Fans of self-help books seeing this book in their section of a bookstore or at the top of their Amazon search results might wonder what the wilderness that this book’s title refers to, and how “braving it” will help them lead a better life, at least in ways that other self-help books do. Though it may not be apparent from the title, Brene Brown’s most recent book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, is indeed a self-help book of the best kind not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. One that is sorely needed, I might add.

Brown’s definition of the wilderness as a metaphorical place where “belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone…[in] an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching…,” is one that can only be understood in the context of the rest of humanity: one cannot stand alone without a group of “others” to stand away from. This book is an explanation of how very much we all need one another, and to feel like we truly belong, and how sometimes, in order to get that feeling, ironically, we have to let it go. We have to be brave enough to be true to ourselves, to stand out in what could be a “vast and dangerous environment” in which we are alone and vulnerable, but also perhaps on an emotional or spiritual quest. “Belonging,” Brown says, “is real connection that [isn’t] at the cost of one’s authenticity and identity, [and that acknowledges our] shared humanity. It’s saying: ‘we’re different in many ways, but under it all, we are all inextricably connected in love and compassion.”  The wilderness is “a place of true belonging, and the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”

So…What is the Wilderness in Real Life?

This message really resonated with me, as I’ve tried to wrap my brain and soul around the divisiveness and hate that are swarming the internet these days, and spilling out into real life in very hurtful, sometimes even deadly ways. It seems to me that this is caused, at least in part, by people who are trying to express themselves by tearing down others, in their own misguided attempts to “belong to themselves.” And it also seems that, if I may be so bold as to shrink the cause of all that into one small, all-inclusive phrase, many people are horrible at being civil, particularly online, and when people are voicing their opinions right and left with the microphone of social media at their mouths, again in an attempt to be true to themselves, but still not taking into account or inviting others to express theirs because they have yet to find or make a truly safe space on the internet. At a time when communication has never been so easy and had such a wide-ranging and immediate effect, we are still very much in our infancy in terms of communicating–and thus, connecting–with others online. The internet seems like it might be that wilderness, that place of danger and vastness. But it is not. the internet is the chaos of civilization, the thick of thrown words. The wilderness is the place one goes to clear one’s head of that chaos, to plumb the depths of one’s soul and find the courage to not only be comfortable with that soul, but to love that soul enough that you can love others. To truly belong.

How Did She Determine How People Truly Belong?

Discussing true belonging, Brown defined four main questions that she used to analyze data that she had gathered at the University of Houston about people who fit the profile of truly belonging:

  1. What is the process, practice, or approach that the women and men who have developed a sense of true belonging share in common?
  2. What does it take to get to the place in our life where we belong nowhere and everywhere, where belonging is in our heart and not something that others can hold hostage or take away, where belonging is not a reward for perfecting, pleasing, proving, and pretending?
  3. If we’re willing to brave the wilderness to stand alone in our integrity, do we still need that sense of belonging that comes from community?
  4. Does the current culture of increasing divisiveness affect our quest for true belonging? If so, how?

Four Elements of True Belonging

In Braving the Wilderness, she found that, after analyzing her data and answering those questions, there were four elements of true belonging that she spends a good part of the book talking about:

  1. People are hard to hate close up. Move in. For those of you who are Christians, maybe this is why Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). He didn’t just say: “love people.”
  2. Speak truth to b.s. Be civil. This is Brown’s wonderful, no-nonsense, even snarky way of saying “it’s not just about being nicer to people, on-line and off. It’s about calling things out for what they are while still being respectful and maybe even constructive.” For those of who wondering how to be civil, there’s this wonderful book called Crucial Conversations that has some very good guidelines for that.
  3. Hold hands with strangers, which can be scary, especially if they have vastly different opinions and lifestyles. But we are all, ultimately, human, and will be able to find something in common. It takes an element of spirituality, which she defines as “recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to one another by a power greater than us.”
  4. Strong back, soft front, wild heart. Strong spine, open mind, brave heart.

Truly belonging, says Brown quoting Maya Angelou, is belonging “everywhere and nowhere.” It’s a truly powerful dichotomy that I hope to one day experience.

Ten stars, by the way. And then some. And I highly recommend you get the audiobook version, which Brown herself narrates.

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