As the title suggests, “Braving the Wilderness” is about being brave and being wild and being brave to be wild. Or at least this is how I perceive it. Brené Brown talks about how the courage of expressing yourself can lead to the true belonging to a community and to your own self. I’ve read a few negative reviews about her book, some complaining that she made it too short, too political or that this book can only be addressed to a white audience, where it is okay for “white cisgender hetero educated class privileged persons” to “be themselves”, as in to avoid uncomfortable race and white supremacy conversations, if that is what makes them be themselves. I’ve also read reviews saying the author does not understand systemic oppression, or that her “smug fantasyland is only supposed to make white people feel better about themselves”. Hold on a minute.
I don’t use to talk about other reviews, but when I saw so much hate and rejection thrown at a person whose message is to be acceptant of others because people are usually more than their political ideologies or the first impressions they make, I got intrigued. Non-fiction books get a lot of negative reviews from people in the field, such as sociologists or lawyers in our case. But such books are not addressed to experts – they are meant to help anyone get something useful out of them and that is what I always tend to do when reading a book, too. I don’t want to become too critical of one’s opinions in the book they wrote. Instead, I prefer to enjoy as much as I can from it. Of course, critical thinking is vital for refining our thoughts and it is also constructive, helping the criticized person correct their mistakes, but it can get really counterproductive and tiring to see only the negative aspects of books and to live in perpetual dissatisfaction. I admit, I have high standards regarding almost anything, so I do some consistent research before choosing books to read, music to listen to, films to watch. Maybe this is why the books I write reviews for are becoming recommendations.
Now, about the “be yourself” issue. This can be interpreted in many ways, just as everything else. But I would definitely not go as far as to say the author is encouraging white people to ignore their white privilege just to feel comfortable. No, no, no. It’s exactly the other way around – she encourages people to believe in themselves in order to have the courage to speak their minds and stand against injustice even though it’s hard. She is talking about the wilderness of our vulnerable hearts that we have oppressed for so long, just to fit in any group of people, groups that most times don’t even define ourselves. We don’t need to be integrated, we need to truly belong.
As an introduction, Brené talks a bit about her background and mentions a quote by Maya Angelou:
You are only free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
This quote couldn’t suit me better. In order to feel like you belong, no matter where you are, you have to let go of belonging to any place and start truly belonging to yourself. You are your own being and only you can tell yourself what to think. Not everyone has the chance to be free this way, but even the ones who get this change miss it. They get lost in social standards, they learn how to agree with others even if that is against their own beliefs, even when they simply have the opportunity, the freedom and privilege to express their opinions. Why would someone throw that away so easily? Because people want to belong, no matter what, no matter how false that connection is. Belonging to a group means surviving. Yes, that might be another one of our primordial instincts, but by simply agreeing with someone against our belief is not keeping us alive, it’s actually killing our true selves, bit by bit. The right thing to do here is to agree on disagreeing and to stand out against what is untrue.
However, it is not always that simple to choose disagreeing with someone. One common method of manipulation (often used subconsciously) that Brené points out is something known as the false dichotomy or false dilemma. A false dilemma is basically a fallacy in which a statement falsely claims an “either/or” situation. You are either with us or against us. Having to make such rigid decisions can be intimidating and confusing. In most cases, being on one side doesn’t imply being against the other one. And a lot of people can’t get over this kind of bias, so they conform to the standards and keep their real, complete opinion to themselves.
I was taught to live with the toxic habit of obedience. Now that I look back at my childhood, I used to do things just to please people who I didn’t even love or, sometimes, not even liked, such as teachers or classmates or the neighbor. It didn’t even cross my mind to consider not doing exactly as I was told, because my fear of disappointing was greater than the desire to succeed in whatever it was that I was doing. I created my own internal universe where I could be whoever I wanted, and on the outside I became silent and not very much present. Now it isn’t that easy to externalize some parts of that universe, but I have to do it, because otherwise no one will know who I really am. Otherwise, I will never belong to myself. And when you get that opportunity, you also get to give yourself the permission to speak your mind without feeling bad about it.
But it’s not always easy not to feel bad about our actions, is it? I do it all the time. When I have a problem, I try “solving” it by reminding myself that there are people in the world who have much bigger problems. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a real problem. Brown says that “the more we diminish our own pain, or rank it compared to what others have survived, the less empathetic we are to everyone”. If we ignore our own happiness to make pain for others more bearable or to make ourselves feel less guilty, we restrain our emotions and keep ourselves from feeling alive. We have to acknowledge the problems and be aware of what we can do in order to help, and that doesn’t mean we should refuse our joy.
The last question here is: have you experienced the wilderness, even just a little? I started from an impressive collection of poems depicting every possible way of mutilating and caging a heart. I could even gather them in a nice “Death’s operating manual” and challenge Tom Shadyac’s “Life’s operating manual”. But even so, I think I got the chance to be in the wilderness. And it can feel both exhilarating and terrifying.
Here are Brené’s four steps to braving the wilderness:
- 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.