Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart
Brené Brown says our belonging to each other can’t be lost, but it can be forgotten. Her research has reminded the world in recent years of the uncomfortable, life-giving link between vulnerability and courage. Now she’s turning her attention to how we walked into the crisis of our life together and how we can move beyond it: with strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation-Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. Her books include The Gifts of Imperfection, Braving the Wilderness, and, most recently, Dare to Lead.
Krista Tippett, host: Brené Brown says that our belonging to each other can’t be lost, but it can be forgotten. Her research has reminded the world in recent years of the uncomfortable, life-giving link between vulnerability and courage. Now she’s turning her attention to how we walked into the crisis of our life together and how we can move beyond it: with strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Brené Brown: I don’t think — when we’re our best selves with each other, I don’t think that’s what’s possible between people. I believe that’s what’s true between people. And I don’t think we have to work to make it true between people. I think we just have to get the stuff out of the way that’s stopping it from happening.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. She consults widely with corporate, military, and athletic leaders. And her TED talks have come into millions of homes, as have her books — most recently, Dare to Lead. We spoke in 2018, when she’d just published Braving the Wilderness.
Ms. Tippett: One of the many reasons that your work reaches people is that you — the things you write about and do your research on, you’re also completely open about how they are things you struggle with. And I think that, often, your research is a way for you to — is a very special way you have to delve into the things that you’re navigating, and that, in fact, we are all navigating. [laughs]
Ms. Brown: That’s true.
Ms. Tippett: Turns out to be good for the rest of us. In your more recent writing, in Braving the Wilderness, you talk about your childhood. And the dynamics were so completely different in the 1960s, even though it isn’t that long ago. Plus, you had moved to New Orleans, which, in 1969, the whole notion of racial belonging was, yet again, at a new, tumultuous stage. And also, your parents’ divorce and the not belonging in your family, and how that — one thing you say is that — you do, you name that as a spiritual crisis. And you said, “Not belonging in our families” — and of course, so many of us have just so many different permutations on this — you say, “is one of the most dangerous hurts.”
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I’d never thought about it, really; I had never thought about the concept of not belonging, even though I lived it. I never thought about the concept of not belonging at home as being such a universal experience of pain until — I don’t know how long ago, it may have been eight or nine years ago — I was doing some research, and I was in a middle school, and I was doing focus groups with middle schoolers. And I was asking these middle schoolers what the difference was — what they thought the difference was between fitting in and belonging. And they just had these incredibly simple and profound answers: “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”
They just rattled one off after the other, and I was so taken aback, and then a young girl raised her hand and said, “You know, miss, it’s really hard not to fit in or belong at school, but not belonging at home is the worst.” And when she said that, probably half the kids either burst into tears or just put their heads down, unable to speak. Other kids gave examples: “My parents were really athletic and popular. I’m not athletic. I’m not popular. I don’t fit in with my family. I don’t belong there.” And just this thing washed over me, of — for a middle schooler, and you know that age — for a middle schooler to say, “Not belonging here is tough, but there’s nothing worse than not belonging at home” — you understood. I felt the magnitude of it in my bones.
Ms. Tippett: You make this — just the way you make this observation — I think the way you make it is so helpful. You said, “It’s partly because we are neuro-biologically hardwired for belonging and connection. We’re hardwired to want it and need it so much that the first thing we do is sacrifice ourselves and who we are to achieve it.”
Ms. Brown: The irony, right? Yeah, we’re desperate for it. I think if you look at — if you look from the lens of neuro-biology or even evolutionary biology: as a social species, to not be wanted and to not belong to the tribe or the clan or the group meant death. We are wired for this. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who does this incredible work on loneliness, says that the only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways. [Editor’s note: John Cacioppo died in March 2018, a few months after this interview was taped.] And so that desperate need to belong is not a neurosis; or it’s not an ego-driven thing. That need to belong and be a part of something greater than us is who we are in our DNA.
