I heard a quote by Theodore Roosevelt in a TED Talk by Brene Brown PhD, the gist of which is about stepping into the arena- trying valiantly, failing frequently, yet even in failure…daring greatly.
Brown’s talk was about vulnerability and shame. She insists that contrary to popular belief, vulnerability is NOT weakness. She defines it as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty, fuel for our daily lives as well as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. And after 12 years of research on this topic, she has resolutely concluded that vulnerability is the most accurate measurement of courage.
I would add that it is a critical component to intimacy and fostering deep relationships. I learned this valuable lesson fairly early on, during my second year of college at UVa. I was living with 6 others in a brand new triplex “off grounds” and for reasons which completely elude me became the self-appointed “house mother.”
I don’t remember much about what I did as much as how I tried to be and that was…perfect, a perfect Christian that is.
Trying to hold “family” dinners on Sunday evenings is about the only thing I managed to accomplish. But did I reveal the inevitable struggles of my 19 year old self? Not on your life. And nothing could have been more alienating. Thankfully three of the women I lived with are some of my closest friends on the planet in spite of that year of my living “perfectly,” yet I vowed to never construct a wall of invincibility again.
This lesson has been reinforced countless times with other people – most recently with a woman from another country I had never met. When I asked a simple question about her life, she replied, “That’s a funny story.”
Funny was her English translation for something quite different. In fact I can safely say that I have never heard a more heart-wrenching story from a “perfect stranger.” She apologized to me afterwards for telling me. She felt that she had burdened me, yet I couldn’t have been more grateful. I had no doubt “acquired” a sister in spirit. Ironically and not so ironically, I thought of her as not only one of the sweetest souls I had ever met but one of the most courageous.
In reflecting on this precious encounter, I remembered something else precious to me – two letters I received for my 50th birthday in March. My dear sisters threw me a surprise party and they know me well enough to recognize that words of affirmation are my “love language” far more than gifts. So they asked for people to write a card or note in lieu of bringing a gift. Two nieces really took this to heart. I shall quote part of each of their letters without identifying them. One wrote, “…you have been open about your own struggles in a way that invites that reciprocal vulnerability, in a way most aunts would not be with their nieces.”
The other wrote after a section on inner beauty, “I am, of course, referring to your unique ability to react to things in such a way that somehow demonstrates both vulnerability and strength, simultaneously – not strength in a ‘nothing-can-break-me’ kind of way but more in a ‘I allow-myself-to-be-broken-but-my-spirit-perseveres’ kind of way. The kind of strength that goes unrecognized by the person herself because it is misinterpreted as weakness.”
Brene Brown would be proud. I was touched beyond measure. Sometimes you never find out how people feel about you until it’s too late. Sometimes you never tell them. I have read and re-read those letters, never failing to tear-up when doing so.
Speaking of tears, I will conclude with yet another beloved quote by author Frederick Buechner: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who your are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”
When my aforementioned sister-in-spirit told me her story, I cried…and cried. According to Brown, the two most powerful words when we are in struggle are, “Me, too.” I learned that you don’t necessarily have to say them, just feel them. And that, my friends, is empathy.
It is empathy which douses the burning embers of shame, which as per Brown can survive only in secrecy, silence and judgment. My new friend’s sharing with me, and perhaps others, broke the spell. It allowed me to see her – really see her – and grow to love her in the span of about 40 minutes. She poured herself out, exposed her heart, bared her soul and though it all…expanded my vision of God.
And there is nothing more greatly daring than that.
– Caroline Watkins