Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness: the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Vermilion, 2017.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Our congregation has been studying Braving the Wilderness together for the past several weeks, as a next step in our participation in the Golden Rule 2020 project. [We finished up the study just in time for social distancing.]

The response from members of the congregation to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. People liked lots of things Brown had to say; many of her points resonated with people. Her advice seems clear, helpful, and possible to follow. People could relate to her concepts, “true belonging,” “spirituality,” the wilderness itself, and could see themselves in her stories about her own and others’ experiences. Judging from all this response, the book was helpful and inspiring. I know people were glad we’d agreed to study it.

Cover of Braving the Wilderness

For myself, I confess, I enjoyed the book study more than I enjoyed the actual book. The objections I had to various elements of Brown’s discussion on my first read-through never went away. I didn’t say much about them in the book study, I hope less because I was afraid to “brave the wilderness” than because I was trying to be a team player and not make a potentially valuable and enjoyable group enterprise be all about MY personal prose preferences.

Besides which, I saw value in the book, too. I liked Brown’s vision of being a person who can take an independent stand while remaining meaningfully connected to other human beings. I see the wisdom in her prescriptions, and would support people to practice the kind of BRAVING she recommends. I also think it helps to have a cheerleader for cultivating those skills, and Brown is a wonderful cheerleader. So if this reflection seems more double-minded (and longer) than usual, that’s why.

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The purpose of Brown’s book is to discuss her understanding of the nature of “true belonging.” That discussion amounts to a short course in how to balance the demands of belonging to some group or groups and those of “belonging to ourselves,” which in Brown’s usage seems to mean having and affirming our own, independent and potentially divergent perceptions, attitudes, positions, and ways of being in the world.

What she means by the “wilderness” seems to be the experience of standing alone: facing disagreement, being thought wrong, maybe even suffering attack [hopefully only verbally] as a traitor to one’s class or race or gender or neighborhood or tribe, because you dare to challenge one or more of the group’s cherished positions. “Braving the wilderness,” then, involves cultivating the courage, clarity, and conviction necessary to affirm your independence when needed, even when under attack for the divergence. Moreover, it involves remaining true to your position without indulging in contempt for those with whom you disagree.

She sums up the lessons of true belonging in her substantive chapters as “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”; “Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.”; “Hold hands. With strangers.” And finally, cultivate “Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.”

That is, make person-to-person connection with people, encountering others as complex human individuals rather than as walking bumper stickers; use critical thinking and ask for sources and evidence, but be humane about it; participate in rituals of collective joy and sorrow – go to arts performances and sporting events and funerals and public rituals of mourning [when possible, that is], and recognize how much we share with how many people, including people with whom we disagree; have convictions, while remaining vulnerable and able to strike out alone as called for.

Ultimately, however, this true belonging requires trust, in ourselves and in others. “To brave the wilderness and become the wilderness we must learn how to trust ourselves and trust others” (37). Brown’s book outlines what she has determined are the key component skills or dispositions that build trust, and these are what make up her acronym “BRAVING”: Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault (as in, a bank vault – an acronym-friendly way of stressing the importance of being able to respect confidentiality), Integrity, Non-judgment, and Generosity – especially when it comes to the assumptions we make about others.

Most of us would acknowledge such “braving” as a tall order, but a desirable one. Our culture seems to be moving farther and farther away from both principled conviction and dialogue, with the result that many of us receive little training in the skills of “braving the wilderness,” and less affirmation for exercising them. Brown’s book provides the encouraging experience of finding an author who approves the goal of “braving the wilderness,” who has some equipment for the journey, and who enthusiastically advocates undertaking it.

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I like encouragement, too, I do. And stories. I like when authors tell stories. Even ones about themselves, to provide the context in which the book’s central project was conceived, and by which it was informed. I’m OK with that. So what’s my problem?

It’s mainly methodological. I don’t like that dependent variable “true belonging.” I don’t like the methods section, either, which I think leaves out vital information. Consequently, while the advice advanced in the “BRAVING” acronym and in the “paradoxical” prescriptions-cum-chapter-headings seems reasonably reasonable, I don’t see how it qualifies as findings-based, and I don’t think the book makes any case for why we should think these are the critical elements of building trust, other than that it seems intuitively plausible.

My issues with “true belonging” begin with the word “true.” It’s a pet language peeve of mine, that word, given the way people use it. I work hard to get my religion students to stop imagining there is a “true definition of religion” or some “true” version of whatever religion they’re talking about, as if these abstractions of ours have magical essences, so I don’t like to see bestselling authors give them any aid and shelter. I’m also approximately 100% committed to the principle that authenticity claims are always power plays. And then there is that “no true Scotsman” fallacy. So I ask myself, what is that qualifier doing there? Why true belonging? Why not just define “belonging” and be done with it?