Ms. Tippett: I love that also, in fact, the genius — the source of the genius of our species — that’s the implication of it.
Ms. Brown: That’s it. It is. Yet what we do to ensure that we’re accepted and fit in ensures that we have no sense of belonging.
Ms. Tippett: So you use this language of “true belonging.” So talk about what are the qualities of true belonging, as opposed to those many things we do that feel like belonging but, as you say, are a hollow substitute for true belonging. What is that?
Ms. Brown: Well, when I started looking into belonging, and I started really wanting to understand the bones of belonging — what does it mean? How do we, from a researcher’s perspective — and probably my own personal armor, really — is: What are the data here? What exactly is happening here? And I think the first thing that was surprising to me is that at the very heart of belonging is spirituality — not religion, not dogma, but spirituality — and a very important, specific tenet of spirituality, which I believe cuts across faith and denomination and belief system. And by “spirituality” I mean the deeply held belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something greater than us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion — that there’s something bigger than us and that we are connected to each other in a way that cannot be severed.
And so when I started to look at belonging, what I realized is that it is a spiritual practice, and it’s the spiritual practice of believing in ourselves and belonging to ourselves so fully that we find what’s sacred in not only being a part of something, like our DNA calls us to be, but also, we find sacred the need, on occasion, to stand alone in our values, in our beliefs, when we’re called to do that, as well. And so, to me, this idea of true belonging is a type of belonging that never requires us to be inauthentic or change who we are, but a type of belonging that demands who we are — that we be who we are — even when we jeopardize connection with other people, even when we have to say, “I disagree. That’s not funny. I’m not on board.”
Ms. Tippett: Right. So I think — all the way through this thinking and writing you do, and especially as it continues to develop — you use the word “paradox” a lot. I also overuse the word “paradox.” But the thing is, that sounds like a — can sound like an academic word, but in fact, it is just a description of the way life works and the fact that we are not a combination of either/ors. We are just this multitude of both/ands, at any given moment. So this thing, the spiritual practice of belonging, is also being able to stand alone when called to do so. And then, also, the contrast of that with loneliness, which is this crisis — but that somehow, also, to combat this crisis of loneliness, we have to learn the spiritual practice of being able to stand alone when we’re called to do that, as part of the practice of belonging.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, it sounds so — I always think about the Latin “paradoxum.” The source of the word means “seemingly absurd, but really true.” What we’re both saying sounds crazy. But I think our need to push away the word “paradox,” and the need to — our need for either/or, not “and,” is driven by our lack of capacity for vulnerability. It’s really hard to straddle the tension of yes/and. It’s really hard to straddle that, “Yes, I want to belong, I want to be a part of something bigger than me” — and, “I’m willing to stand alone when I need to.”
And it’s also hard to say, look, what if loneliness is driven, often, by changing who we are, being “perfect,” saying what we’re supposed to say, doing what we’re supposed to do? What if loneliness is driven in part by our lack of authenticity — that I can go to a party, and I can be the belle of the ball and come home completely disconnected, lonely, anxious, because never once during that experience was I myself? I was who I thought they wanted me to be. And so I do think — I don’t want it to be true, to be honest with you, Krista. I think, in some ways, it kind of sucks that your level of true belonging can never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself. I kind of hate it a little bit. But it’s just what I’ve found. It’s how the men and women that have the highest levels of true belonging show up in their lives.
[music: “In Places Forgotten” by Songs of Water]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with social researcher and wise woman Brené Brown.
Ms. Tippett: You — you make these distinctions that I think are helpful, between “standing alone” and “lonesome” and “lonely,” and that those are not all the same thing.
Ms. Brown: Everyone knows this. In my family, we call it the “lonely feeling.” We named it, so our kids could articulate it.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that. That’s so interesting. In your family, you’ll say, “I’ve got that lonely feeling.” Or your kids will say, “I had that lonely feeling.”
