Finding Strength in Vulnerability

A beautiful story of courage and vulnerability, written by a Hope Smiles patient:


“You’re never going to believe this,” I tell my friend over the phone. “All this time, I’ve been looking in churches for community, but apparently I need to be attending recovery meetings. My people, I’ve discovered, are recovering addicts.”

She laughed, but I was serious.

I’d stumbled onto this revelation at the dentist office on a sunny Saturday morning. I was there as a beneficiary of someone else’s goodwill. There aren’t words to describe my thankfulness for Hope Smiles.

When I entered the office, I was uncertain whether the other people there were program participants or regular customers. So I took my seat, ready to avoid eye contact by reading. Less than five minutes later, a girl emerges from the back and several girls find their feet and move towards her. “What did they do?” “Did it hurt?”

Using her index fingers, the girl widens her mouth, allowing everyone a peek inside. She then proceeds to talk about the work that just happened on her mouth. I watch, fascinated.

Most people would never know I had dental issues. I would never dream of sharing something that embarrasses me.

Yet among these girls, words of vulnerability fall easily among the group. They speak of lost teeth, of bridges, of what will never be whole again.

Unless you’ve walked this path, you might not realize just how much your smile is part of your soul. For a woman especially. When our smile is marred, our sense of worth and sense of beauty is also marred.

I watch transfixed as the group rallies around each girl. These women, I learn, are part of a drug recovery program. They are so real. When one of them cries because she’s learned she’s going to lose her teeth, the others swallowed back tears as they gave hugs and offered comfort. When another received a crown, they all shared her joy and wanted to see inside her new mouth for themselves.

I’m fascinated.

I watch over and over as these women open up to each other on levels that penetrate through my defenses. At first, I’m stunned that someone would show their dental work to everyone in the waiting room. But gradually I find myself wanting to hear each girl’s story, too.

“How did you find out about Hope Smiles?” One girl in her twenties turns towards me.

Five or six women lean forward to hear my answer. And just like that, they’ve included me, and it’s sincere. I’ve seen enough insincerity to recognize that their interest in me is genuine.

Furthermore, there’s no need for me, the outsider, to be vulnerable first. I’ve walked into a group that is not wearing masks. They acknowledge they are broken, hurting people. I suddenly find words easy. I’m struck by how refreshing it feels.

Sometimes we can’t identify the deepest needs of our soul.

When the dentist fits my new piece in my mouth, he asks me how it feels. I reply, “Good, I think.” He then looks up and instructs his students, saying, “Don’t just take a patient’s word. Always check. Notice the uncertainty. They may no longer know what normal feels like.”

How incredibly true. Thank goodness the Shepherd of our Souls also assesses His sheep in such a manner.

Sometimes you have to experience the cure in order to recognize the injury.

When I emerge from the back, I show the girls what’s been done to my mouth. And it’s not strange or uncomfortable. It’s my first act of community.

I leave the dentist’s office that day with two incredible blessings: a dental problem fixed and a hunger I didn’t even know I had, satisfied.

Gradi Ellis