I am a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown. Her courage and grace in not only living her topic but also sharing it with humor and humility is a mage level to which I aspire. That is why I need to disagree with her.
In her book Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone (which I read in a single sitting), she takes on the dire situation of our (American) spiritual crisis. I couldn’t agree more that our factionalized, lonely existence is a mortal, potentially existential, threat and means “we’re in trouble in a number of dimensions that may be related, and we need to understand all of them if we want to change that;” and that “(a)ny answer to the question ‘How did we get here?’ is certain to be complex.” I agree 100% and cannot begin to count the number of intersections that show up in this question.
So why does she then spend the rest of the section in an effort to “identify one core variable”? Brené (if I call her Dr. Brown I get distracted by flashes of Back to the Future) calls out fear as the culprit. I get it. I’ve spent over a decade studying fear, too, and am impressed by what the American Fear Factory has accomplished. And it is a factory – manufacturing “fear” the way a turbine manufactures “lightning.” Fear and lightning/electricity are power and neutral; it is what we do with them that causes benefit or harm.
And this is where I disagree with Brené; fear is not the answer to how we got here. Yes, all those “fear of…” scenarios are real and have real consequences for all of us; however, our basic emotion and power of fear is not at the core any more than electricity is at the core of our digital malaise. It is what it’s been used to do.
Fear is our alert system and we have at least six responses to this primary alert that says, “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Vulnerability is important. Getting hurt is important. Disconnection is important. Criticism and failure are important. Conflict is important. Not measuring up is important. Fear tells us this and is core to alerting us to pay attention to these things. But what is happening is that it keeps happening – our alert system is overloaded and then some. Innumerable media channels are blasting us with threats and millions of things that are important – and we can’t attend them all. So we stop attending any of them or focus our fight on the easiest target. When you keep mashing on the alarm button, it gets stuck and eventually stops working.
Brené writes that trauma and violence actually bring us together – for a short time. This is also true physiologically. Our biochemical response that we interpret as fear only lasts for about 90 seconds. If we are feeling afraid for more than 90 seconds, that’s a choice that’s been trained and patterned into us. An alert is not needed for very long and what we do as a consequence of being alerted to something is as varied as humanity. We are not all “fight or flight,” the easy target or disengaging; we are also caring, connecting, faking, and freezing. These other responses offer us ways to heal and reclaim our own buttons.
What if instead of responding to fear – to an alert to pay attention to something important – by trying to destroy or distance what is scaring us – what if we got curious? What if we kept asking empathetic questions about what motivates terrorists – both domestic and international? What if we, as Brené suggests, “talk openly about our collective grief and fear – if we turn to one another in a vulnerable and loving way, while at the same time seeking justice and accountability”? Fear is still present in this scenario, but here we apprehend an opportunity to transform trauma into healing. We need fear to bring our attention to the importance of what we are facing, that is all. After we face it, what we do is up to us.
Because, ultimately, we can’t be brave or courageous if we are not first afraid – if we can’t tell what is actually important to each of us in every moment.
(what did you make of that picture at the top? it is unlikely that you saw the sun shining through the backboard of a basketball hoop – stay curious)