It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.
A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.
What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society. I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here. It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.
Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation. It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.
Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity. It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.
Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around. Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.
Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong. The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference. Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.
Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else? Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?
So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews. There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books. On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.
However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices. Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”
All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference? This is the Christian life. Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.
So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.