hard not to pay attention to Brené Brown, whose most recent
book is Daring Greatly (NY:
Avery, 2012). She
has several TED talks that are among the most popular ever. She's also
done those PBS special series that usually go to the pre-eminent
psychology person of an era (years ago it was John Bradshaw).
Brown is most known for is her research on vulnerability; in fact the subtitle
of this current best seller is How the
Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
I was preparing a project that included the subject of vulnerability, so
I decided to give it a read. The popularity of the book hit me when I
went to two bookstores and found it sold out.
I didn't expect to find
a lot new on the topic since I've been a psychologist for 30+ years and much of
my work has been with men and all the ways to support their greater
vulnerability, especially in relationships. Reading Daring Greatly I discovered that I really liked Brown's sense of
humor and how she manages to steer clear of most clichés on the topic.
I've recommended it to several clients.
What I found most
interesting, though, is that what she wrote hit me in a completely unexpected
way. I've always thought of myself as reasonably vulnerable, but Brené Brown pushed me to take
a hard look at myself. I was well acquainted with the fact that my choice
to go into a helping profession was influenced by my being a caretaker in my
family. The same role developed with my friends, similar to most people I
know who have gone into this line of work.
Where Brown's Daring Greatly shook me up was to show
me that my caretaking has become how I AVOID vulnerability. By listening,
drawing people out, and giving a broadly positive response (with good intent
that is usually appreciated), I was also hiding my own strong feelings,
inhibiting remarks that might rock the boat, and seldom asking directly for
what I need.
It was embarrassing for
me to have this laid bare. Here I'm supposed to know myself—but no.
Also, seeing my behavior as a way of playing it safe made me chafe, since I
usually like to think of myself as an adventurous fellow.
The next thing to do, of
course, was to experiment with opening up more. So I made small changes,
because nobody deserved to be shocked or hurt by me suddenly spinning the dials
on how I operate. Several times I took a deep breath in a meeting and
said how I really felt, rather than making a safe comment reflecting what
others were saying. Or I gave a direct answer to a client about what I
think he should do, rather than "exploring" what he thinks. Twice
I let a close friend know I did not appreciate his sharp words, when usually
I'd just have let it settle down.
The funniest experience
was working up my courage to ask my daughter her opinion on glasses frames I
was considering (New #1). "Round frames would not look good on
you," she said. I teased that her outspoken response hurt my
feelings a little (New #2). I persisted (New #3) and told her, "I'm
tired of my look and I want to change it up" New #4). And she
proceeded to find a whole class of glasses online that she thought would look
great on me. I take that with me to the optometrist next week.
Not earth-shattering by
any means. But it's where I injected more of me into relationships,
beyond my usual caretaking and facilitating roles. These new
conversations feel more interesting, and at times funny (I had been worrying my
sense of humor was drying up!). I realize people give me way more
latitude for response than the narrow rules I’ve set for myself. I'm still far from "daring greatly,"
but there's a little more liveliness. Maybe great daring is coming next…
The new year has begun in a deluge of rain in
the Bay Area—with even a few minutes of hail and snow in Berkeley on January
23!—and a new administration in Washington.Spring programs are beginning at New College Berkeley, and some are continuing
into the second half of the academic year.
Our spiritual direction groups and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises
groups are mid-way through their nine-month journey. So far in these groups
we’ve witnessed new life coming, the passing of loved ones and loved
identities, the healing of relationships and health, responses to a new
president elected and inaugurated, and a host of challenges and blessings held
before God in a covenanted circle of praying friends.
Sometimes in our lives and in the lives of our
communities, we wonder how we can be helpful. God invites us to pray! Prayer
isn’t passive. It’s an active engagement with the Holy One who sustains us and
whose comforting and correcting grace shapes our world. Prayer stretches our
hearts and refreshes our minds with what at times is a radical reframing of our
point of view. This is especially so in a group where various people’s voices
Some of the spiritual direction groups have been
meeting for years and will continue to do so, and most of them take a hiatus
during the summer months. As the days lengthen and summer approaches, the
people in the groups rest in the familiarity they have acquired with one
another, which allows greater openness to the Holy Spirit among them.
The practice of spiritual direction is a means
of God’s grace. It’s a spiritual discipline that helps us pray as we weave the
warp of the stories of our lives with the woof of God’s story. As we do so,
spiritual maturity is nurtured through prayerful reflection and another’s or
others’ directive attention.
Stories and the knowledge they contain help us
remember how we’ve been shaped, who we are, and how we are known. We grasp for
the truth of our own life story and grapple with the knowledge conveyed by the
narratives of our culture and families. As Christians, our personal stories
rest in and are shaped by the story of our faith, the story of Jesus Christ.
The word “narrative” comes from the
Indo-European root “gna” which means both “to tell” and “to know.” The Greek
root of the word narrative is “gnosis,” knowledge. It’s the stuff of wisdom and
guides our spirituality. The knowledge contained in stories is fundamentally
relational. A word association exercise with “story,” would likely elicit
“telling” as a first response. Stories are told and heard. The listener—or
Listener—evokes the story, just as much as the teller weaves it.
