I just finished Brené Brown’s new book (via audiobook), Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. I love the funny, irreverent, earnest voice of Dr. Brown and her way of expressing concepts in a way that are user-friendly, actionable and realistic.
Her stories remind me of an experience I had a year ago last September, when I was invited to a meeting held by my company for the international field clinical operations team in one of the largest business units here. I was one of two Latin America team members invited to participate and it was held in a lovely resort in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a 3-day meeting, with numerous opportunities for team-building and professional development, along with rich content from the various cardiac areas for which this business unit provides medical technology.
One morning there was a group run, led by a manager for the field clinical group, to be started out in the trail area of the resort near the hotel. It was a 6 A.M. meeting time, behind the tennis courts and as a runner myself, I thought it would be a nice way to connect with a team that I did not know well. But networking while on a run seemed an excellent idea. My company sponsors a marathon in the Twin Cities, and there are a lot of runners who work here. As a leading healthcare and medical device company, there is a lot of competitive spirit here. It is part of the culture, and I appreciate that it. People do not settle for mediocrity and quality is a value we all share.
I am known to foster a spirit of cooperation over competition on my own team. These values are not mutually exclusive but the paths may look different. Individual competition can be a valuable thing and I admire and respect people with high internal standards for their work. I hope I can count myself among those, and I work hard to demonstrate that.
Interestingly, the group was all women. I was a bit surprised at this. I thought that perhaps these women knew each other fairly well, and probably had run together before, at least sub-groups of them. Sure enough, several people were training for 10-miler races or marathons. I am not a fast runner, and these days I typically run at a 10- to 11-minute mile at race pace. I run for fun and I run to clear the static from my brain. I sometimes run with groups of friends, or one other running buddy but mostly I run alone and I enjoy the solitude
Here I was with this group of about 8-9 very fit women who had just all introduced themselves. I explained that I was training for the upcoming 10-miler many others were planning to run in October as well, and that I was not a fast runner, but hopefully could keep up with them. In group runs in my past experience, there is a tendency for faster people to pair up and lead, and others to pair up to run with others at a similar pace. Usually there is a periodic “scoop” where the faster runners (maybe once or twice a mile) where they run back to the slower runners and then all are more-or-less in a group again. We spread out, we re-group, in a few cycles, until the end. The faster runners get a little more mileage in, but all runners feel included in the run.
But this group was different. They took off and the pace was unsustainable for me within the first 3-4 minutes. I typically start with a warm-up pace and then gradually go a little faster as my 40+-year-old body catches up and gets a good aerobic flow going. Another woman in the back of the pack was struggling too, so about a mile in she said: “Wow, this group is fast. I am not keeping up, so I think I will head back.” I told her I agreed, but said I would be fine running with her at a slower pace. She thanked me but said she did not want to slow anyone down.
So I continued, far back from the pack now that we were a mile in, deciding that, even though it was no longer a group thing, I still want to get the miles in. Right around mile 2 the group paused and waited for me to catch up, rather than scooping and running back to get me. I caught up to them and felt a bit silly, knowing my pace was slower. Having them pause and wait for me felt like judgment rather than a playful “scoop” to meet me and be sure I did not get lost on the desert trails, or step on any snakes. When I caught up, I told them to go ahead and finish, that I was fine running on my own. I suppose it’s a matter of pride, but I did not want to feel I was struggling or slowing these women down.
So they took off again and somewhere around mile 3, I must have taken a wrong turn on the trail, since it did not seem like I was heading back toward the hotel in the loop I had seen on the map. I stopped to walk and to try to figure out the direction I should run. Two men from the same company group had the same dilemma and came across me, lost also, perhaps starting later after the 6 A.M. early start of the women’s group. We compared notes on how to get back to the hotel, and then once they picked up the correct trail, they ran off at a much faster pace and left me also.
Running back towards the hotel alone, the sun was rising and right in my field of vision. On one of the rocky trail rises I was temporarily blinded by the bright sunrise, and I tripped and went flying onto the trail, cut my shin and bloodied up my knee. Ouch! After a few seconds of testing out the knee, I realized I was fine to continue walking, and I was only a half mile from the hotel, so I finished out by being careful and returning. A couple of runners had done an extra lap for more mileage and were just finishing as well. They were alarmed when they saw me bleeding and injured and asked if I needed help.
I told them I was fine, no need to worry, I just had a little accident and was now going to head back to my room, get cleaned up and move on with my day. Fortunately the scrapes were not serious enough to need emergency care or stitches, but now I had decided that this group rejected me. I had options about how to respond to that rejection, and in the end, I chose to move on and attend all the conference sessions I wanted to join, but to pace my introvert self and take breaks when needed. I wore my scratched up knee, visible under my skirts as a badge of courage rather than a mark of shame. Two days later, I got out on the trail again and ran on my own to prove I could do it, and to demonstrate to myself my own courage in taking my own path without permission or group validation.
I am not sure I would have chosen that path had it not been for my self-awareness about my own belonging and worthiness. So many of us search for where we belong, whether at work, in our communities, in our families, in our nation, in the world. We are part of a social species and a sense belonging is fundamental. But what if Maya Angelou’s quote (which Brené Brown cites) is true:
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”
By claiming my worthiness and beginning the spiritual practice of accepting myself fully, as worthy of love even in all my faults and shortcomings, I begin to claim that place that Maya refers to, that every place that is our universal humanity. Brené Brown refers to it as the wilderness and concludes in her book that we ARE the wilderness.