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Brené Brown on Art and Belonging


Brené Brown is an esteemed and beloved research storyteller who has dedicated her career to the study of courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame, and whose personal journey and research have touched the lives of countless individuals. In her most recent publication and no.1 New York Times bestseller Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brené writes about belonging and human connection, in an open, vulnerable and whole hearted way. Her work is especially relevant today due to the global surge in conflict, divisivness and fragmentation which we are all of us facing right now.

This chapter of the ‘Why Does Art Matter?’ series is in particular a reflection on one of Brené’s recent interviews with photographer Chase Jarvis, in which she discusses her new publication and opens a discussion on why art and people, above all creatives, are our way back to belonging. She opens with:

"We are lonelier and more disconnected than we have ever been and it’s polarized, but art can save us".

The breaking down of singular world views and the status quo in many of the world’s societies has resulted in a certain fragmentation in our age. That is to say that today there is no one, prescripted way to live but a plethra. Many of us now have the freedom and bear the responsibility to make a choice about how we are going to live our lives and in relation to what principles, beliefs or religion. Brené’s own social research confirms the scientific theory that we are neurobiologically wired to be with each other and that we need connection: the feeling of lonliness, she says, shows us that. But keeping in mind the fact that so many of us are living side by side with people who don’t share our world view, and this often includes loved ones, one can easily contemplate how these conditions could become fertile ground for disconnection and divisiveness over connection and belonging. It could be argued that above all else human beings seek to feel connected and to belong, but is our capacity to connect under threat?

Brené demonstrates how art can serve as a tool to help us overcome feelings like disconnection and loneliness. In Braving the Wilderness she writes,

‘Art has the power to render sorrow beautiful, make loneliness a shared experience, and transform despair into hope. Only art can take the holler of a returning soldier and turn it into a shared expression and a deep collective experience*. Music, like all art, gives pain and our most wrenching emotions voice, language, and form, so it can be recognized and shared. The magic of the high lonesome sound is the magic of all art: the ability to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time. When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing … It’s the sharing of art that whispers, “You’re not alone” ’.

Brené’s advice or remedy for feelings of disconnection and loneliness, is rooted in her own hard earned knowledge about belonging, especially belonging as a creative person, one who is committed to living life with the fullest sense of authentic being and purpose in the world. She says,

“belonging is not something that we negotiate with the external world, it is something that we carry in our hearts”.

Moreover, that the men and women who have the highest levels, or the fullest sense of true belonging, not only find being a part of something bigger than them, like a community, beautiful, valuable and sacred but that they also have the courage to stand alone. Brené knows that the reason why art and creativity are going to be so important for our healing in the face of whatever we encounter next in our world is that every creative person knows what it is like to stand alone. It is she says what the cherished poet and activist Maya Angelou meant when she said:

If you carry belonging in your heart, it’s not negotiated externally with other people, however, as a social species we need to see the artefacts that allow us to find our humanity in each other, and for that we need art.

“The first time you pull away from what a particular group of people thinks and you stand alone in your conviction of what you want to share of yourself with the world, it marks your heart. You feel alone, but alive. After the first time you choose to brave the wilderness and you pull away from your critics and find power in standing on your own, every time after that when you choose fitting in over belonging to yourself, it’s painful”.

Carrying belonging in your heart is not just about navigating the wilderness, which Brené explains probably every poet, theologan and writer in history has used as a metaphor. No, it’s not just navigating but actually becoming the wilderness, belonging to and believing in yourself first, before seeking connection to any group. It’s not easy standing alone, but as Brené’s friend, author and pastor Jen Hatmaker told her, it’s ok in the wilderness, because it’s where all the artists and prophets and creatives have always lived.

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone is a paradox in itself and so to are the four necessary practices for true belonging that Brené outlines in the text, especially when reflected upon from the perspective of art.

These practices are:

1. People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.

2. Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.

3. Hold Hands. With Strangers.

4. Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Below are excerpts from Brené’s interview with Chase Jarvis on each of these four practices. You can also find the link to the interview below.

People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In.

Brené

“no-one can straddle the paradox better than a creative because that is the creative energy. Carl Jung says that the paradox is our greatest spiritual gift, the paradox is the only thing that comes close to describing the human experience, and that’s art, that’s the tension of being fierce and kind, tough and tender. Think about art, all great art and the first practice of true belonging: People Are Hard to Hate Close Up. Move In. Who shows us a glimpse of what we think we hate and can make it beautiful, better than an artist. Really. Through photography, through film … who takes us closer to people we believe we hate and then shows us their humanity in a way that is so frustrating for us, than photography or great film, or a song”.

Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil.

Brené

“The second practice is Speak Truth to Bullshit. Be Civil. But who more than artists call bullshit on the things in the world that are unkind and untrue, I mean honestly. You want to say, well, I think everything is really better in Syria that we thought it was … talk to some of the photographers who changed our whole understanding”.

Chase

“It can be very clearly argued that photography in particular changed the opinion of the Vietnam war…a handful of five photographs that shifted the American pysche over it”.

Brené

“Yes, think about what Kim Burns is doing right now with Vietnam…everyone that I know who has seen an early collection of that, said it will fundamentally shift how you think about our country … but who can do that? Can a politician do that? can a social scientist do that? a researcher? no, a creative…because what creatives do is they bring truth to us in a way where we recognise our own humanity”.

Chase

“They wrap it in something that is digestable in the moment”

Brené

“Yes, and it’s real to us! … And that’s why when people are like help me understand the creative part of this book and why I speak so powerfully about art and creativity, it’s that these are actually the leaders of this movement, because if you think you’re going to show the world your perspective on something and do it surrounded by people who are likeminded and cheering you on, then you don’t know what it means to be a creative… When you decide to become a creative and share your perspective of the world with us, you sign up for the wilderness”.

Hold Hands. With Strangers.

Brené

“The third one is: Hold Hands. With Strangers. and that is a chapter almost exclusively on creativity, shared creativity and what I call collective pain or a ministry of presence, just being with people in pain … so that a person’s broken heart can know it’s connected to all the broken hearts across time, and no one delivers on that like creatives … I’d describe the world we’re in right now as being in a spiritual crisis and when I say spiritual crisis … spirituality has a really simple definition for me from the data, it’s the belief that you and I are inextricably tied to each other. That you and I are connected in a fundamental way that can never be disconnected. We are all connected to each other, inextricably, and while that connection is not breakable, it is forgettable. And to share moments … moments that remind us not only what’s possible between humans but I think more profoundly, what’s true about what’s between us, that’s the truth of how we’re built to be together”.

Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.

Brené

"The fourth practice: Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart. That we need a strong back, we need to be courageous, a soft front we need to be vulnerable and open and we need to have that wild heart … and I think this is such a great and important message for all of us, especially for your audience of creatives: stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong because you will always find it. Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you’re not enough because you will always find it. Your self worth and your belonging is not something we negotiate externally, it is something that we carry within our wild hearts and if we spend our lives looking everywhere we go for evidence that ‘I don’t really belong in this meeting’ or ‘I’m not really an artist’ … or we keep comparing ourselves, you will find exactly what you are looking for … a large part of it is confirmation bias”.

Brené’s book is a must-read and her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, which has over 7 million views worldwide is a must-see. If you would like to know more about Brené visit: www.brenebrown.com

*Here Brené is refering to the music of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, today his singing style is know as ‘high lonesome’

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