“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”Brené Brown
My sister gave me Brené Brown’s bestselling book Daring Greatly a few years ago as a gift. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to tell me something, or even if this book was a good choice for me. My sister knows I love books, but mostly I love reading fiction. My own writing and editorial work involve nonfiction topics, so I was pretty sure she knew I prefer reading poetic prose and imaginative stories in my leisure time. When I asked her why she gave me this particular book, she simply said in her typical woman-of-few-words style: “Because I thought you would like it.”
I’ll freely admit this book sat on my shelf for a few years until I finally blew through it cover to cover last week. What I read prompted me to seek out the Ted Talk that Brown referred to as the impetus for the book. If you haven’t already read the book or seen Brown’s Power of Vulnerability Ted Talk, I would highly recommend reading it or at least watching the video to learn what Brown has to say about how shame and fear combine to hold us back from living the best version of our lives. They keep us from making the most of our relationships and excelling at our jobs. The last chapter of the book explains how they keep us from being the best possible parents we can be to our children.
In her work as a professor of sociology, Brown has studied human behavior for many years. She has learned that the difference between resilient people who lead what she calls “wholehearted” lives and those who do not boils down to how they handle shame. In other words, when people embrace their vulnerabilities and face what shames them head on, they get through it and thrive. On the other hand, when they hold on to what they consider to be their shame as a secret, or a shameful truth, they will never be able to get past it and that will play out in many other aspects of their lives. It can poison their connections with their friends and family, and it can even have critical implications for their physical well-being.
You may recognize that the book’s title comes from a longer quote extricated from a Theodore Roosevelt speech, often referred to as the “Man in the Arena” speech. In it, Roosevelt artfully dismisses people who stand on the sidelines hurling insults at those who are actually doing things and taking chances. He points out the courage required of those who are fully involved in the action of life. Even those who fail miserably have been bold enough to try by “daring greatly.” This is what Brown believes we need to do to live our best lives. She’s not even talking about parachuting out of airplanes, or some of the bigger things that we might typically think of as courageous. She’s talking about the smaller day-to-day interactions that inform our lives and our relationships with the people around us.
The research and anecdotes Brown writes about in this book were infinitely relatable on many levels. One thing I was reminded about in my own life was how utterly terrified I was as a kid to play piano in front of anyone. I took piano lessons for years when I was growing up. I had a fairly decent repertoire by the time I was a teenager, but the minute anyone came into the house or called on the phone and could potentially hear my music in the background, I would choke. My standards were so high for myself that I thought no one else should ever hear what I was playing. I never made myself vulnerable enough to share my music or enjoy it as a talent, other than just practicing on my own. Fast forward many years to watching in awe as my own offspring have volunteered to perform and take chances with their music. They’ve been brave enough to share, and I’ve learned from them about the enjoyment of making music with others. I’m proud of them for being bold enough to make the most of the musical opportunities that come to them, even though it’s hard work and sometimes (rarely) they come away feeling like they’ve embarrassed themselves. The payoff for all of us is that our family life is unquestionably richer because they engage so actively and joyfully in their music.
I still can’t figure out if my sister was sending me a message when she gave me this book as a gift. Like Brené Brown, my sister was trained in the field of social work, and I know she has watched me struggle at times to balance my family responsibilities against my desire to accomplish things for myself. If she was trying to tell me to take more chances, I got the message. I promise to stop waiting for perfection and start being more open to facing vulnerability in my actions and in my relationships with the people who matter to me.