Ms. Brown: Yeah, and they’ll say, “I was with a group of friends, and I had the lonely feeling.” And I think we all know — everyone knows that experience of being surrounded by people and feeling completely alone — because I think you can be alone and with people, because you’re not connected to those people. There’s no connection there.
And so I love, again, Cacioppo’s definition of loneliness as being on the outside, looking in. When I stand up alone in the wilderness and take a stand on something I believe in, or stand up for something I don’t think is right or I do think is right, I feel connected to every other person who’s made that pilgrimage through the wilderness — people I know, people I don’t know but admire. I don’t feel lonely.
Ms. Tippett: So let’s talk about how — again, we’re in this deep territory of paradox — how what you’re describing is the opposite of the standoffs that we have on every side of every — across the spectrum of our culture right now. It’s standing up for what we believe in, as a way of moving behind our defenses.
So I think one way, a good way to get into that is, you have done this research on the elements of belonging, true belonging, when that’s really happening. And so the first element is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” So again, what you’re talking about is not the stance of moving through the world being solitary and righteous, self-righteous.
Ms. Brown: No. I think one of the things that we’ve seen — and I write about this in this chapter called “High Lonesome,” which is my favorite tradition in bluegrass, is high lonesome. It’s Bill Monroe and this kind of wailing and sorrow, captured in music. And I talk about this high lonesome culture that we’re living in right now, where we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been, in terms of — most of us no longer even hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically.
Ms. Tippett: You’re saying “sorting,” S-O-R-T, “sorting.”
Ms. Brown: Yeah, “sorted,” as opposed to “sordid.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Exactly. We might be pretty sordid right now too, so I just wanted to make — [laughs]
Ms. Brown: Yeah, no, we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that — and this goes back to your paradox — nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. And having shared hatred of the same people or the same — I call it “common enemy intimacy” —
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right. That’s such a good phrase.
Ms. Brown: Our connection is just an intimacy created by hating the same people, is absolutely not sustainable. It’s counterfeit connection.
Ms. Tippett: So it’s not true belonging.
Ms. Brown: Oh, God, it’s not true belonging, it’s hustling of the worst magnitude. It’s just hustling. And so my question was, for the men and women who really carried this sense of true belonging in their hearts — they didn’t negotiate it with the world; they carried it internally; they brought belonging wherever they went because of their strength and their spiritual practice around it — what did they have in common? And so this first practice of true belonging is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?
Ms. Tippett: Actually, I think, the real spiritual practice — or at least hand in hand with that — the spiritual practice you’re pointing at is reclaiming our belonging, our human belonging, and having a courage to stand alone in our own groups, to transcend the tribal politics. Is that fair?
Ms. Brown: Yes. That’s exactly right.
Ms. Tippett: So that we defy the sorting. We just say, “We’re not gonna live this way.”
Ms. Brown: I’ve probably been in front of — let me think — realistically, 25,000 people since this book came out, on a book tour across the United States. And every time, I ask the audiences, “Raise your hand if you deeply love someone whose vote in 2016 you find incomprehensible.” And 99 percent of hands go up. And we have to find a way. Then I ask, “How many of you are willing to sever permanently your relationship with the person you love, because of their vote?” And maybe one or two hands goes up.
I’m not; I am personally not willing to do that. Now I’m not going to tolerate abuse, or I’m not going to tolerate dehumanizing language. I’m not going to have a curious and open dialogue with someone whose politics insists on diminishing my humanity. Those are lines that were very clear with the research participants. But short of that, I’m going to lean in, and I’m going to stay curious.
[music: “Craco” by Hauschka]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Brené Brown. Listen to this show and everything we do on Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.
[music: “Craco” by Hauschka]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with social researcher Brené Brown, a wise thinker and writer, and a sought-out teacher by leaders in many fields. She’s turning her attention ever more to how we walked into the crisis of our life together and how we can move beyond it. Our belonging to one another across every social divide, she says, can never be lost. But it can be forgotten. This conversation was my second with Brené; we spoke once before, in 2012, when her research and TED talks on shame and vulnerability had gone viral.
