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Get Lost in ‘Wilderness’ -- You May Just Find Yourself

January 21, 2018 GMT

By Bonnie J. Toomey

A few months ago, I heard her. She was a guest on Joshua Johnson’s NPR radio show “1A” out of American University in D.C. I was driving home from Plymouth State University, where I’d given a lecture about how sharing our stories brings us closer together. Listening to one another makes us realize we are not alone. There is only one story, as Thomas C. Foster says -- the one about humanity. We’re all in this together, right? At least that’s how I like to think of it, because the alternative is just a little too scary.

And so, here is Brené Brown, a qualitative researcher from Texas, telling her story about her research (her life, really) and how people are hard to hate close-up, and our need for civility, and how sometimes you just have to embrace the mess, and the importance of being able to stand alone in order to challenge all the BS -- and the beauty of belonging to yourself first and foremost.

It doesn’t matter how many people liked your Facebook posts or quoted your Twitter feed or shared your Instagram -- heck, it doesn’t matter if your YouTube channel went viral. If you don’t feel you truly belonged to your own self, then you’re bound for trouble.

As the pines lining the old mountain road seemed to stand taller in the cold, I leaned in and turned the volume up.

All the vitriol and the name-calling is just a lot of people in pain, she explained, a tactic of fear and division that leads us nowhere good. I was pumped. Her research and collections of people’s stories were showing that, as humans, we crave connection, and sometimes that means standing courageously alone with ourselves.

I needed to know more. This was the way I taught: Listen to your gut. Trust what your experience has to say. What matters to you?

It was the way I love my husband and raised my children. I looked her up when I got home. Watched her “TedTalks” on vulnerability, courage, authenticity and shame; one recorded in Houston in 2010. The blurb read: “Brené Brown studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.”

Share, indeed. Steve got me her book for Christmas. He didn’t realize that I’d already given a copy to our daughter, Natalie. The other day, Nat sent a Snapchat with the book splayed on her lap. As fellow mothers and people who care deeply about the effectiveness of communication and connection (she’s responsible for managing global public relations at her company), I can’t wait to talk with her about it.

I can’t put the book down. I’m like Linus dragging that blue blanket of his, only my blanket is a New York Times bestselling copy of Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness.” To look at the cover, with its wild evergreens against a blue sky, you might think it’s a book about nature. And it is. Human nature.

I have marked that text up. Carried it from the nightstand to the breakfast table to the coffee table to the tub, and back again. Stuffed it in my bag, read it to Steve, secretly opened it during a movie. What do I love so much about it? The fact that she reminds me to stay human. That’s it.

How do we do that? We work from a place of love. We don’t let fear and hate rule. We address people as people, not pigs or rats or anything else that suggests subhuman -- especially if we cannot stand what they do or say or stand for. We approach people with generosity. We do that because we want to be treated with the same dignity. We don’t let our pain direct the day. And I get it, a lot of us are in pain, myself included, but as Anthony Hopkins’ character Les tells Lillian, played by Julia Stiles, in the 2015 thriller “Blackway,” no one gets out of this life without their share of pain.

When I see derogatory monster-making comments in posts and hear demonizing words used to describe people, I feel sad, because when we are so quick to dehumanize, it means we have lost our own humanity. All of this is what I learned as a child in Sunday school. It’s what my dad taught me. Be humble. I think he was trying to say that being vulnerable is the path to integrity.

And here was Brené Brown echoing those same stories.

There’s so much debate over correct language and how we use our words, but when we use words to hurt others intentionally, it solves nothing. Look at Congress. Listen to the news. You would think there are precisely only two distinct sides to every issue in this world. This kind of polarizing limits and divides people. It seems Brown is saying that it takes a lot of courage to see that life is a series of intricate overlapping circles, especially when everyone is so quick to default to one side or the other.

It happens in families, with friends, at work and throughout our political system. Rather than recognizing the interconnected nuances that people share, like being human, we pick a side. It’s easier and safer that way. No wilderness to brave. Brown’s story about not supporting the gun lobby and supporting sensible gun ownership is a perfect example of how we don’t allow any room for those complexities to be considered. You are either for or against something. That allows demonization of one or the other side, which creates an all-out war, just what the two sides need to fuel the fight in the first place.

We have to stop fighting and start thinking for ourselves, or we will be sucked into that mob mentality. And slinging insults at other people is where that kind of mob begins to fester.

Next time you’re on Facebook and find your blood boiling, or at a dinner party and feel yourself becoming hot under the collar, take a deep breath and try listening. Use Brown’s tactic, and say something like, “Tell me more.” Listen. Move in and “hold hands with strangers,” as Brown puts it.

We don’t always have to have the answers. We don’t have to pick sides. We don’t have to attack and dehumanize. Yes, we can feel our pain. Yes, we can stand up for what we believe in with all of our generous hearts. Yes, we can respectfully behave in honest fashion. That is the brave thing to do.

Do this exercise, which I love to give to my student writers. Make a list of times you were unjustly wronged. See how easy that is! Circle one that’s really standing out. I have my students share their stories verbally with each other. Then I like to throw a sweet curveball. I say with a generous heart, “Now write the story from the point of view of the person who hurt you.” My dad used to call it stepping into someone else’s shoes. Do it. See where it takes you.

You might even find it’s not so lonely out there in the wilderness.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .