Book Summary – Braving the Wilderness (The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone)

Braving the wilderness is difficult in an increasingly divided world split along political, geographic and spiritual lines. Here, Brown insists, spirituality isn’t about religion or doctrine. She frames it as an acknowledging that all people are inextricably connected. Society is in a crisis of cynicism and distrust. People have lost sight of their connections with others. Today’s us-versus-them mentality binds people together through shared outrage, disdain and fear – but diminishes the humanity at the heart of true belonging.

Brown cites how members of divisive groups commonly proclaim, “You’re either with us or against us.” This appeal to emotion drives disconnection by weaponizing the fear of not fitting in or of being wrong. Its false dichotomy silences dissent, tramples discourse, places emotion above fact and limits effective problem solving. Fitting in with a dichotomous group seems to promise belonging, but the rise of such groups correlates with greater feelings of loneliness. People might reject loved ones because of ideological differences, choosing to stand with like-minded strangers in an “ideological bunker.” Guarding yourself in such a bunker might feel like security, Brown recognizes, but she calls it a fast track to loneliness and disconnection, among the worst threats to well-being. “The most dangerous thing for kids,” the author writes, “is the silence that allows them to construct their own stories – stories that almost always cast them as alone and unworthy of love and belonging.”

Outrage and disdain for others often bind ideological groups. The same thing happens on a smaller scale in interpersonal relationships. Common enemy intimacy arises, the author reports, when two people unite in shared derision of someone else. Common enemy intimacy can be intense and immediate, but doesn’t lead to real connection. Instead, it hurts the gossip’s victim and often leaves the gossipers with an “integrity hangover.”

Humans overcome inhibitions about harming others by dehumanizing people, as in racism and sexism.

People are deeply social creatures with strong inhibitions, Brown knows, against harming other people. Overcoming these inhibitions requires seeing a group of people as “morally inferior and even dangerous” and, therefore, unworthy of humane treatment. Dehumanization, she notes, starts with losing empathy, trust and the ability to listen to others people. One side portrays the other as immoral and threatening, characterizing a clash with them as a battle between good and evil and sowing ideas about defeating or punishing the other group.

Dehumanization, whether based on sex, beliefs, race, national origin or age is the foundation of slavery, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. History shows that most people are susceptible to dehumanization’s false claims.

Name-calling is dehumanization, as is propaganda that depicts a group as animals, insects, savages or aliens. When someone labels other people with derogatory names, no matter what side the name-callers are on, Brown regards the intent as the same: to reduce that person’s dignity, and make hating acceptable. Dehumanizing behavior is common on social media, where anonymous writers aren’t accountable. Dehumanizing words and images don’t lead to productive discourse or effective solutions. When you see dehumanization, call it what it is and recognize that you, too, are susceptible to its effects. “Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart,” the author writes, “against constant evaluation, especially our own.”

“Neutrality Helps the Oppressor, Never the Victim.”

Brown insists that sometimes you must choose a side when an oppressed group needs help, even though you question the divisions between opposing groups. Complex problems usually have more than two solutions, contrary to us-versus-them thinking. You can enter the fray, she states, but maintain your personal integrity by asking if the discussion is framed reasonably, inviting others to the table and seeking alternative solutions. Don’t frame those on the other side as evil or inferior.

“BRAVING” represents the components of trust: “Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Nonjudgment” and “Generosity.”

Brown tells you that braving the wilderness in a hypercritical environment demands trust, whether you’re withstanding scrutiny and censure or maintaining your individuality while standing with others. The author’s acronym “BRAVING” gives you a “wilderness checklist”:

  • “Boundaries” – What behavior will you accept from others? Have you communicated your boundaries? When deciding whether to trust others, make sure you know their boundaries. Determine if both parties can say no if someone crosses a line.
  • “Reliability” – Do what you say you will do. Know your limits well enough to know when to say no. Stay aware of your priorities.
  • “Accountability”– Know when you’ve erred, apologize and make restitution if needed.
  • “Vault”– Be aware of whether information is yours to tell. Don’t share other people’s confidences. Notice if people inappropriately share information with you.
  • “Integrity” – Are you more concerned with proclaiming your values or practicing them? When you live with integrity, you prioritize ethics over comfort.
  • “Nonjudgment” – Can you ask for what you need and express yourself without finding fault? Extend a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself and those around you.
  • “Generosity” – Be charitable when interpreting the meaning behind someone’s words and behaviors. Extend the same courtesy to yourself.

Ideological bunkers give people a false sense of connection through shared outrage.

People who huddle in ideological bunkers, Brown explains, tend to form opinions of the other side without benefit of personal contact. Even when they know and like a member of the other group, they convince themselves that the person is an uncommon exception. People with a strong sense of true belonging, she says, eschew blanket judgments of an entire group and try to base their opinions on face-to-face experience.

