Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Pathways Magazine.
Braving the Wilderness
When I picked up Brené Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness, it didn’t take long for her words to strike a chord within me. Like Brené, I’ve always felt like an outsider. Meditation may have gone mainstream, but other metaphysical practices are still not widely accepted and are in many cases frowned upon. That can leave people like you and me who deeply appreciate the diversity of mind, body, spirit topics such as ayurveda and feng shui, feeling very “other.” In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown taught us that “Love and belonging are essential to the human experience…If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.” In Braving the Wilderness, Brown redefines and expands on what she now calls true belonging. True belonging is not about fitting in, it’s about learning how to be ok with being other, because there’s something offbeat about every one of us. We’re not supposed to live carbon copy lives. Each of us is an individual and unique and the only way we can truly be ourselves is to be brave and vulnerable enough to allow the world to see us as we really are.
And there’s the rub, because generally, we’re only comfortable being ourselves when we feel safe enough to do so. You’re not going to come out of the closet about anything if you think you’re going to get stoned to death. Brown’s research reveals that people these days are more afraid to disagree with one another because they perceive an increasing lack of civility and tolerance. She explains that “Connection to a larger humanity gives people more freedom to express their individuality without fear of jeopardizing belonging. This is the spirit, which now seems missing, of saying ‘Yes, we are different in many ways, but under it all we’re deeply connected.’” In other words, our sense of shared connection and spiritual commonality is broken on some level, and Brené Brown has some thoughts on how to fix it.
The “fixing” takes up the remaining two-thirds of the book and deals in four elements–each presented as a chapter. First up is: “People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.” Basically, you want to do the opposite of what our military is taught. You want to humanize people with different views and lifestyles. We’re all out there trying to do our best, so lean in and don’t get conned into the lie that you have to choose a side to the exclusion of all others. Brown opens a riveting discourse on what it means to embrace our humanity–schooling those who would take offense to hearing Hillary Clinton referred to as a bitch, yet supporting Kellyanne Conway being referred to in the same way. She also presents the best argument I’ve ever heard for why we should all support the Black Lives Matter movement, and explains why doing so does not mean that you can’t also believe in the safety and well-being of police officers and the value of all human life.
The second element is: “Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.” This is probably the most paradoxical of the four practices because it’s very tricky to call people out on their stuff, or even to call your own self out and be kind at the same time. The chapter digs deeply into what drives bullshit, what bullshit looks like, and how to stay civil when you call someone else out on their bullshit. I have to admit, it’s fun reading about bullshit on such an intellectual level and even more fun to write bullshit so many times in a sentence. There are great lessons here, but the most important ones are about not buying into BS by compromising your integrity, and when someone confronts you about something, (or you confront them) be respectful. Both seem obvious in print, but it’s the practice that we need to honor.
Third up is “Hold Hands. With Strangers.” It’s about allowing yourself to share experiences and emotions with others. Brené cites examples of fun times with family at a Garth Brooks concert, the sorrow she experienced with friends during the 1986 Challenger disaster, and the despair her community felt after the 2012 Sandy Hook mass school shooting. She writes that “We need these moments with strangers as reminders that despite how much we might dislike someone on Facebook or even in person, we are still inextricably connected. And it doesn’t have to be a big moment with thousands of strangers. We can be reminded of our inextricable connection after talking with our seatmate on a two-hour flight.” I’m reminded of how when I pick my kids up from school and everyone’s on their phone while waiting in the lobby. We don’t show up to have these kinds of experiences when we huddle into ourselves, yet according to some studies, neglecting face-to-face human interaction is as detrimental to our health as chain smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity.
The fourth element is “Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.” If we’re going to make true belonging a daily practice in our lives, Brown writes, “we’re going to need a strong back and a soft front. We’ll need both courage and vulnerability as we abandon the certainty and safety of our ideological bunkers and head off into the wilderness.” It won’t be easy, and it’s not a one-time deal, but the things that are worth it never are.
Braving the Wilderness is a timely and necessary guide on how to be wholehearted in a world that’s constantly trying to break your heart. It’s the perfect antidote for the harsh political climate and divisive world that we’re living in. This is one of those books that everything is so well said that you have a hard time coming up with how to talk about it without quoting the whole thing. I wanted to highlight everything, because every word felt important. Brené Brown’s books give so much insight and depth that just reading one helps you to peel back layers and layers of understanding of what makes us human and how we can live more wholesome lives. If everyone in the world read this book, it might not change things right away, but I bet we’d start having more of the conversations that just might get us there one day.