Braving the Wilderness

“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.” Maya Angelou’s quote serves as the guiding light through the journey which is Brené Brown’s latest book, Braving the Wilderness.

With an openness and understanding that “perspective is a function of experience,” Brown brings readers a detailed look at what true belonging really means:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.

It’s clear that this introverted author believes this idea cannot be negotiated with others, stating, “It’s what you carry in your heart.”

Brown serves up the framework of the book through the lens of four main elements:

People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move in.

Speak Truth to BS. Be Civil.

Hold Hands. With Strangers.

Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Each of the four pillars presented within this quest for true belonging calls for vulnerability and daily practice, challenging readers to belong so fully to themselves that they are willing to stand alone. Brown says this idea “is a wilderness – an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching,” and goes on to describe the wilderness intimately:

   It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.

   The special courage it takes to experience true belonging is not just about braving the wilderness, it’s about becoming the wilderness.

The author also wants readers to understand the distinction between loneliness and being alone, stating that, “Being alone or inhabiting solitude can be a powerful and healing thing. As an introvert, I deeply value alone time, and I often feel the loneliest when I’m with other people.”

Brown goes on to explain that the core variable driving most people to define themselves and sort out into factions (while simultaneously cutting themselves off from real connection with others) is fear: “Fear of vulnerability. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of the pain of disconnection. Fear of criticism and failure. Fear of conflict. Fear of not measuring up. Fear.” She drives the point home that all of this aversion surrounds the fear of not fitting in.

In an interview with Lewis Howes, Brown describes that “the opposite of belonging is fitting in,” reiterating that, “true belonging never asks us to change who we are; it demands us to be who we are.”

With this comes a call to action for readers to own their emotions, allowing for rebuilding and navigating through the pain: “Courage is forged in pain, but not in all pain. Pain that is denied or ignored becomes fear or hate. Anger that is never transformed becomes resentment and bitterness.”

Brené Brown is a social scientist and research professor at the University of Houston, and her social science background speaks through her writing. She possesses an open and brave, yet admirably gentle, approach.

As clearly written as it is, this book deserves a second read to truly soak up the abundance of advice contained within its hardcover walls. While it does seem repetitive at times, this nonfiction work is undeniably important.

Some of the most powerfully written sentences in the book are short and sweet and speak of the necessary challenge of holding oneself to a higher standard of respecting and deeply understanding others: “There is a line. It’s etched from dignity.”  

The conversation is opened in the final section of Brown’s work with an enlightening quote from Roshi Joan Halifax:

If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a font that’s soft and open…. How can we give and accept care with a strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly – and letting the world see into us.

The author states that one rarely has the gift of knowing they’re inside a moment that will be a part of what defines them. This read is sure to make readers more aware of when they are inside those moments. But even beyond that, the hope is that readers will set out on a journey of belonging to themselves:

Once we’ve found the courage to stand alone, to say what we believe and do what we feel is right despite the criticism and fear, we may leave the wilderness, but the wild has marked our hearts. That doesn’t mean the wilderness is no longer difficult, it means that once we’ve braved it on our own, we will be painfully aware of our choices moving forward. We can spend our entire life betraying ourself and choosing fitting in over standing alone. But once we’ve stood up for ourself and our beliefs, the bar is higher. A wild heart fights fitting in and grieves betrayal.

Brené Brown ends her work on a solid, ever-encouraging note: “Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.’”