Given how long it took to get a copy—that is, one of 114 copies—of Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart (Random House 2021) from the local library system, I’m going to venture a guess that rather a lot of people are reading it or have read it recently.
(Also, it’s a TV series? I haven’t watched it, but let me know if you have, and how you liked it.)
So I imagine lots of people on the interwebs have lots of thoughts. And feelings. Possibly many of the feelings explored in the book—eighty-seven of them, to be exact. Still, just for fun, I’ll add a few things that stood out to me:
1) A couple months ago, I took some time to write down a (slightly long) list of hopes and dreams for my writing. Not things like “get published in xyz magazine,” but things like “draw attention to ambiguity in New Testament translation and offer alternate translations that might feel more liberating,” or “encourage people to embrace their God-given agency to change what they want to change and leave spaces they need to leave.”
One of these hopes is this: “be stubbornly committed to collaboration rather than competition.”
Unfortunately, this is something I need to remind myself of regularly.
So, I appreciated Brené Brown’s exploration of comparison. Comparison, she writes, “is the crush of conformity from one side and competition from the other—it’s trying to simultaneously fit in and stand out. Comparison says, ‘Be like everyone else, but better.’” (p. 20).
Do people still say “I feel seen”? Just wondering. No particular reason.
What I liked about this is that Brown doesn’t just name and define (an unhealthy sort of) comparison. She also offers an alternative: “be yourself and respect others for being authentic” (p. 20). That could have gone on my list of writing (and life) goals, if I’d thought of it. (Maybe I’ll add it now.)
I would very much like to move away from “fit in” and toward “be yourself,” away from “win” and toward “respect others.” I think it’s helpful to have something to move toward and not just away from. For those of us who struggle with these things, maybe we won’t instantly stop comparing ourselves to others—but we can focus on being ourselves and respecting others, and maybe eventually we’ll get to the no-comparing part. We’ll see.
2) I learned from this book—and, more specifically, from Brown’s conversations with organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein—that, wait for it, the grass really is greener on the other side.
Brown writes, “As someone who can fall prey to comparing myself and my life to edited and curated Instagram feeds, I laughed so hard when [Sonenshein] told me that due to the physics of how grass grows, when we peer over our fence at our neighbor’s grass, it actually does look greener, even if it is truly the same lushness as our own grass” (p. 21).
Whaa…? That’s pretty funny. And kind of deep.
I mean, personally, our literal neighbors’ literal grass really is greener than ours, because they have a sprinkler system set up and they’re watering it right now as I look out the window. But even if it wasn’t, something about the angle it’s viewed from would make it look that way. That’s bonkers. Let’s just stew on that for a minute.
3). I also learned that apparently there’s an opposite of schadenfreude (you know, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune): freudenfreude. According to Brown, freudenfreude is “the enjoyment of another’s success,” and “it’s also a subset of empathy” (p. 36).
That’s cool. A fun word, and a good thing to practice. I hold the similar biblical ideas close to my heart: “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15), and “if one part [of the body] is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26). So it’s fun to have a cool German word describing basically the same thing. (It also pairs well, like a fine wine, with the idea of committing to collaboration, not competition, and the idea of replacing comparison with authenticity and respect.)
4. I liked this part about curiosity:
“An increasing number of researchers believe that curiosity and knowledge building grow together—the more we know, the more we want to know.
Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and, sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort.
Our ‘childlike’ curiosity is often tested as we grow up, and we sometimes learn that too much curiosity, like too much vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protection—choosing certainty over curiosity, armor over vulnerability, knowing over learning. But shutting down comes with a price—a price we rarely consider when we’re focused on finding our way out of pain” (pp. 65-6).
It feels true to me that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. And that, if we’re okay with that feeling of “not knowing,” this can motivate us to continue to learn.
It also means that people who talk like they’re experts on things are often, well, not necessarily as expert as they might seem.
I am—rightly, I think—suspicious of overconfidence. Especially when it comes to things like theology—because how much does anyone really know?
I also liked the idea of curiosity being “childlike.” In a previous super chill book review I reflected on Tyson Yunkaporta’s thoughts on children’s undomesticated brains. Brown adds another perspective on what it might mean to have faith like a child: being curious, asking questions, admitting what we don’t know, wanting to learn, not assuming we have all the answers.
I feel like people of faith—and people in general—in our highly polarized society could use a tidbit more of all of this.
5. Sometimes conservative Christians talk about the dangers of empathy, or of having “too much” empathy (whatever that means). I feel like this should call attention to itself as a big screaming red flag. But just in case it doesn’t—here’s what Brown says about empathy:
“Empathy, the most powerful tool of compassion, is an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding. Empathy has a huge upside. Researchers Peter Paul Zurek and Herbert Scheithauer explain that empathy helps interpersonal decision making; facilitates ethical decision making and moral judgments; enhances short-term subjective well-being; strengthens relational bonds; allows people to better understand how others see them; and enhances prosocial and altruistic behavior” (p. 120).
That’s cool. So many benefits, some more obvious than others. I also like the idea of empathy as an “emotional skill set” that we can learn and practice and grow in—not just something some people naturally have lots of and others don’t, and that’s just the way it is.
Things to think about, and a skill set I feel like our world could use more of.
Hope you enjoyed these quotes and thoughts. If you read Atlas of the Heart, is there an emotion (or thought) that stood out to you? Or an emotion you’d like to explore and learn more about?