Ms. Tippett: Brené, I was looking at the transcript of our conversation. I quoted something at you that you said; that “Feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human. It’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.” And I feel like we have continued to walk into that, to an extreme that — when I say I’m not surprised, I’m dismayed, heartbroken; but we could have seen this coming.
I want to read what you said then too, because it’s more true now. You said, “I’m hoping it’s not wishful thinking, but I’m thinking we’ve grown weary of that. I think we’re sick of being afraid, and I think there’s a growing silent majority of people who are really thinking, at a very basic human level, ‘I don’t want to spend my days like this. I don’t want to spend every ounce of energy I have, ducking and weaving. I don’t know where we’ll go next, but I really believe, with every fiber of my professional and personal self, that we won’t move forward without some honest conversations about who we are when we’re in fear and what we’re capable of doing to each other when we’re afraid.”
Ms. Brown: Let me tell you something. When people are in fear and in uncertainty — and we live in a culture that has no capacity for the vulnerable conversations that have to come around that fear —
Ms. Tippett: For actually facing the fear.
Ms. Brown: For actually facing it — that’s right.
Ms. Tippett: For actually letting the pain and the fear show themselves as pain and fear.
Ms. Brown: That’s right.
Ms. Tippett: That fear is sitting there, waiting to be spoken to, somehow.
Ms. Brown: If it’s burrowed, metastasized, then it can be leveraged. Now, you hold fear in front of you, and you say, “We’re fearful. We’re in so much uncertainty. There’s so much change at such a rapid rate” — if you hold fear in front of you, it doesn’t dictate your behavior. But I think, because we’ve lost our capacity for pain and discomfort, we have transformed that pain into hatred and blame. It’s like it’s so much easier for people to cause pain than it is for them to feel their own pain.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, right. You talk about that — that it takes courage to allow yourself to feel pain. It’s not a comfortable option. The other thing, I think, is that we reward outrage. And we don’t reward or create spaces where it would be actually trustworthy or reasonable to invite people to show their fear and their pain, just as that — that vulnerability.
Ms. Brown: It’s funny, because I think that’s changing. One of the things I’m super-curious about — can I just interview you now? I’ve got a lot of questions for you, Krista. [laughs] I do have a lot of questions for you.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I’ll keep this on track, all right?
Ms. Brown: So here’s my question for you. So the one place I see this shifting is, more and more, in the corporate sector. Right now, with the #MeToo movement and this reckoning we’re having around sexual violence and sexual harassment and assault of women, we see, again, the corporate sector taking really firm, hard stands on this, while we see zero movement in the government and politicians. And we see corporate sector really questioning their tolerance for the bombastic, raging, shut-people-down, “speak at, not to” — it’s unusual.
I guess, for me, I wonder what’s happening. Can you tell me what’s happening?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] No. Well, I’ll just say a little, and then I’m gonna turn it back to you. So I agree with you that — I think there’s a generational shift altogether. And ironically, workplaces and corporate sphere is more sensitive to that. It’s bubbling up and having an effect, whereas our political life is just in such a tangle. So that one place — unfortunately, that one place is where we look to see where leadership is and what’s important and what’s powerful.
Ms. Brown: That’s good.
Ms. Tippett: But I think if we can just buckle our seatbelts — this is a 20-year process, so I do think it’s coming up in all kinds of places, and it’s real; I agree with you. Like you said, the silent majority — the growing silent majority of people, I think, that is still there, I think it’s stronger than it was two years ago.
Ms. Brown: I do too.
Ms. Tippett: But somehow, we have this thing, this metastasized thing that we have to somehow — it has to work its way through our system.
