The possibility in a word

When my now-husband, Anthony, first told me he’d majored in American Studies, I was tickled. I couldn’t fathom such a choice, which seemed so … indulgent.

Why study history when we live in the present? Why study culture when the world simply is the way it is? Far better, I thought, to dedicate time and energy to building skills critical to navigating now.

A few years ago, my husband introduced me to Neil Postman. As I read book after Postman book, I began to see some of the many ways the present is a byproduct of processes in the past. The future, in turn, will be a byproduct of processes in motion now.

Different processes, different product.

I began to grasp why two of my siblings are historians, and why my husband would be interested in American Studies.

In one particular conversation, my husband explained that he’d majored in American Studies to find words for his experiences as a Black man in America.

I was incredulous. He already had words. Why did he need a program of study to give him words, available en masse in dictionaries and thesauri everywhere?!

Recently I’ve been eating humble pie here, too.

In mid-June, someone I trust suggested I watch Brené Brown’s Netflix special. I did so, and my mind was blown. The world Brown described was so different than the world I was used to seeing. 

I liked her vision of the world better than my own; there was so much possibility in hers! I watched others of her videos. Having watched those I could find, I then bought and read each of her books, enjoying them in visual and audio formats.

It took me a little while to pinpoint what I found in Brown that I didn’t find elsewhere.

After I’d pinpointed it, I couldn’t help but laugh: Brown gave me words to describe my experience.

The first word she helped me understand in my bones was “shame.” That word described much of my life, but I’d never known the word. I’d never known there was a word to know, or that there was any other way of experiencing the world.

I saw the possibility in a word: the chance at a life not mediated by ever-present feelings of shame.

(“Shame” and the other words that follow are all defined in the Dare to Lead Glossary here.)

Next came the word “vulnerability,” which became less a word than a confluence of concepts for me.

Beginning Exercise #2 in the Dare to Lead Read-Along Workbook last month, I wrote, “I grew up believing that vulnerability was … best concealed so deeply it couldn’t be seen, because its mere presence could elicit such dangerous responses.” 

Thanks to Brown (and all those who work with her, sharing their stories, insights, and courage so that her work exists at all), I know it differently now. I embrace it a little more each day, and see how my relationships are improved by my doing so.

Also thanks to Brown et al, I’ve learned …

… the difference between “power over,” “power with,” “power to,” and “power within.”

… about “unwanted identities,” and how shame is bound up in these. I’ve begun to identify some of my own unwanted identities, and see how they dictate my behavior–as promised!–every day.

… about three forms of shame shields: “moving toward,” “moving away,” and “moving against.” Thanks to knowing these words, I’m enabled to see when, where, and how I deploy these shields, and–often–when they’re being deployed in my vicinity.

… about “overfunctioning” and “underfunctioning” as strategies of anxiety avoidance. Understanding my propensity to overfunction to avoid anxiety (a propensity apparently shared with many eldest daughters!), I recently gave myself explicit permission to step out of that patterned role and into simply functioning. My “permission slip” came in the form of an email to others, and I’m glad I sent it. Still, in the future, I’ll write them to myself and then see if anything else is needed on top of that.

Most importantly, to date, I learned that trust isn’t something reasonably given away willy-nilly or achieved through occasional extraordinary acts, but rather something earned in the accumulation of many small kindnesses–marbles in a “marble jar.”

The marble jar is a metaphor for trust. People earn trust one small gesture at a time – each gesture is a marble in the jar. The people we trust are those who have earned a full jar of marbles. Trust-disrupting behaviors result in a handful of marbles coming out of the jar – it’s hard to rebuild disrupted trust.

I learned that trust has distinct components, represented in the acronym “BRAVING.” Knowing trust flows from a convergence of these factors, I can test certain discomforts against the acronym to determine what’s going on when I feel pangs of mistrust. In BRAVING, I can better discern what’s going on; having thus discerned, I can proceed accordingly.

While my readings are now taking me onward–to Shawn Achor, Jonathan Haidt, and back to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, among others–I’m certain I’ll keep coming back to Brown. In a world so lacking in “emotional literacy” that many people can only name three emotions, I’m certain I’ll need that grounding, over, and over, and over again.

I’m glad to know where to go, when I need that. I’m glad to not only have the words,

but to finally understand what my husband meant when he said he “needed the words” to describe his experiences,

and to see all the paths opened by having the right ones.

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