnerable in ways I never have before has made me think more about the role the sense of vulnerability and invulnerability plays in our lives. I’ve especially thought about those who are a lot more vulnerable than I was either because of physical limitations or because they face more challenges than I do — women, people of color, those who are disabled, those whose sexual identity and presentation is not traditional.


It has occurred to me that my current sense of vulnerability, like the confidence I once had, is a bit of a mirage. Was I ever as invulnerable as I thought? Is anyone?

My late friend, longtime transit activist Peter Javsicas, was walking in Center City minding his own business last year when a car spun out of control, crossed onto a sidewalk and killed him. My grandmother and her friend the rebbitzin were killed by a speeding drunk driver on the way to synagogue on Purim in 1969. Gangs sometimes pick on strangers. People fire bullets that hit random others. And the police who are there to protect us sometimes harm us instead.

Of course, police violence is a lot less likely to happen to me. No small part of my prior sense of invulnerability had something to do with my privileged position as a white, fairly prosperous, middle-aged man. Street confidence has something to do with one’s physical being, but like most things, it’s socially constructed as well, and in ways that reflect the dynamics of power in our political community.

Our sense of confidence and safety is shaped by who we are and political and social forces. But it’s also a product of what we are used to. Our sense of vulnerability is a relative scale, formed by previous experience. I’m more vulnerable than I was before my injury. But I wasn’t nearly as secure as I thought then, either.

If one has had a charmed life, one is probably fairly confident in the world. But it’s also based on a healthy dose of denial about the random catastrophes that can damage any of us at any moment. That confidence helped me live well — and also do the work I do. We can’t live well if we don’t have some confidence in our safety and our ability to be effective in accomplishing goals.

But it would be better if those of us who have lived charmed lives recognized how much our sense of invulnerability is a product of luck and privilege, and that it would be best if we could create a political community in which these advantages were available to everyone.

One of the problems in America today is that too many of us think that we do it all on our own.

Our individualism leads those doing well to fail to recognize how much we have been given. And that leads us to blame the victims of misfortune. We in America are always quick to find something wrong done by someone who only suffers from bad luck, whether it comes in the form of illness, disability or economic disaster.

Our individualism has another bad consequence: When black and brown people and women and members of the LGBTQ community assert themselves, those who have benefited from good luck and privilege often object. They made it on their own, they think, and can’t understand why anyone else needs help.

That dynamic becomes even more striking when some of the privileged have also suffered more in recent years because our economy has increasingly left them out. It’s hard to understand how the rules and distribution of resources have benefitted you when those benefits are slowly going down the drain.

Failure to recognize your advantages even when you are down makes it easy to get people to fight back against the aspirations of those who seek a fair share of those advantages.

There is no easy way to deal with these tensions except by addressing their source. That means dealing not just with political churn on the surface but with the underlying political, social and psychological dynamics.

And far from undermining individuality, the best way to encourage individuals to step up and take care of themselves and others and to push forward in their defining endeavors is to give them the same good start and backup that the most privileged of us take for granted.

Postscript: I had back surgery on May 2 that has relieved the pain I had been suffering for 8½ months. I fight the human inclination to forget the pain, or to at least remember the lessons of it, every day.

Marc Stier is a writer, teacher and political activist from Mt. Airy and a member of the board of JSPAN, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network.

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