All right, so we’re gonna move on from me. But so — so the second element of belonging, from your research, again feels like a contradiction, but is exactly what we need now. Just like you say: “Speak truth” — and I’m gonna — because this is public radio, I’m gonna say it here, but then we will — I’m gonna say, “Speak truth to bullshit.” Speak truth to BS. And “be civil” — which also — we’re gonna have to come up with a whole new understanding of what “civility” is. I always use words like “muscular” and “adventurous.” How do you — what is the civility we have to develop, which will let in pain and fear and true belonging?
Ms. Brown: So I really wrestled with that. As I started looking and doing a research review and trying to understand what civility was, I came across this definition from a nonprofit based in Houston, the Institute for Civility in Government — that civility is “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs, without degrading someone else’s in the process.” It goes on for another ten lines, but if we could just get that part, [laughs] I think we’d have it nailed. So claiming and caring for my identity and my needs and my beliefs, without degrading yours.
Ms. Tippett: And I feel like the third leg of these four elements of belonging — “Strong back, soft front, wild heart” — starts to get at what that looks like.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I think that, to me — I first heard the saying, “Strong back, soft front” from Joan Halifax, who’s a Buddhist teacher. And it spoke to me at the time, and I thought, I don’t know what that is, but it sounds, of course, paradoxical, and I don’t like it, because it sounds hard. I’d rather have a strong front and a strong back and a strong everything.
Our deepest human need is to be seen by other people — to really be seen and known by someone else. And if we’re so armored up, and we walk through the world with an armored front, we can’t be seen.
And so I think, when you go back to speaking truth to BS and being civil, it requires that strong back, but it requires that soft front that — is it — OK, am I crazy, or do I remember reading in your book something that said, “One of the greatest acts of courage is to be vulnerable with someone with whom we disagree”?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that’s from Frances Kissling.
Ms. Brown: But from your book, right? Yeah, that’s where I read it. And I remember thinking, when I read it, boy, now that’s a measure of courage right there. And the wild heart, for me, goes back to the wilderness that — I’m not afraid of the wilderness; I’m not afraid of that space where I share an opinion, and I look around, and I’m just surrounded by the wilderness. I don’t see anybody standing next to me or behind me: It’s just my opinion, and it’s my belief, and it’s me.
Ms. Tippett: That “wild heart” — I love that language. And that reminds me of something that you actually said when we spoke last time. And it’s funny, because I think of this as a poem. It’s five lines. It’s like: “Most of us are brave and afraid at exactly the same time, all day long.” And you talk about — the wild heart is, at one and the same time, tough and tender and brave and afraid, all at the same time.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, it is. That’s literally — if I raise my kids to have that wild heart that can be grit and grace, tough and tender, excited and scared, that can hold the tension of those things, that’s all I can ask.
Ms. Tippett: And I’m sure this question comes up as you’re out in the world there, talking to people — you are saying we have to be brave; we have to be adventurous. But it’s not about making yourself unsafe. Everybody is not called to have a soft heart in every situation. You know what I’m saying? I struggle with this. And this question comes up, because there are people who are on frontlines of danger. So how do you talk about where those boundaries are and how to think about that distinction?
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I think there are some real cultural issues. I think one of the greatest casualties of trauma is the loss of the ability to be vulnerable. And so when we define trauma as oppression, sexism, racism, I have no choice but to leave my house with my armor on and carry the 20 tons of that through my day, no matter how crippling it is, no matter how heavy it is, because I am not physically safe in a world — or, this environment. That’s why, when I work with teachers, I tell them all the time: You may be creating the only space in a child’s life where he or she can walk in, hang up their backpack and hang up their armor. Only for the hour or two hours this child is with you can they literally take that off.
And one of the things I talk about all the time when I’m working with leaders, from CEOs to special forces troops, I always ask the same question — most recently, NFL teams — “Give me an example of courage that you’ve seen in your life or that you, yourself, have engaged in, any act of bravery, that was not completely defined by vulnerability.” No one has, to this day — even special forces; when Navy Seals can’t tell you, then no one can tell you — because the problem is, there is no courage without vulnerability. But we’re all taught to be brave, and then we’re all warned, growing up, to not be vulnerable. And so that’s the rub. And so when you have bravery without vulnerability, that’s when you get what we’re looking at today: all bluster, all posturing, no real courage.
