Resilience: My Takeaways from Brene Brown’s “Rising Strong”
By Jen Gillum
As the deadline for this sermon loomed closer and closer, I started my writing process by asking a very normal and natural—even deeply probing—question to kick off my inquiry. I found myself asking (in somewhat of a panic), “Now, why in the hell did I sign up for this?” (I’m not sure whose life I thought I was living when I agreed to do a review of Rising Strong by Brene Brown—a book that would only be released a few days before my deadline.)
But a few calming breaths later, I started to remember how it all transpired. I blame that pesky commandment—the one I just suck at. I know you are all just chomping at the bit to start yelling out your guesses. But to spare myself that, I’ll just tell you quickly: It’s number 10. Don’t remember? Yeah, I had to look it up:
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
Listen, I’ll just tell you flat out: I covet.
I’m pretty good with not coveting your wives (though we could use a couple more hands some days in our house) and I’m great at not coveting your manservant or maidservant because, well, we already have one—and I love her beyond measure—so, really, you should covet mine!
It’s that word “anything” that really trips me up. There are some things I really do covet—quite a bit actually. The last time I stood up here, I told you all about our long journey through the world of infertility—a story rife with coveting.
With the heartbreaking news of my father being diagnosed with lung cancer—more coveting started to bubble up around that journey.
cov·et /ˈkəvət/: yearn to possess or have (something).
synonyms: desire, yearn for, crave, have one’s heart set on, want, wish for, long for, hanker after/for, hunger after/for, thirst for
It’s easy to know what I want and what I don’t want. It’s even easier to look at what someone else has and say, “I want that.” “I”ll have what she’s having please.”
When life gives us a giant dose of something we didn’t ask for—something completely “off the plan”—we often look around and covet what we don’t have—what we perceive (sometimes rightfully so) that another does have.
In the past, I’ve talked about letting go of expectations/desires that will never come to pass in order to find acceptance and, ultimately, peace. But there was something missing. When I really looked around, I saw a lot of courageous people in my life who had gone through some really painful things. They were more than just peaceful. They were wise. They were strong. They were resilient. And these traits (I assumed) MUST be what got them through their difficult times—and helped them come out on top—unscathed! They could BOUNCE BACK so (seemingly) quickly and easily!
Now, I believe everyone gets their share of pain—maybe in slightly varying doses. Like the Hemingway quote says, “The world breaks everyone . . .”
But I coveted that resilience I saw. I wanted to be “strong at my broken places.” If I had to go through all the crap that life was going to dish out, at the very least I wanted to be wiser for it. And I wanted to know how to handle it with more grace—if and when the next hard rain began to fall.
What does “resilience” really mean?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the physics concept of resilience as “Capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation, especially if the strain is caused by compressive stresses—called elastic resilience.” As it applies to people, the spin-off definition of resiliency is “recovery” or “bouncing back” after stress.
Patience is not my best virtue, so as I was waiting for Rising Strong to be released I got a little antsy; I ordered this book to peruse.
Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life is written in letter format from one Navy SEAL (Eric Greitens) to his comrade and brother-in-arms, Zach Walker, whom he hadn’t seen in over a decade and who was now struggling without a sense of purpose, suffering from PTSD and masking his pain with heavy drinking. It is a guidebook for building resilience in our lives.
While this is not the typical kind of “self-help” book that I gravitate to (and I’ll also admit that I have not finished it yet), it did whet my whistle on the topic of building resilience—and it debunked the myth of what resilience even is.
When we see the physics definition—we are led to believe that resilience (for humans) is about “bouncing back” after stress—or returning to who or what we were before whatever hard rain hit us and soaked us to the bone. Elastic resilience would lead me to believe that once I dried off, I’d be the same me I was before the rain fell. You know, I’d go back to “normal.” BUT what’s done, cannot be undone.
Eric Greitens states:
“Life’s reality is that we cannot bounce back. We cannot bounce back because we cannot go back in time to the people we used to be. The parent who loses a child never bounces back. The nineteen-year-old who sails for war is gone forever, even if he returns.
You know that there is no bouncing back. There is only moving through.
“What happens to us becomes a part of us. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives.
“In time, people find that great calamity met with great spirit can create great strength.” (pages 22-23)
This resonated with me. Quite a bit, actually.
Hmph. Remember all of that coveting I had been doing? I may have been operating under some false premises. You see, I was thinking that these lucky duckies just got a phat dose of this born-in trait called . . . AH, ah, AH: RESILIENCE!! My story was that if I could just mimic them—do what they did—hone my skills, (you know) sort of recreate their childhoods for myself . . . I could probably be a resiliency role model and super star—just like them! Sign me up! Cuz I coveted that. I really and truly did.
But after reading just the first few opening chapters of Greiten’s book, I got an inkling that I may have been a tiny bit off base about this “resilience” thing. You see, I don’t want great calamity!! No, no, no, no, no! I don’t want the world to break me in any way, shape, or form. I just want the strength!! I want the resilience BEFORE the hard rains gonna fall again. (And did I mention I’d like it to happen quickly… and on my terms?) I would have really liked the resilience BEFORE clawing my way through a dark fertility forest. And I’m really ready to master this concept of resilience BEFORE my dad loses his battle to lung cancer. (pause)
What I had not considered. . .what I was hugely naïve about, is that actually moving through these heartbreaking and painful experiences is the biggest part of HOW we build resilience.
