Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone is arguably one of the most important books I have read in years. The book is timely, relevant, inspirational, challenging, and practical.
In her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown presented ten guideposts for wholehearted living based on the results of her research on shame and vulnerability. Over the past decade, her work has turned conventional wisdom on its head, and her conclusions have resonated as true for people all over the world.
According to Brown, vulnerability has more in common with courage than weakness, and authenticity with bravery than weakness. Her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability has been viewed over 35 million times, translated into 52 languages, and remains one of TED’s most-watched videos ever. As a result of her own vulnerability in sharing her personal journey toward authenticity, she has been catapulted into the spotlight and is impacting lives all over the world.
Brown’s work is based in grounded theory research which means she approaches the data with curiosity, not pre-conceived conclusions or theories she’d like to prove. Her conclusions are based on hard data and her insights can be life-impacting. For example, the data shows that every human being is wired for connection and craves belonging; but Brown takes the conclusion a step further clarifying that authentic connection and true belonging will occur only in an environment where trust has been cultivated.
In her 2015 book Rising Strong, she introduced the acronym B.R.A.V.I.N.G.—a mnemonic device to help us remember the seven elements required for trust (see poster on the right).
In her new book Braving the Wilderness, Brown emphasizes the critical role self-trust plays in establishing true belonging. She utilizes the same B.R.A.V.I.N.G. acronym to help us assess our level of self-trust. She transforms the original statements into the following questions:
- B – Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay?
- R – Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do?
- A – Did I hold myself accountable?
- V – Did I respect the vault (confidentiality) and share appropriately?
- I – Did I act from my integrity?
- N – Did I ask for what I needed? Was I nonjudgmental about needing help?
- G – Was I generous toward myself? (p. 39)
Brown’s theories are founded upon the conviction that every human is innately valuable and should be treated with dignity—not necessarily because of who they are, but because of who we are and the One whose image we all bear:
If our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media, and strangers on Twitter with whom we most violently disagree…Challenging ourselves to live by higher standards requires constant diligence and awareness. (p. 76)
If we’re surrounded by people who look like us, talk like us, believe like us, eat like us, sing like us, and dress like us, belonging is a given—but is it conditional? Is it fake? Is our belonging constantly up for negotiation?
True belonging must begin with self-acceptance in the midst of diversity and imperfection.
Braving the Wilderness beckons readers back to their shared humanity with guideposts for establishing self-trust, leaning into vulnerability, and embracing curiosity.
The author challenges us to “reclaim human connection and true belonging in the midst of sorting and withdrawal…to choose courage over comfort…how to become the wilderness” (p. 59). Cultivating true belonging will require us to break out of our “ideological bunkers” and intentionally spend time with people who are different than us.
We’re going to have to listen hard, become curious, experience discomfort, and empathize—all without sacrificing who we are.
Foundational to Brown’s analysis is her conviction that “we are all inextricably connected with each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion” (p. 34). The author proposes that our connection to each other has been recently broken, explains why and how that happened, and suggests four paradoxical behaviors which will help us find our way back to one another.
- People are hard to hate close-up. Move in.
- Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
- Hold hands. With strangers.
- Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.
Each of these paradoxes is elaborated upon in its own chapter. The book is packed with stories of real people advocating for the dignity of human life and wholehearted living.
Braving Advocates for Human Dignity
Braving the Wilderness was written during one of the most divisive and provocative presidential campaigns in the history of the United States. The author objectively examines how social media, news reporting, and political rhetoric exposed the underbelly of our personal dysfunctional relationships built on misperceptions, false assumptions, and manipulative control. The result? Disconnection and loneliness.
In a world as connected as ours, it’s hard to fathom how loneliness could possibly be on the rise. But it is. And the biggest culprit contributing to our social disconnect is fear.
In the case of the United States, our three greatest fault lines—cracks that have grown and deepened due to willful neglect and a collective lack of courage—are race, gender, and class. The fear and uncertainty flowing from collective trauma of all kinds have exposed those gaping wounds in a way that’s been both profoundly polarizing and necessary. These are conversations that need to happen; this is discomfort that must be felt. (page 58)
She asserts that those who strive to sort us into one camp or another are often motivated by selfish interests, money, and/or power. Our division fuels their agenda, and their favorite tool to cause division is dehumanization. The dehumanization of any person or people group begins with language and is closely followed by propaganda-like images.
Dehumanization Diminishes Our Wild Heart
According to Brown, “once we see people on ‘the other side’ of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil” (p. 72), and we always see ourselves on the side of good.
The problem is that most issues are not that dichotomous. Using recent social movements as an example (e.g., Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter), Brown challenges the reader to be willing to take a nuanced stance on issues when our humanity demands it. It’s not as clean-cut as choosing one side to the exclusion of all others, but it is essential to our personal integrity. Nuance is a good thing. It’s humane. And there’s no shame in having a nuanced opinion on any topic!
The author has a gift for weaving together compelling narrative with factual data in such a way as to motivate and equip the reader to trust themselves and stand strong in courageous vulnerability and empathetic compassion with no need for approval or permission. Her values are life-giving and line-up very nicely with what is taught in the Scriptures. Belief in the imago dei requires us to value human dignity. Full stop.
I highly recommend Braving the Wilderness (and, seriously, ANY of Brené Brown’s books) to anyone who is serious about being true to self and making a positive difference in this world. If you read it, I would love to hear what your favorite section(s) were and your favorite quotes!
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