[music: “Sing To Me” by Wes Swing]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with social researcher and wise woman Brené Brown.
Ms. Tippett: I just recently did a conversation with two people, including Whitney Kimball Coe, who’s part of something called the National Rural Assembly, which I had never heard of before. And it’s this — composed of a lot of people who are — they call themselves “homecomers.” It’s people in our towns and rural areas all over the country that are, very simplistically put, on the losing side of globalization’s equations and on the losing side of a lot of what’s happened so quickly in this early century. And we got this email, and I was moved by it, and I thought, “Oh, I can bring this to Brené.” [laughs]
Ms. Brown: Yikes.
Ms. Tippett: So here’s what she said. So it brings this down to earth, what we’re talking about here. She said, “I just listened to the episode, and for someone living in a small western town, it was a lifesaver. I would really love to hear something that is focused directly on how to cope with fear.” She said, “Especially for progressives living in small, rural, conservative-leaning towns with very little ethnic diversity, there can be a pervading sense of fear, both for ethnic minorities and for progressive activists. In addition, as a writer, I receive my fair share of troll attacks on Twitter. And while this isn’t uncommon, I struggle a great deal with carrying fear while trying to continue doing my work.”
I want to say — and I want you to respond to it, and I also want to say, you’re very careful — and I appreciate this — to say that this — there’s fear on every side of our cultural equation. So this happens to be a progressive. So how would you — this feels to me like such an important question, that line between just staying safe and being courageous.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I think that — I think there is fear on every side, and I think we are our very worst selves in fear. We are the most dangerous to ourselves and to each other and even to the people we love, when we’re in fear. And so when you have a situation where you’ve got — you’re in a small town; you’re either an ethnic minority, you’re a progressive, or — whoever you are — there’s got to — here’s the thing that I thought was so important: that while the inextricable connection between human beings cannot be severed, it can be forgotten. And we need moments of collective joy, and we need moments and experiences of collective pain. We need to find ways to come together in those moments.
And when I asked the men and women that we researched, the participants for the research, what are the limits of moving close to people that you disagree with? The two big pieces were physical safety and dehumanization. And to not understand that that’s a truth for people — is privilege.
Here’s the thing — this is my bet, Krista. This is — maybe in two years we’ll be talking again. We’ll pull the transcript, and we’ll say —
Ms. Tippett: All right, we’re making a note right now. [laughs]
Ms. Brown: Yeah, make a note right now. He or she who chooses comfort — over courage and facilitating real conversations in towns and cities and synagogues and areas who need it; when you choose your own comfort over trying to bring people together, and you’re a leader, either a civic leader or a faith leader, your days of relevance are numbered.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK. I like it.
Ms. Brown: Really and truly.
Ms. Tippett: I think this is a good way to come into that fourth pillar of true belonging from your research; to bring this really close to the ground, which is also where it happens — among humans, probably in physical spaces — “Hold hands. With strangers.” There’s a period in there. “Hold hands. With strangers.” Talk about what that is.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, it’s about — the research participants who had the highest levels of true belonging sought out experiences of collective joy and collective pain. Durkheim, the French sociologist, called this experience “collective effervescence.” And interestingly, he was trying to understand the voodoo magic that he believed happened in churches: What is this thing where people seem transcendent? They’re connected. They’re moving in unison. There’s a cadence in song and rhythm. And he tried to understand what it was, and what he realized is — and that’s what he named “collective effervescence” — it’s the coming together in shared emotion.
And we have that today. We have opportunity — trust me. I’m from Houston.
Ms. Tippett: I know, I was gonna say — you’ve just gone through one of those experiences where this rises up in a way no one would have wished for.