And then Rising Strong arrived on my doorstep!
Good thing too, because I was starting to get that sweaty, panicky feeling again!
Who is Dr. Brene Brown?
Brene Brown has become a bit of a household name here at Harmony. As a very short and simplified introduction, Dr. Brown is a qualitative researcher. She does grounded theory research. And she now proudly calls herself a “researcher-storyteller” because she believes that the most useful knowledge about human behavior is based on people’s lived experiences. In her own words, she sums up her philosophy by saying:
“ . . . you will see that I don’t believe faith and reason are natural enemies. I believe our human desire for certainty and our often-desperate need to “be right” have led to this false dichotomy. I don’t trust a theologian who dismisses the beauty of science or a scientist who doesn’t believe in the power of mystery.”
She now finds knowledge and truth in a full range of sources—from scholars to singer-songwriters—and there are many ways of knowing and many paths that lead us to better understand the human spirit. Kind of makes sense why we UUs like her stuff. Right?
Dr. Brown describes the progression of her work in this way:
- The Gifts of Imperfection – Be YOU.
- Daring Greatly – Be ALL in.
- Rising Strong – Fall. Get up. Try Again.
The thread that runs through all three of Dr. Brown’s books is “wholeheartedness.” Her definition of wholehearted living is:
“. . .engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, YES, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
So, as it goes, we desire to be brave enough to be true to ourselves—to be ourselves. This requires huge risk and leaning into our vulnerability. Dr. Brown calls it Daring Greatly. Going “all in.” And here’s the rub: we do this with the full knowledge that life is going to knock us on our asses. That’s right. We will fail.
We will fail. We will fall—sometimes hard. We will get our heart’s broken. We will feel deep disappointment, shame, resentment, despair, & loathing. We will panic. We will lose all hope. Heavy emotion will drown us. Dr. Brown refers to these times as our “face down in the arena” moments. These moments can be big or small or anywhere in between, but they are always times when we have shown up and allowed ourselves to be seen—allowed ourselves to risk. Times when we have leaned hard into a vulnerable space.
The Rising Strong process
So, what is this new research all about? What does it mean to “Rise Strong”? How can this book help me? In Rising Strong, Dr. Brown goes back into the data and asks:
“What happens when we are facedown? What’s going on in this moment? What do the women and men who have successfully staggered to their feet and found courage to try again have in common? What is the process of Rising Strong?”
Dr. Brown attempts in this new book to slow down the falling and rising processes: to bring into our awareness all the choices that unfurl in front of us during those moments of discomfort and hurt, and to explore the consequences of those choices. She’s giving us front row seats as well as backstage passes so that we can access the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are taking place behind the scenes during some of our darkest moments.
What are the “Rules of Engagement” for the Rising Strong process?
These 10 tenets are the basic laws of emotional physics that help us understand why courage is both transformational and rare. They are important to understand before moving on with the process (kind of like prerequisites), but don’t worry. I’m not giving away the store here. She lists them all out in chapter one. Here we go:
- If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall: this is the physics of vulnerability.
- Once we fall in the service of being brave, we can never go back. (This is similar to Greitens’ definition of resilience. We do not “bounce back.”) Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being. (This is also what I covet. I”ll have one “emotional structure transformation”—minus the pain and suffering, please. Super size it!)
- This journey belongs to no one but you; however, no one successfully goes it alone. Solitude and connection are necessary to the process.
- We’re wired for story. It’s biological. We release happy chemicals in our brain when we hear or create beginnings, middles and endings. These chemicals then help us connect, empathize and make meaning. Research shows we do this even in the absence of data. We create conspiracies and confabulations—i.e. make shit up. And our brains reward us.
- Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we learn from our heads to our hearts through our hands. Creativity is the ultimate act of integration—allowing our new learning to become a part of us.
- Rising Strong is the same process whether you are navigating personal or professional struggles.
- Comparative suffering is a function of fear and scarcity. Empathy is not finite and compassion is not a pizza with 8 slices. You won’t run out. In fact, sharing these qualities actually causes them to grow.
- You can’t engineer an emotional, vulnerable, and courageous process into an easy, one-size-fits-all formula. Rising Strong does not offer a recipe or a step-by-step guide. It’s a theory—grounded in data—that explains a basic social process. Yours will be yours; mine will be mine. But we can find trends!
- Courage is contagious. See, my coveting plan will work—if I can just stalk the right people.
- Rising Strong is a spiritual practice. You’ll find Dr. Brown’s definition of “spirituality” to go along with our Harmony principles. We must be connected to someone or something other than ourselves—as long as it brings perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives.
And now for the actual process of Rising Strong—in a much contained nutshell, that is. You still have to read the book!
(And all of this is directly from the book.) The goal of the process is to rise from our falls, overcome our mistakes, and face hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness into our lives.
The RECKONING: Walking Into Our Story
Recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.
