A Student of Gratitude

I’ve been reading the The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.

I’m a fan of her study on vulnerability (and have in fact written a blog post about aspects of that research). In returning to her work, I’ve found elements and nuances that I’d either previously missed.

In her discussion on gratitude, for example, she notes that joy and happiness are two different experiences (‘Happiness is tied to circumstance and joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude’), and that joy’s opposite isn’t sadness but fear.

She then parses that fear and puts a label to an emotion that I’ve lived with but hadn’t been able to properly explain: scarcity.

I don’t consider myself ungrateful, per se, but I fully acknowledge that I worry and fret that the elements that make my ordinary, day-to-day life joyful will be removed. I do fear that pointing out to the Universe that I love my family, my job, music, writing, art, spirituality, will somehow ensure that those things will be taken from me.

Perhaps scarcity is more acute for those of us who grew up in broken homes where economic security and emotional security were fleeting and yet also somehow intertwined, the one working for, with and against the other.

So, I’m afraid to be grateful, and it’s time to change that.

Ode to the Splinter-Hearted

'Vulnerability is not weakness.’ – Brené Brown

Yes, I too struggle with accepting this quote. I fight it. However I happened to get here, I’ve internalized that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous. And I correspondingly have suffered (still suffer) from the misunderstanding.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who has become known for her TED Talks on vulnerability and shame. Part of what makes her work compelling is her personal story about how she herself struggles with the truth of her own quote. She’s the first to admit that she is not one of the ‘whole-hearted’ people whom she researched that accept vulnerability as a necessary result of being courageous, compassionate and connected.

To her credit—and by extension to mine and perhaps to yours—there are more of us splinter-hearted out here than there are the ‘whole-hearted.’

Backing up, I’ve mentioned several times in this blog that one of my current endeavors is to be more mindful. (Update That Will Surprise No One: I’m still terrible at it.) This has led me to reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön among others, and until recently Buddhist methodologies have influenced my practice and readings. (Disclaimer that I always feel I have to make: I am not promoting the Buddhist religion here, just trying to attribute the appropriate source of study, which is predominantly Buddhist in origin.)

Both Hanh and Chödrön frequently refer to ‘softening’ or ‘leaning into discomfort’ when confronted with a moment that is not feeling the way I want it to. Part of accepting what is demands me to be in the moment without my (usual) expectations or definitions or judgments. I admit that this concept is not only foreign to me, it’s damned near impossible to enact. My natural response when challenged by the effects of my own foolishness is to recede or numb or hide. Leaning into the very moment that is causing me discomfort is like asking a drowning man to swim one more lap.

Just get me out of the pool.

I think what Hanh and Chödrön miss, or are perhaps culturally unable to address, is the amount of shame we Americans live with. Brown understands that in order to accept our own vulnerabilities, we need to discover and name the shame we feel. According to her, this shame comes in two flavors: ‘I’m never good enough’ and/or ‘Who do you think you are?’ When I’m exposed, when someone is questioning my competency, my legitimacy, or my right to fail, I downshift into shame with delicious ease. Shame is the monster, really. Shame is the phenomenon that keeps us paralyzed. I’ve previously made mention of the need to confront fear. But when I dig into fear, into what I’m really afraid of, it’s fear of exposure. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of failure.



I’ve been writing fiction long enough now that no matter how much someone maligns a work I’ve written, I have long ago cast off any shame about what it is I do. No one is going to dissuade me from writing fiction. (If I can’t dissuade myself—as I’ve tried many times—you’re not going to be able to…unless of course you offer me a lot of cash.)

Blogging, however, has been something else altogether. This site has been up since May 2013, and, acknowledging the obvious, I still have no idea what I’m doing. Topically, I like that I’m all over the place with posts that are loosely focused on the concept of ‘beginning again,’ which is, to my feeble mind, the only way to approach any endeavor worth doing. But my liking this every-topic-I-can-think-of approach may not be what you like. And beyond all else, a blog should be a dialogue. What you see here should be the first serve of a conversation that volleys back and forth.

Mine is not the last word on anything.

Not surprisingly the posts that have gotten the most hits and feedback have been the most difficult to write, and the most frightening to put out there – the posts that made me the most vulnerable. Weakness, I’m learning, is retreat – shying away from uncomfortable topics, or not keeping up the blog at all. But being vulnerable is being authentic. Who I am as what I am. Right here. Right now. With you.

So, with all due respect to the whole-hearted folks who take vulnerability in stride, I offer to those (many) splinter-hearted folks this: if I can (do my damned best to) do this, you can, too.