From her research, Brene Brown argues that in order to engage fully in our lives -- in our relationships, in our pursuits -- we must show up and let ourselves be seen. We must embrace vulnerability, which she calls uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure (34). This “showing up” is what she means by “daring greatly” (a phrase she takes from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic”, delivered at the Sorbonne on April 23, 1910).
As I wrote about recently, I have been sitting in a season of uncertainty. I have also had more opportunity this year to risk emotional exposure -- through fostering friendships and sharing my writing. All of these things stir up fear within me, and throughout this season, I have been learning to lean into uncertainty and acknowledge fear. I am also learning how to let God come alongside me and comfort me.
There have been many occasions this fall when I have prayed Brown’s vulnerability prayer, which states: Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen. (42) And an equal number of times when I then apply the definition of courage that my kids learned at Sunday School recently. Courage, they learned, is choosing to do what God asks of you when you don’t know what will happen next.
But I still struggled, frustrated that showing up wasn’t getting any easier. What if my words or work isn’t good enough? I heard the gremlins say. And how can I be sensitive to those around me while maintaining authenticity?
Brene Brown’s visual for this struggle -- walking a tightrope -- really resonated with me, as she describes:
When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable. If we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits get crushed. It’s a tightrope, shame resilience is the balance bar, and the safety net below is the one or two people in our lives who can help us reality-check the criticism and cynicism. (169)
Earlier this fall I got a card in the mail from my godmother. We aren’t in touch regularly, so her words and the timing of them truly felt God-sent. She provided that safety net of reassurance in my time of doubt when she wrote:
“I have prayed that you would have the strength to stay true to your commitments and that what you do continues to be guided by your love and faithfulness to Jesus Christ. I have prayed that God would open the eyes of [those around you] so that they could see your consistency in your beliefs and your love and compassion for ALL of God’s people that he created.”
Reading Brene Brown’s words, along with the reassurance of real people in my life like my godmother, made me want to echo Brown’s message to my own critics and that doubting voice in my head, saying,
I see you, I hear you, and I’m going to do this anyway. I want you to come, but I’m not interested in your feedback (from the video “Why Your Critics Aren't the Ones Who Count”).
She admonished that: If you’re going to spend your life in the arena you need a clarity of values, at least one person you can look at you when you fail and say ‘yes, that sucked, and you were brave,’ and a seat reserved for yourself -- because you are your biggest critic.
In addition to gaining language to use in order to fight off the critics, my small group also discussed Brown’s revelation that the key to continued engagement and vulnerability is the belief in one’s own worthiness. Conveniently, we already hold a model for this in church: We are taught that our worthiness is innate. We are God’s creation, his handiwork. Brown generalizes this concept for her audience while holding the same truth:
Spirituality emerged as a fundamental guidepost in Wholeheartedness [engagement from a place of worthiness]. Not religiosity but the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves -- a force grounded in love and compassion. For some of us that’s God, for others it’s nature, art, or even human soulfulness. I believe that owning our worthiness is the act of acknowledging that we are sacred. Perhaps embracing vulnerability...is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits. (151)
In my small group at church, as we discussed how to stay grounded in our worthiness as God’s creations, we named Bible verses we can turn to in times of doubt. For me, I remember this verse:
“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
It reminds me that, while I am an unfinished work and continue to make mistakes, I must be worthy, because he’s not giving up on me.
With these reminders of worthiness, friends at my side, and tools to fight off critical voices, I have learned how to sit in vulnerability with God. Despite the uncertainty and risk and emotional exposure, I hope I can continue to show up in the arena, and in doing so, dare greatly.
This November, my husband and I ran the Cambridge Half Marathon for the third time, under a team name we first organized in 2016. That first year, the team was comprised of a handful of neighborhood families. We encouraged each other with our training and enjoyed a carb-loaded pasta dinner together the night before the race. The course that year ran right through our neighborhood, so we felt great about running by our neighbors and family members lining the roads.
In 2017 we invited more runners to join our team. Not limited to neighborhood friends anymore, our team ballooned to the point where I decided to rent a function hall in order to share dinner together the night before the race. Since many of the runners had families with young children, I organized kids’ activities in order for the event to be enjoyable for all seventy people in attendance. There was sign-making (“Go Mom!” / “Go Dad!”), play-doh and dress up. We also had kids’ races, including potato sack, three-legged, egg-on-a-spoon, as well as the races the kids invented themselves. Each child was rewarded with a plastic participant “medal”. After the official race the next day, we shared our experiences (and celebratory drinks) in a tent designated for our team.
It felt like such a great community event that when the event planners announced there would be no race in 2018, we were disappointed. And when the race was reinstated in 2019, some of us jumped on board immediately.
This year, our team was smaller, and its composition drifted from neighborhood friends we knew to their friends, and the friends of those friends. Since I love organizing events, I appointed myself team captain once more and set about encouraging people in their training and inviting them to yet another pre-race dinner.