Hearing dissenting opinions can make you uncomfortable, but you need contact with people who disagree with you. While some ideologies seem informed by bigotry or hatred, they’re often the result of deep pain. Pain and anger subside only when someone answers with compassion. You can convert anger to action, but holding onto anger over the long term is exhausting and joyless. “We silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking and consume only facts that support our beliefs,” Brown writes, “making it even easier to ignore evidence that our positions are wrong.”

“Be civil.” Be generous. Speak your truth, and ask questions in the face of conflict.

Brown offers Northwestern University clinical professor of leadership Michelle Buck’s tools for conflict transformation as ways you can use to get closer to people with whom you disagree:

  • Have the difficult conversation – Willingness to “agree to disagree” may feel like the easiest option, but avoiding hard conversations can lead to assumptions that generate resentment.
  • Talk about the intentions behind the conversation – Two relatives might disagree, for example, about a family get-together but both may want to increase connection. They would each benefit from understanding the other person’s motivations and priorities.
  • Future focus – Identify behaviors that can lead to a shared vision for a positive future.
  • Conflict transformation “rather than…conflict resolution” – The word “resolution” suggests returning to a prior state or selecting a new winner and loser. On the other hand, Brown says, transformation involves “perspective-taking” – that is, cultivating deeper understanding and identifying new options.
  • “Tell me more”– A discussion is an opportunity to understand another person’s stance. Ask people to tell you more about their perspective. Strive to understand the same way you wish to be understood.

Most people, Brown has learned, think they should have an opinion on every subject. People feel pressured to offer an opinion their allies might approve. This tendency is the source of a great deal of nonsense. To combat it, see if you can think of more than just two points of view.

The author proposes taking time to learn more about an issue instead of offering a superficial opinion. Avoid succumbing to the social pressure to speak up. Be giving. Be curious. Ask questions. Find out where others got their information. Gently introduce the facts as you know them. Be kind when interpreting other people’s words. Assume the best. Language changes fast, she notes, and someone might use politically incorrect terms without knowing they’re hurtful.

Seek experiences of collective joy and shared grief. “Hold hands. With strangers.”

Brown maintains that the underlying links connecting all of humanity can’t be severed, though people sometimes lose faith in that connection. They withdraw and take refuge in the supposed safety of echo chambers and ideological bunkers. This leads to the common enemy of intimacy: dehumanization of the other side, a major aspect of the current spiritual crisis.

Brown advocates renewing your faith in inextricable connection by seeking “collective effervescence.” You’ve probably experienced this mutual joy during religious services, concerts and sporting events or, perhaps, in other places where strangers convene to revel in a shared pleasure. Shared grief can have the same effect, for example, at funerals and after natural disasters or other tragedies. A shared experience, the author believes, reaffirms the belief in inextricable connection and heals the spiritual crisis.

People who use shared experiences to denigrate the other side diminish this power. “After a meaningful conversation,” Brown writes, “two people could actually have increased mutual understanding, greater mutual respect and better connection – but still completely disagree.”

True strength comes from facing the world with a “strong back,” a “soft front” and a “wild heart.”

If you succumb to fear, Brown asserts, you will end up presenting a hardened face to the world, giving the appearance of strength but protecting your secretly weak back. If you feel overly concerned with what other people think of you, Brown recommends develop a stronger back by honoring the BRAVING acronym; don’t judge yourself harshly or allow others to silence you. If vulnerability feels dangerous and weak to you, and you react to conflict by attacking and defending, let down your armor and expose a soft front. An armored front may protect you from pain, but it cuts off joy, trust and intimacy.

Vulnerability, the author discovered, is like a muscle that strengthens with practice. How does one sustain a wild heart? Embrace joyful moments while recognizing and fighting injustice. Gratitude is the key to joy. Some people make it their full-time job to search the world for proof that they’re being rejected or don’t belong. If you look for that proof, you’ll always find it. Don’t try to make the wilderness more secure and civilized for your children. Just like you, they have what it takes to survive and thrive.

Brown cites Genesis 32, in which Jacob spent a full night wrestling with God in the wilderness, refusing to give up until God blessed him. In reply, God wrenched Jacob’s hip from its socket. Entering the wilderness, she explains, is like wrestling with God. You may emerge from the struggle with a limp, but you’ll also emerge with a blessing. The limp will be a sign of your struggle. It helps other wilderness denizens recognize you, but it won’t hinder your reveling in the wilderness.

Common Humanity

Brené Brown proves, as ever, the very model of common humanity, generous insight and evolved understanding. Her thoughts seldom veer into New Age slogans or superficialities. Her consistent message is that every person you see – including yourself – is in pain and vulnerable to the judgments of others. She insists that everyone wants community, though some people subscribe to negative viewpoints in order to find it. Brown describes this process and suggests ways to avoid the pitfalls that loneliness and alienation bring. Reading her words is cheering and encouraging. Her thoughtful, compassionate approach communicates her crucial, fundamental idea: You are not alone.