We all want to be heroes in our own stories. But when we try to craft a heroic narrative for ourselves, what Joseph Campbell deemed the “mythic journey,” one big thing stands in our way: our failures.
The second act—where a story’s hero endures a trial or crisis—never seems to end. Eager for resolution and happy endings, we rush through our own struggles to reach the good part. “We like recovery stories to move quickly through the dark so we can get to the sweeping redemptive ending,” writes author and researcher Brené Brown.
Brown's latest book, Rising Strong, encourages readers to embrace their stories, difficult chapters and all. Failure is inevitable, she writes. But how we handle that failure can make the difference between becoming more hurt, shut-off, and defensive or leading what she calls a “wholehearted” life. Regardless of how much responsibility we feel for our circumstances, surviving them requires owning the role we have played.
Brown, who teaches at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, talks about applying the principles in her book to failures ranging from small to large. But Rising Strong will resonate most with readers who find themselves in a difficult chapter in their lives.
The rush to redemption that Brown describes might be especially prevalent in Christian communities. Our focus on the gospel and the ultimate story of redemption has made us, at times, prone to dismiss or downplay pain and struggle. When difficulties arise, we want to reassure one another that we don’t give failure more power than God. We tell ourselves and each other, “But God is greater than this problem.” We diminish the act of actually living out our faith amid struggle.
For this reason, while going through an especially difficult time this year, I instinctively shunned the church community. I found that I trusted non-Christians more than Christians to have more grace and space for my struggle, which I could not dismiss or hide. There were individual Christians who surprised me, who raised a lamp while I was trapped in a very dark place. But at my most vulnerable, I wanted to protect myself from the church, not turn to it.
Brown, best known for her books and TED talks on vulnerability, shame, and courage, focuses her research around the emotional dynamics I went through, the feelings we’ve all faced during our hardest times. Brown warns that by shielding our vulnerabilities and brushing aside the actual facts of our struggles, we are reducing our own resilience and missing out on the lessons available by facing them squarely. “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness—even our wholeheartedness—actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls,” Brown writes.
Her critics often misunderstand her embrace of vulnerability as wearing all our emotions and experiences on our sleeves. But Brown is clear that “we share stories with people who earn the right to hear them,” as she recently told Texas Monthly. We must respect our own vulnerability while not denying it. Ideally, the church should be a place for such openness.
In her book, Brown discusses failure as mistakes and incidents, while in the church we tend to focus more on lifestyle. We weave a pattern of our failures and call it “failing to live up to Christ’s standard.” Many Christians, I suspect, live in fear of being judged for having a less-Christian-than-thou lifestyle. This fear feeds into our narratives about ourselves—the ones counselors call “self-defeating thoughts” or “cognitive distortions”—like I am not enough or no one wants me around or I am never as good at this as someone else.
My own crisis of faith was caused by exhaustion. I would rather own my story with honesty—massive failures and all—than attend one more prayer circle where I had to rush past admitting to struggle to reassure everyone I believe God is greater. Failure does not mean we do not believe God enough. Struggle is not a sign of lack of faith.
Brown offers tactics for reaching a place where we can own our stories. This means developing the capacity to discuss how and why we failed. This is not an easy process, but support can help. Sharing our failures and struggles is not only a means to owning them, but also to deepening our connection with others; for in admitting we fail, we extend grace to others to admit it as well. Admitting that we sometimes fail does not define us as failures. Likewise, admitting we sin does not define us as sinners. In Christ, we are defined by his love and relentless grace.
If we truly believe we worship a God who asks, expects, and accepts when we come as we are, we should be able to share our stories in the church without editing them for Christian consumption. Brown sheds some light on how we do that. Though not an explicitly Christian author, she refers to redemption, faith and grace, dark and light. In Rising Strong, she advises, “When we numb the dark, we also numb the light.”
Even seemingly small incidents of adversity can add up to a dark and exhausting life if we don’t find a healthy way to address them. In her previous books, Brown talks more about building up “resilience”—something that adults who repress and deny often have in short supply. Specifically, Brown talks about “shame resilience,” a healthy recognition that everyone fails, often with the best intentions, and that how we feel about it doesn’t define reality.
But as Brown writes, “Experience doesn’t create even a single spark of light in the darkness of the middle space.” She says, “Experience and success don’t give you easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace, a grace that whispers, ‘This is part of the process. Stay the course.’”
In my darkest moments, being told to “trust God more” was not grace. Grace is acknowledging the struggle, offering a supporting hand, and loaning a little faith that there is light in the future.
I never expected the kind of emotional trauma I went through this year. It’s during the impossibly difficult process of recovery when most of us seek out a counselor or advice from someone like Brown. The optimism she provides about the role of failure in a good and whole and true story is the kind of encouragement that could gently, authentically lead a lot of hurting souls back to the greatest redemption story ever told—or help restless ones believe it in the first place.