On the evening of the dinner, I realized that I didn’t know most of the thirty people coming to the event. I greeted people at the door, a little nervous about introducing myself to so many unfamiliar faces, after which I pointed out the name tags and various activities set around for them and their children. I resisted the urge to cling to a few good friends in the room. In the end, we enjoyed the same types of activities and kids’ races we had in 2017, and once again, we celebrated together after the race in a tent designated for our team.
It always surprises me how quickly people’s faces grow familiar. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I had made new friends. It had worked. It was okay to throw a bunch of unconnected people in a room and figure out what we had in common. And I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I ran into one of the moms at my daughter’s swim class the following weekend. It turned out our girls had been swimming side by side all fall!
When my husband and I returned home from the race, one of my sons asked me,
“Did you win?”
“No,” I told him, and yes, I thought, I did win.
As I showed him my participant’s medal I realized that not only had I made my time goal that day, I enjoyed unexpected company and found a new community. And that truly felt like something to celebrate.
Earlier this year, when my fellow church-goer and neighbor invited my husband and I to hear about her work with InterVarsity, I was intrigued. I always like hearing about what’s going on in people’s lives, but I had a particular interest in hearing how Susan was reaching higher ed students.
When I arrived at college I felt like I didn’t know which church to attend, and even after I picked one, I usually attended alone. The loss of a church community was a stark change in my life, and I missed the routine and belonging of the church in which I was raised.
I remember looking at on-campus options -- Bible studies and worship groups -- and while I can’t remember which ones I looked at, I clearly remember having a hard time finding a good fit. With one, I felt like I was from the wrong culture, and there, for the first time in my life, I felt like a minority. With another, I felt like I was dividing myself between two worlds -- my Bible study friends on the one hand and my friends from the dorm on the other. In medical school it was even harder to find Christian community, partly due to the demanding workload and partly due to the structure of the campus (mine not being attached to an undergraduate university).
Now, maybe it’s a lot to ask to find friends who know me in all aspects of my life, but when I learned about Susan’s work, I knew that the more effort that was placed in this area, the better. College and graduate students are vulnerable and isolated, and I wanted to support a cause that strives to shepherd them, give them a sense of belonging and remind them that they are fully known and loved by God.
While giving to this cause, I have enjoyed reading updates about Susan’s work with graduate students through InterVarsity on the Harvard and MIT campuses, through retreats and large groups and dinners and one-on-one outreach and faculty fellowship. If you are someone who could have benefitted from this type of community when you were in school, consider making a gift today. You can find more information about InterVarsity here.
This month, my library book club tackled Margaret Verble’s dense feat Cherokee America, a tremendous work of historical fiction that vividly illustrates the life of a mixed Cherokee-white woman named Cherokee America Singer, known to her community as Aunt Check. Born to a white father and Cherokee mother and raised in Ohio and Tennessee, Check struggles with the emotional separation she feels from her people, not having walked the Trail of Tears with her tribe.
The events of the novel take place during the spring of 1875, yet encompass sweeping issues of race, class and culture that live on today. At times, readers in my book club admitted that they felt like they were reading a modern story or at least that they couldn’t place Verble’s tale in time. I felt the same way...when the black hired hand is wrongly accused of murder...when the Cherokee work to great lengths to prevent U.S. marshalls from invading with their own laws.
And I compared this book to other related narratives and histories I have read in recent years. Verble’s work complicated my view of the Osage tribe that I grew to hold after reading Killers of the Flower Moon, and her work affirmed the complexity of the issues involved in post-Civil War America that were illuminated in Reconstruction: A Concise History.
About a year ago, my husband and I visited the Hermitage, the plantation outside of Nashville where President Andrew Jackson retired. We talked quietly as we toured the grounds, observing the solemn tone, especially when we came close to and entered slave quarters. We read plaques that described the ban on certain types of music, saw pictures of the instruments the slaves would play illegally. I commented to my husband that ironically, I had just looked at toy versions of those same instruments in catalogs I perused while compiling Christmas lists. Our culture still has a long way to go, but this was one small example of how it’s becoming more mainstream to embrace different cultures rather than force assimilation.
As we rounded the path that would take us back towards the mansion, we were struck by the sight of a small white sea in front of us. Indistinct at that distance, I squinted and asked,
Then I picked it. I picked a large handful and stuffed it in my purse to bring back to show my children at home. I did it quickly because I severely doubted I was allowed to take a sample. But I wanted it. I wanted to feel this history, and I wanted to celebrate what could have been.
Seeing the brilliance of the cotton made me wish I could erase the stain on our country, the stain of exploitation and brutality.
But since that isn’t possible, I am glad for writers like Margaret Verble who add their characters to our catalog of American experience.
Because, as one reader said at another book club a few years ago,
“We’re still here,” meaning that she and other Native Americans are still here, many with voices yet to be heard.
Whether your community celebrated Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day recently, consider picking up Verble’s work or another work by a native writer and enrich your culture with a complexity that breeds truth and connection.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.