Well, again, that sounds divine. But the first thing Dr. Brown says about Reckoning is this: “Curiosity is a shit-starter.” And the shit part is not really the choice. Shit happens. (I know, I know. I couldn’t help myself.) Hurt happens—to everyone without exception. But the “curiosity” part—now that is a choice. We cannot reckon with our emotions at all until we decide to “choose courage over comfort.” IT take courage to be curious!!
Because what is the opposite of curiosity? Disengagement. And we disengage to self-protect. When we disengage we are choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, and knowing over learning. And, yet, the hurt doesn’t go away simply because we choose not to acknowledge it. It festers. It grows. It finds other ways to be off-loaded. Ways that do not usually align with the people we want to be and lives we want to live.
Some of these common ways we off-load hurt are listed in the discussion questions. We’ve seen them before. But seeing them does not make us good at letting them go. I’m particularly skilled at NUMBING hurt—so very easy in our culture where instant relief is a drink, bite, credit card, or computer away! I am also very skilled at BOUNCING my hurt—even if I’m not directing my anger outward (which I also do), my inner ego is always ready to hustle for my worth through comparison, pleasing, perfecting—gotta do more, gotta be more approach to life.
The bottom line for Reckoning is this:
If we desire to live with our whole hearts, we have to drop our weapons of self-protection. Walk into the cave of our darkest, scariest emotions—bringing only our own light of worthiness—to find our truth. In you must go.
The RUMBLE: Owning Our Story
Get honest about the stories we are making up about our struggle, then challenge these confabulations and assumptions to determine what’s truth, what’s self-protection, and what needs to change if we want to lead more wholehearted lives.
So, this is where Dr. Brown spends the vast majority of her time. Six of the eleven chapters, actually, are spent on rumbling with some of the toughest, most destructive (and instructive) human emotions/concepts that you can imagine: grief, vulnerability, failure, forgiveness, blame and accountability, disappointment, expectations, resentment, fear, nostalgia, stereotypes and labels, boundaries, perfectionism, identity, trust, love, belonging, heartbreak, regret, need and connection, criticism, generosity, shame and integrity.
I think I gained 10 lbs. just reading it. It was painful and overwhelming to get down and dirty with other people’s stories—let alone my own! This is definitely the part in which Brene turns on some serious floodlights inside the dark cave. I mean, every ugly corner. I cannot do it justice, so you will have to read it yourself (if you are into this kind of self-torture like I am). But I will tell you this. Dr. Brown takes every good go-to emotion you’ve got and debunks the be-Jesus out of it. It’s simultaneously shocking and empowering. I loved it and hated it. Let me give you one example:
I know. Painful, right? The goal with all of Dr. Brown’s rumblings is to arrive at our key learnings that emerge from the DELTA. Now, this is a new term that I love.
DELTA = the 4th letter in the Greek alphabet—a mathematical symbol for difference. As defined by Dr. Brown: The difference between what we make up about our experiences and the truth we discover through the process of rumbling. This is where the meaning and the wisdom of this experience live. The delta holds the key learnings.
Deltas are where rivers meet the sea. They’re marshy, full of sediment, and forever changing. They are also rich and fertile areas of growth. This is where we do our work. Magic emerges in the messy middle when we are courageous enough to rumble with our go-to emotions that sometimes mask the truth of what we’re really feeling.
Write a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble and use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent and lead.
So, here we are at the Revolution. And I want to shoot off some fireworks. I really do. But I slugged through six chapters of rumbling and more rumbling—and I feel exhausted just from reading about them. And they were not even my stories or my emotions! I’m just trying to be honest.
I freaking covet the Revolution. I do. I want that emotional transformation. And of ANY of Brene Brown’s books—this is the one where she got into it—deeply. IT’s a how-to manual, for sure, more so than her other books. And I finally feel validated in the fact that some of these emotions are the kinds of things that make getting out of bed a monumental task. Dr. Brown does say that the Revolution, the process toward the Revolution, may be a series of incremental changes. An evolution. I might be more comfortable with this word—as there is no real end game here. And she does say that choosing authenticity and worthiness in today’s world is an absolute act of resistance. I can get behind all of that.
So, if the Rising Strong process seems overwhelming to you… just know that our good friend Brene says that the process is nowhere near as powerful as the Rising Strong practice. And that the uprising has officially started when an emotion washes over us and the first thing we think is, Why am I so pissed? What’s going on with me? I need to get out my journal, or take a walk, or take a time out and dig into this. Time to rumble. AGAIN. (And—just for clarity in case you weren’t listening—you cannot do it with a large pizza or a bottle of wine.)
The ultimate act of integration is when the Rising Strong process becomes a daily practice. When we choose not to run, not to disengage, but to walk into the cave—to wade into the brackish delta with courage and open hearts and minds—to find the wisdom in the stories of our falls. And then to fall again—and rise a bit stronger the next time.
That is how we act as agents in our own lives. That is our power. That is how we choose how our story will end.
Today, I’ll end by playing Dr. Brown’s Manifesto of the Brave & Brokenhearted. Thank you very much.
This article is based on a sermon by Harmony member Jen Gillum, and is published here with permission from the author.