Ms. Brown: I’ve gone through two.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah — two.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I’ve gone through two. So I’ve gone through Harvey, which — there we are, six feet of water in our street. We’re one of only four houses left on our street. Everything else has been torn down since Harvey. Everyone lost everything. You have the Cajun navy, which is 400 fishermen and women coming from Louisiana in swamp boats and jet skis and fishing boats, pulling people out of houses. Never once during this tragedy, which is still unfolding here in Houston — we’ll be in pain for a long time around it. But never once did someone say, “Hey, I’m here to help. Who did you vote for?”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Ms. Brown: That just didn’t happen. We just reached out. And it was collective: It was collective pain; it was collective struggle. But we saw hope in each other’s eyes and stories.
And then you fast-forward to baseball season, and we’ve had this incredible experience of collective joy, with the Astros winning the World Series.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Oh, OK, that’s what you mean. All right. OK.
Ms. Brown: Yeah. Yes. It was really — it was — I could give just a short story. I’m at the last game, playoff game against the Yankees. I’m standing — I’m with another couple, me and Steve — the game of inches, as they say — watching every pitch, watching every batter. I cannot take my eyes off. I’m a big sports person, so I am glued. And it’s the second-to-last batter, and I stick my hand — I shove my hand down in my husband’s back pocket, and I’m kind of holding onto his rear, like — ready. And the guy next to me goes, “Excuse me, ma’am.” And it wasn’t even my husband.
He had got up to go to the bathroom, and when he came back, he stood at the end of the aisle. But this guy was like, “But, uh, go, Astros.” And it was just this — when else are you singing with strangers, hugging strangers, high-fiving people around you? Again, the connection between people — you can’t sever it, but you can forget it. So to find moments of collective joy and pain and to lean into those, with strangers, reminds us of that something bigger.
Ms. Tippett: And trust is another subject you’ve done a lot of research on and been talking about. And it seems to me that in order for those moments, also, to continue, to start to re-stitch us as a people, to re-stitch us together or help us remember that, our belonging to each other — I don’t know. It just feels like that’s a big one for us, because so much — there have been so many hateful things said. And again, even if everybody wasn’t saying them, they’ve landed all across the spectrum of us.
Ms. Brown: That’s so beautifully put. It’s true. No matter who said them, they’ve landed on us, haven’t they?
My goal was just to try to understand, what is the anatomy or the elements of trust? What are we talking about, behaviorally, when we talk about whether we trust someone or not? And so when I think trust has fallen apart on a cultural level — it’s like one of the conversations we’re having right now, again, about the sexual harassment, sexual violence reckoning and the #MeToo movement. And everyone’s complaining about the lack of legitimacy in the apologies. Well, we’re so far away from apology time. We haven’t even acknowledged what the hurt is. We haven’t even acknowledged the pain that it’s caused people. And so to build trust again, we have to think about those elements. How and where do we start building boundaries again? And “boundaries” is a big, gauzy word, but it’s a really simple thing: what’s OK and what’s not OK. That’s it. Here’s what’s OK. Here’s what’s not OK.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really helpful. That’s really helpful. Reestablishing trust isn’t — yes, of course, it has an emotional, cerebral level. But you’re talking about — it’s these really practical steps towards that.
Ms. Brown: It’s super practical. If you don’t acknowledge the pain that you’ve caused, specifically, and you don’t make amends for it, there’s no apology. So it’s very specific behavioral things. There’s going to be no Hallmark movie of regrown trust in this culture, in our country.
Ms. Tippett: Right, where everybody hugs, and it’s done.
Ms. Brown: Yeah; no, there’ll be no hugging — there may be hugging.
Ms. Tippett: And there probably will be the Hallmark movie, but still. [laughs] It won’t be the whole story.
