Tuesday, September 06, 2011


There was a time in my life when I did not experience emotion. A person never would have known it by looking at me. I am sure that I seemed "happy." I smiled, chatted, could hold a fairly reasonable conversation, but honestly, I didn't feel anything.

I didn't realize it until one day, after removing myself from that which robbed me of my emotions, I suddenly felt something - in my heart - and I was struck by the power of the emotion that was suddenly there. It almost took my breath away.

I recall being in a church service some years later, after my emotions returned to me, when a beautiful woman stood to her feet and shared with the 50-some people there that she was grateful because that day she had experienced her own thought. She told the crowd that it had been quite some time that she actually had her own thought.

I cried. I cried maybe because I remembered my own joy when the ability to feel emotion returned to me - and I didn't have the courage to stand up and tell anyone - in fact I told no one - yet this woman rose to her feet and told a large group of people that she had her own thought that day. There were plenty of people who looked confused; I went and hugged her.

And I don't know why I am thinking of this today, right now. Maybe because it has been a particularly emotional week and I have had many emotional conversations - and I have cried more than I normally do over hard things - and good things.

This world can feel so overwhelming, so confusing, filling us with many emotions and thoughts. We can wake up and our circumstances seem exactly the same as they did yesterday - or our days are radically and painfully the opposite. And we rise to try and stand in the face of it all, without falling back ... or down. There are days this week when merely rising was a victory.

And I wrestled. 
And I tossed and turned. 
And I paced. 
What is it that was churning in my soul??

And then I read this: "A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick." 

We numb? Do we pace? Do we toss and turn when we should be sleeping?

And then I read this: "The root of the word courage is cor -- the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant to speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." 

The words of Brene Brown suddenly spoke to my churning soul. Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Brene spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Whole-heartedness.



Brene writes that the word courage today is more synonymous with being heroic ... And heroics are often about putting our life on the line. "Courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. If we want to live and love with our whole hearts ... our first step is practicing the courage it takes to own our stories and tell the truth about who we are. It doesn't get braver than that."

When I read those words I thought of the woman who shared with the congregation that she experienced her own thought - and the courage it must have taken - and her bravery... 

And I thought of my own unwillingness to be vulnerable yet this strong, pounding desire to live whole-heartedly. Her words pierced my heart as I considered one of the latest books I read on connectedness and my failures to live out the principles. 

Brene writes: "... Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is -- neurobiologically that's how we're wired -- it's why we're here."
Brene said through her measured research of collecting data, she began wrestling with how they, the whole-hearted, were making choices in their lives - and what they did with vulnerability. And why do those of the rest of us struggle with it so much.

"So this is what I learned," she writes (check out her blog http://www.ordinarycourage.com/). "We numb vulnerability ... And we live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability."

Honestly, my heart sank as her words whispered to my soul because I KNOW numbness and what it means to shut off emotions and to be afraid -- and to want connection more than anything else on any given day.

"We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history," she writes. "The problem is -- and I learned this from the research -- that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment, I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. I don't want to feel these.

"You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle."

But then, THEN, Brene starts meddling.

"One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics looks like today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discomfort."

I read those words over and over again. And over and over again.

Her 10 years of research found that whole-hearted people, very simply, experienced connection as a result of authenticity - they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.

And her research found that whole-hearted people fully embraced vulnerability. "They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they talk about it being excruciating ... They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say 'I love you' first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental."

The impact her research had on her own life was life altering - and how could it not be? "And you know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walk into it? A: that's not me," she said. "And B: I don't even hang out with people like that. For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.
"We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporate -- whether it's a bailout, an oil spill, a recall -- we pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a huge impact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, "We're sorry. We'll fix it. 
Brene points to the data, the 10 years of research that just might be a key to life: "We need to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard ... to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, 'Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?' just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, 'I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive.' " 

I sat down and wrote to my new friend Brene Brown with gratitude overflowing, with a thawing numbness, and a growing amount of courage to live whole-heartedly, against the odds that there will be some great payoff - a payoff any greater than living life as it was meant to be. 

Whole-hearted ...  

Whole-heartedly ...