“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” — James A. Baldwin
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown comes full circle to one of the first findings I ever heard from her: “the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.”
An important finding, but how do you get there? How do you feel worthy? Especially if you grow up not feeling as if you belong in your family.
Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, and human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts.
As with all of Dr. Brown’s books, there is a lot of personal storytelling. In one of these stories, she describes a conversation with her husband where she says, “I’ve got no crew, and it’s been this way my whole life.”
Both of those quotes broke my heart: selfishly for me as much as the author.
She posits true belonging is a spiritual struggle to “stay connected to what binds us as humans” in an increasingly divided world. That it is believing in and belonging to yourself, paradoxically internal, that fosters belonging.
In America, we’ve “sort[ed] ourselves out” – gravitating increasingly to people who share our beliefs, and away from others who we find “culturally incomprehensible” despite sharing a country. Elections are no longer about policy, but cultural battles and families are disconnecting, despite that being the one group we don’t generally “sort out” of our lives.
Despite this sorting into communal factions, data tells us we’re lonelier than we have ever been, increasing since 9/11 and the media focus on terrorism (which she calls “time-released fear,”) and who to blame for the fear we feel.
Chapter 4 is the heart of the book. In it, Dr. Brown goes deeply into how fractured we are, and what has led us there: dehumanization.
For connection to be possible, you need physical safety and emotional safety. Emotional safety is not freedom from hurt feelings or disagreement, but freedom from dehumanization – the root of violence.
We dehumanize when we want to harm others, but it goes against our moral code to do so. So we label others as dangerous, criminal, less-than, alien, animals, etc., so we no longer have to treat them with civility. We create an “enemy image” with words and then pictures, and frame the conflict as good vs. evil where we must secure victory or face defeat (or, as I hear often, “you lost, get over it.”) She gives examples from the 2016 presidential election: one side calling people a “basket of deplorables” and the other saying “Democrats aren’t even human.” In truth, there are many false either/or dichotomies (BLM vs all police, responsible gun ownership vs NRA lobby, athlete protestors vs. veterans, etc.) that are keeping us from connecting and finding creative solutions.
We are all susceptible to dehumanizing, and all responsible for stopping it and attempting to heal it.
Our job is not to stop fighting for our beliefs, but to not let go of the humanity of others, and to rehumanize by acknowledging the pain of others and having difficult conversations. Not “agreeing to disagree,” but asking why an issue is important to the person. We build relationships and belonging not by agreement, but by being invested in the future of a relationship and really understanding each other. When you shut conversations down for the sake of “peace”, you shut down the opportunity to connect. If you listen to understand the way you want to be understood, the conversation moves away from winning or “us vs. them” (which she refers to as “common enemy intimacy”) and into increased mutual affection and respect.
There are ways to fight for our values without denying the humanity of others, and it begins with “feeling hurt instead of spreading hurt” and being more curious than defensive. It requires seeing debate as problem-solving and staying civil by listening with generosity.
“When we degrade and diminish, even in response to being degraded and diminished,” we break our own hearts.
I’m left struggling with a few parts of the book, however. The first was a great deal of attention given to her BRAVING theory of trust. This was covered in Rising Strong, and while it was important to the ideas in this book, if you’re familiar with her work it may be a bit tedious.
Sometimes the author is very strident and absolutist. In one of the earlier chapters, she describes the three possible outcomes from early loneliness. I fit none of the three, so there must be more, even if they are outliers. My (half-amused) reaction was: “I don’t even belong in a book about belonging!”
And, well, I disagree with her about educating others. We all have a responsibility to educate ourselves. She acknowledges the marginalized are forced into the wilderness. It seems to me one of the reasons why is often the privileged and willful ignorance of the non-marginalized.
Finally, I wish Dr. Brown would take some time to sit with disabled and non-neurotypical individuals. To be honest, her theories in this book have a grim prognosis for those who are isolated not by choice, but by circumstance. In writing off social media as insufficient for connection, she gives no solutions to individuals facing the loneliness of a world that remains largely inaccessible to an increasing number of people.
A practice emphasized toward the end of the book is to stop walking through the world looking for confirmation you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’re looking for it. But “no one belongs here more than you.” If we can show up and stay with the pain and fear rather than clinging to our hates, then “despite our differences… we don’t always have to walk alone.”