So I meant to bring your book into the studio with me, and I forgot. But there was a part of it where you were interviewing somebody who you were drawing out on these things you’re learning about how we do all this stuff. And you say, “One of my worst defenses when I get anxious or fearful in conflict is to put people on the stand. I break into vicious lawyer mode and depose people rather than listening. It’s terrible. It always ends badly, but it’s how I get to being right.”
And there was another one — this is one I was gonna read — where you talked about how you realized that when you were sitting with somebody, having these hard encounters, you were just thinking ahead to what you were gonna say next. And then, when people do that to you, you hate it. So talk about some of the really practical things you know about how to ratchet that back and regain — be the people we want to be, in those moments.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, I think you’re talking about an interview that I did with Michelle Buck, who teaches at Kellogg, the school of business at Northwestern. And she was — she teaches — I love the name of this. It’s not “conflict resolution.” It’s “conflict transformation,” which I think is great. And so I asked her very specifically for the practical tips, because I needed them for the holidays. But I think the practical — to me, the biggest takeaway for me, in this book, and it actually changed how I parent my kids, as well, is, we’ve got to stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that we do not belong, because we will always find it. It’s the confirmation bias. If you are looking for confirmation you don’t belong, you’re gonna find it. We don’t negotiate our belonging externally. It’s not something that we negotiate with other people or groups of people.
Ms. Tippett: It’s not something somebody else can give you.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, no one can give us this. We carry this in our heart. And so the most tangible behaviors that I have found: Stay curious, be kind, and, as Harriet Lerner has taught me, listen with the exact same amount of passion that you want to be heard.
Ms. Tippett: I’m gonna keep chewing on this, what you said when we first started talking — about how our capacity for belonging — not just our desire, but our capacity — the genius of our species lies in that.
And so that’s the large context of what we’re talking about, and also about what we’re talking about, hopefully, is unfolding in generational time, if not in election-cycle time. I want to ask you — so let me say this. I was thinking about this. I love — when you talk about how we need to find points of connection and joy, even with strangers, especially with strangers right now, I was thinking about how Dorothy Day — I love this picture of her with the San Francisco earthquake — she’s 8 years old, I think — watching people coming over in boats from Oakland. And as a child, she sees that everybody around her, all these adults, know how to take care of strangers. They knew how to do this all along. And then her question was, why can’t we live this way all the time?
And I feel like what you’re doing with your research, in a very practical way, is shining a light on what it would take — that actually — that we have it in us; and breaking that down — talking about the anatomy of trust or these very practical tools of behavior and how we are with each other. And so I know you’re out there having that conversation, with that longing that is so alive, so I just want to ask you as we close, what — right now — and this may be very different this week from what it was last week — right now what makes you despair, and where are you finding your hope?
Ms. Brown: I think my despair is — you know that movie — I don’t remember what movie it was, where the line was, “I can see dead people”? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, what is it? Somebody knows it behind the glass. What is it, Chris? [laughs] The Sixth Sense.
Ms. Brown: Yes. So I think my despair is, I can see fear in people. I think that’s maybe a gift from my work and maybe a curse. I don’t know. But I think my despair is, people still opt for causing pain rather than feeling it. And that’s just hard for me to see, because I can see it. I just don’t see the blustery, confident person. I see the scared-to-death person holding on in a very desperate way that’s causing people pain. So I think that’s hard.
The hope is that — when I think about Harvey and I think about the Dorothy Day thing, the quote — I don’t think, when we’re our best selves with each other — I don’t think that’s what’s possible between people. I believe that’s what’s true between people. And I don’t think we have to work to make it true between people. I think we just have to get the stuff out of the way that’s stopping it from happening.
[music: “Room One” by New Century Classics]
Ms. Tippett: Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation-Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. Her books include The Gifts of Imperfection, Braving the Wilderness, and, most recently, Dare to Lead.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, and Christianne Wartell.
Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The John Templeton Foundation. Harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest and most perplexing questions facing human kind. Learn about cutting-edge research on the science of generosity, gratitude, and purpose at templeton.org/discoveries.
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.
Books & Music
Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.