Our faith is informed by narrative knowledge,
relying on stories to help us know how to live faithfully, even and especially
in times of change. This relational knowledge of God helps us rest in faith,
rather than in the emergency stances of fear and anger. The stories of our
faith—biblical and more recent—as well as our own stories and those we hear
from our brothers and sisters, shape our lives. In particular they impact us in
terms of memory, meaning, morality, and mending (healing might be the better
word, but requires resisting “mending’s” alliterative pull). All these aspects
of story-telling and story-listening are at play in NCB’s spiritual direction
and Ignatian groups.
Stories elicit emotion, and emotions embed
memory in our bodies. Preachers and professional story-tellers of all kinds
know that if you want someone to remember what you’ve said, engage their
feelings. If we laugh, cry, or feel any strong emotion, that experience will
stay with us more than if we weren’t moved by it. In the Ignatian Spiritual
Exercises, we pray through the life of Christ as presented in the Gospels. We
imagine ourselves with Jesus, as his disciples and followers were with him.
Having participated in these prayers for several years now, I hear the stories
in a new way, as though I’d been there. For instance, when I hear a reference
to Jesus’ Transfiguration, I know what it feels like to cower on the ground
with the disciples when God thundered: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!”
And, I know what I felt when I imagined Jesus coming to me as I cowered,
touched me, and moved me away from fear.
Spiritual directors intentionally guide people
toward remembered stories of grace-filled experience. There is blessing in the
original experience as well as in re-experiencing it through telling the story.
When I remember my experience with the Transfiguration account, my soul is
shaped as I contemplate God’s glory and receive the Spirit’s renewing grace (2
Stories also cultivate meaning. Religion,
etymologically, is that which binds together, just as ligaments are binding
agents in the body.We’re bound by the
meaning that religion offers, and we’re bound relationally to God and others in
the Body of Christ. Personal stories bind us together internally, through
coherence and purpose, as do the stories we call history, literature, and
Scripture. In the spiritual direction groups we hear all these varieties of
story, and the practice affords a regular time to bring all these stories into
communication with one another.
Sometimes directees have been exposed to
biblical teaching that leaves them with the impression that God is merely a
harsh schoolmaster and judge looking down from above. That is a narrative that
has been metabolized and associated with feelings, self-image, hopes, and
fears. Yet, inklings of a different spiritual narrative have brought the
directee to a New College Berkeley spiritual direction group. There’s hope that
a loving relationship with God might be forged, perhaps a relationship based on
In the spiritual direction groups and the
Ignatian Exercises, people often keep a journal throughout the year of their
experiences of God. Those journals become a florilegium;
in Latin, “a gathering of flowers,” and the classical term for a compilation of
writings. Florilegia are books that
monks and others keep of Scriptures and holy writings that have shaped their
hearts as they’ve prayed with them. Each person’s florilegium, like Scripture itself, recounts personal, human
encounters with God. The narrative of the directee’s life with God holds
meaning that anchors him or her to God, especially when those experiences might
be swept away by life-sapping ideas about God.
Narrative carries moral heft. “What shall I do
to gain eternal life?”: Let me tell you a story. Jesus taught us how to live by
telling us stories. Robert Wuthnow (Acts
of Compassion, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993) found
that one of the most significant factors in whether young people engaged in
volunteer activities was whether or not they knew the story of the Good
Samaritan. Without delineating ethical principles or arousing a rational
debate, a robust morality is conveyed through story.
Spiritual directors are with directees as
stories emerge and enlighten. A directee’s experience might be like that of
the apostle Peter by the shore of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter had
denied Jesus three times, yet Jesus didn’t chastise him for that. Jesus asked
him three times if he loved him. With each affirmation, Peter was invited to be
Jesus’ under-shepherd, feeding the sheep, just as the Good Shepherd does. So,
too, a directee praying with this passage in the Ignatian Exercises, might feel
beloved by Jesus and invited to serve others, even in ways that are difficult
In the group setting, the directees are
supported by others who witness their experience of God. Peter, too, had the
fellowship of other disciples around him bearing witness to his call. The
witness of others to our spiritual life-story helps strengthen our moral
resolve, and also attunes our discernment through the holy listening others do
on our behalf. Perseverance and discernment are crucial to integrity, parts of
the moral force of sharing our narratives.
The morality that emerges from narrative is full
of grace. It isn’t a light that scorches and destroys. Rather, like the Light
of the World, it is one that illuminates, warms, and, laser-like, molds us into
Narrative also serves a healing function. I
mention this as a separate category, but my belief is that constructing healthy
memory, weaving meaning, and fortifying morality are all generative of spiritual
health. Additionally, there is evidence that telling one’s story fosters mental
and physical healing.
Studies have found that recovering from
traumatic experiences can be expedited by writing about those experiences for
others to read, or speaking about them to others who are listening. Writing or
speaking for an attentive other, turns experiences into narratives. This has a
healing effect, as measured in a variety of ways, including immune
responsiveness, pain tolerance, and quicker healing time (see, for example, the
research of J. W. Pennebaker). This is healing work. Many believe that it’s
only through re-experiencing painful feelings in a safe and loving environment
that healing can occur.
So as we enter 2017—New College Berkeley’s 40th
anniversary year!—I’m delighted to witness the work of God’s Holy Spirit
through the spiritual direction groups around the Bay Area, including several
with UC Berkeley students, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercise groups. This is
the transformative, healing work of prayer!