A recent, innocent-sounding Facebook message from a friend brought back a childhood memory…one I was not eager to relive. But the experience is teaching me a great deal about what it means to be alive.
The message pointed me to two TED.com talks by Brené Brown. If you have not spent time with TED you are missing an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the world’s great thinkers. “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”
Brené is a social scientist whose path, much to her chagrin, led her to the study of three of humanity’s most personal, difficult and unpredictable places: guilt, shame and vulnerability.
In one of those talks Brené says guilt is reflected in “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame in “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Seldom have I felt the definitional crevasse between two words open so quickly and with such depth. The moment I heard the phrase “I am a mistake” I knew its meaning…what I did not know was the origin of my understanding. At least, not until 12:30 a.m. the following morning.
His name is Kenneth Alan Breisch and, by two years, he is my older brother. Anyone in the family can relate how, as young siblings, we did not get along. We fought frequently enough, and with such malice, I’m quite certain my Mother worried one of us would kill the other. Neither of us ever wanted that, but the stupidity with which we clashed, who knows what might have happened…even by accident. Ironically, I don’t remember a single thing we argued about. Looking back, it was never about the topic; it was always about the relationship.
In one particularly vicious episode, there came a moment when I just wanted him hurt. I recall running away in the middle of the tumult, and chose the door to the garage as my escape. I so wish I had not. There, in the middle of the floor sat the pieces of a dollhouse Ken was carefully crafting for our younger sister, Barb. One wall of the miniature edifice lay vulnerable, leaning up against another. I leapt, and came down on its midsection, breaking it in two. Perhaps I felt that in breaking it, he too would be broken.
Snapping a piece of wood might seem a trivial event to trigger feelings of shame and worthlessness, but life is not defined by the external. It is never the act itself that defines us; it is who we perceive ourselves to be in the moment of acting that burns itself into our psyche and our soul. I can still feel that moment as if in slow motion. As I rose into the air, I felt the mix of my anger, the pride he had in his creativity and workmanship, and the love he felt for Barb—love he carved into every piece of that tiny home. Even as I was momentarily suspended in midair, I knew what I was doing was wrong, hurtful and represented a kind of violence I have seldom felt.
Saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” does nothing to erase the way I feel about that moment. In spite of the oft-used phrase “God never makes mistakes,” after more than 50 years, I can still hear that tiny voice hinting that perhaps God blinked momentarily and let one slip by. And while it is difficult to admit to such a moment in life, we all have them. And when we do, it is important to quiet that voice that wants to condemn, because it is wrong!
In her wonderful new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brené says, “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
Join me, if you will, in a toast to ownership of, and engagement with, life.