If we are really worried about confusing some “true” kind of belonging with some “false” kind, we can call the “false belonging” something else – like coercive conformity, or “fitting in,” or whatever.

But Brown goes on to say this about true belonging:

The quest for true belonging begins with this definition that I crafted from the data. It will serve as a touchstone as we move through the work together:

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. (40)

This does not sound like a precise definition to me.

If I could have made it past “true,” I would still have had to accept “spiritual,” “authentic,” “sacredness,” and “standing alone in the wilderness,” all of which strike me as vague terms. Aside from “believing in yourself,” and “being who you are,” both of which carry a lot of baggage. And aside from the assumption that we can “be” who we are before becoming who we are, and that this becoming would not at any point involve “change,” and that we would never find that we have become, and are now stuck with “being,” someone who actually needs to change for some good reason – like, to become sober or clean or less abusive or more humane. And aside from the disconnect involved in defining “true belonging,” which Brown mostly treats as a feeling or internal psychological state, as a kind of “practice,” by which we usually mean a regimen of behaviors.

At this point, I knew this was not “my kind of book.”

I still made a diligent search for her discussion of what exactly she had done to get “the data” she mentions on page 40 as the source for this definition. I found less of that than I wanted. Brown explains that she is a “qualitative grounded theory researcher” who tries to “develop theories based on people’s lived experiences” (33). I respect that. She lists the main questions she used to focus her research. I appreciated that. Those questions suggest that she must have identified “women and men who have developed a sense of true belonging” so she could find out from them what they had in common, how they had arrived at that sense, how important community was in constituting that sense for them, and whether “the current culture of increasing divisiveness” has an impact on their sense of “true belonging” or on their efforts to achieve it (35).

That left me wondering how she identified these people before she crafted that definition of true belonging from the data her conversations generated. So, what criterion “sense of true belonging” did she use to recruit her respondents?

I also wondered: how many of those people did she talk to? How did she talk to them – individually, or in groups? What exactly did they say to her? How much consensus did their responses display, or how much variation? What other variables seemed to make a difference in their stories: Gender? Race? Class? Age or generational membership? Education or occupation? Are the stories of famous people who have “braved the wilderness,” like Viola Davis (83-87), Pete Carroll (108), and Jen Hatmaker (151-153), which appear at places in her book, stories from her respondents? Or were they incidental? Or were the famous people her only respondents?

And most important to me: what were the connections between what the respondents said to her, and her choice of the specific nuggets of advice embodied in the elements of that BRAVING list, and of her specific paradoxical prescriptions? Why did that specific stuff bubble up from her research? If can see not wanting to make an encouraging and basically inspirational book sound like a research paper or a topline, but she could at least have put that key information in an appendix.

If she had done that, it would have made it a lot easier for me to think of the contents of the book as “findings” about trust being a key factor in having a sense of “true belonging,” and about what contributes to having that kind of trust.

As it was, her thoughts just didn’t feel like “findings” to me. They felt more like hypotheses, or interpretations. Not that I’m opposed to interpretations! But I still wish she had told me more about the data on which she based those interpretations, and about the analysis or method she used to arrive at them.

What wasn’t a methodological problem was a stylistic one. Brown is something of a romantic. I’m nothing of one, and never have been. I am suddenly recalling that, as a 5-year-old, I used to despise the way the grown-ups in Sunday school used to talk to us kids, in that forced cheerful sing-song-y voice they reserved for children, “like we’re children.” So please just tell it to me straight and don’t try to make it cute. Don’t use “vault,” for instance, when you mean “respect confidentiality.” For that matter, I could just as soon dispense with the conceits of the “wilderness” and “braving” and the “wild heart,” whatever that means, entirely. And PLEASE don’t tell me I need to HAVE a “wild heart.” And by now it should not surprise you to learn that my all time least favorite poet is Percy Bysshe “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed” Shelley. Spare me.

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Despite my grouchy, left-brain reluctance to cuddle up to Brown’s metaphors of “belonging to yourself” and “standing alone in the wilderness” and so on, and despite my skeptical hesitation to accept well-chosen stories, however vivid, as evidence that she has in fact identified the critical elements that matter for achieving a sense of “true belonging,” I felt I benefitted from reading Braving the Wilderness. It made me think about whether I, myself, meet those BRAVING criteria, and whether there’s more I could do to “move in” and meet people up close. It made me think more about the practical challenges of putting our Golden Rule 2020 pledge into action. And I got to share some interesting discussions with other members of my church.

So all in all, even though it wasn’t “my kind of book,” I felt like it was worth my while. Whether it would be worth yours [Dear Reader] might depend on how you feel about Shelley.

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interior of a hollow tower of stacked books
Continuing education.