Is there a soul, I wonder, who hasn’t walked that lonesome road? You know what I mean. James Taylor is very clear. Standing in the wreckage of some intense argument that went a step or two too far, or having confronted or been confronted with some thoughtless act more egregious than just everyday cluelessness, we find ourselves suddenly facing a yawning gulf in what we had felt was a pretty sturdy relationship.
We probably feel this most intensely in romantic relationships, but hiccups like this happen in any significant relationship in our lives. Distracted, sad, our stomachs tied in what seems an undoable knot, we replay the event over and over in our minds: Did I have to say that? Did she have to say that? Did he have to do that? Did I have to respond that way?
We swing from self-righteous to sad and back: That wasn’t fair. I guess I wasn’t fair. Maybe this is the end. It can’t be the end. What am I going to do?
“If I had stopped to listen once or twice,
If I had closed my mouth and opened my eyes,
If I had cooled my head and warmed my heart
I’d not be on this road tonight.”
What we’re talking about here, Brene Brown says, is heartbreak – again the relationship need not be romantic, but it is one in which we feel invested, where we truly love another person. And when the break happens, we tumble inevitably into grief, which we feel as a sense of longing and loss.
Of course, we may not process our feelings that way at first. Singed with the pain of that break, we may turn instead to anger or dismissiveness. Fine: if X is going to be that way, to heck with him or her. It’s no skin off my nose.
As satisfying as such bluster may feel – for a moment – it gets us nowhere because it is frankly a denial of how we really feel – which is lousy. As Brene Brown puts it, “There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out of their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed.”
There’s an odd narrative in our culture that paints the image of strength as person who presents themselves as essentially bullet proof, who takes a hit and keeps on going, who acknowledges no hurt, no pain. Brene Brown argues that the opposite is true, that someone who acknowledges no pain is not someone to look up to but someone to look out for. Because it means that that person has no clear sense of his or her feelings.
We celebrate these stories of people who fight back from adversity, but don’t acknowledge the emotional struggle it took to do that. And in doing that we misperceive what the process truly involves. “Heartbreak knocks the wind out of you,” she says, “and the feelings of loss and longing can make getting out of bed a monumental task.”
Rather than celebrate impervious resilience, Brown says, she holds up what she calls “bad-assery” in relationships. Come again? That’s right, bad-assery, she says, as in: “When I see people stand fully in their truth, or when I see someone fall down, get up and say, ‘Damn. That really hurt, but this is important to me and I’m going in again’ my gut reaction is, ‘What a badass!” Bad-ass, as in showing true courage and resilience, not slinking away into silence or self-pity.
People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth of their lives, she says, “are the real badasses.” They are the people, she adds, “who say ‘our family is really hurting. We could use your support.’ And the man who tells his son, ‘It’s OK to be sad. We all get sad. We just need to talk about it.’ And it’s the woman who says, ‘Our team dropped the ball. We need to stop blaming each other and talk about what happened so we can fix it and more forward.’”
It’s good, Brene Brown says, that there are people daring enough to take on the tough tasks of justice making and community building that we need. But among them, she adds: “We also need a critical mass of badasses.” These are people who when confronted with difficulty don’t put up false poses of invulnerability, but who instead “are willing to dare, fail, feel their way through tough emotions and try again.”
Of course, this is demanding stuff. And, as Brene Brown suggests, there aren’t a lot of models for this kind of work.
Where might we today find someone who could show us an example of courage and commitment, who acknowledges emotional pain and damage, but also shows strength in coming to terms with who they are and what matters, someone we might call a brave “badass” of forgiveness?
I’d like to offer one example you may find surprising: Beyonce. That’s right, Beyonce, the singer-songwriter, mega-millionaire, pop diva. The image we have of Beyonce is the superstar who serenaded Barak and Michelle Obama on the night of his election as president and who sells out arenas with her provocative, high-energy performances.
Earlier this year, though, she released an album with a very different vibe. The combined CD and hour-long DVD entitled “Lemonade” is a thinly veiled rendition of the stages of anger, grief and reconciliation that she endured after learning of the infidelities of her husband, the rapper Jay-Z. Beyonce has refused to discuss the situation publicly, but instead in this album she let her art tell her story, and it does.
It’s a surprisingly raw and vulnerable statement for an artist who projects an image of indomitable fierceness. Yet she does even more than that: she conjures up the weight that African-American women have had to carry for centuries, not only from disappointments in relationships but also from a society that diminishes and belittles them. She even gives a place of honor to images of mothers of African-American men who died in recent police shootings.
In one song, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she intersperses clips from Malcolm X saying, “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman, The most unprotected person in America is the black woman, The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
And yet, as if in response, she weaves in a clip from a video of the 90th birthday of Jay Z’s grandmother saying, “I’ve had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was given lemons and I made lemonade.”
She also quotes a recipe for lemonade from her own grandmother, telling her, “You spun gold out of this hard life. Conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live.”
As for Jay Z, well, the message is pretty clear: in tough language she tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s close to losing the best thing he ever had. “Who the … do you think you are? You ain’t married to no average …, boy.” And if the extent of her anger isn’t clear, in one song she walks down a street with a baseball bat, smashing shop windows and car windows, then hops into a monster truck that crushes them all.
But the stunning parts of the video come in the sections of “Redemption” and “Reconciliation” that close the piece. If there’s any question whether Beyonce is one of Brene Brown’s badasses willing to dare and fall and find her way through tough emotions, those doubts are removed here:
“Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying
But nine times outta ten, I know you’re trying
So I’m trying to be fair
And you’re trying to be there and to care . . .
All the loving I’ve been giving goes unnoticed
It’s just floating in the air, lookie there
Are you aware you’re my lifeline, are you tryna kill me
If I wasn’t me, would you still feel me?
Cause you, you, you, you and me could move a mountain
You, you, you, you and me could calm a war down
You, you, you, you and me could make it rain now
You, you, you, you and me would stop this love drought
“Sandcastles,” which you heard earlier is the turning point. It is the moment in the video when Jay Z joins Beyonce, and in beautifully intimate images that strip away all the glitz of their show business lives we see simply two people finding peace and reconciliation in each other’s company.
And it’s not just syrupy sweet stuff. The lyrics cleverly point to the kinds of things we must relinquish if we are to find healing – pride, indignation, self-righteousness – and reestablish damaged relationships.
The title tells how crushing this process was. All that they had before, she said – their promises, their vows to each other – felt like sand castles washed away by the surf. She paints a dramatic scene of their initial break-up – “I made you cry when I walked away,” dishes smashed, photos torn from frames, his name and image scratched out and her final promise that, as she puts it, “I couldn’t stay.”
But in the end, she says, she realized that that was one promise she couldn’t keep. “Every promise don’t work out that way.”
So, as the next song proclaims,
“Forward, best foot just in case. . . .
We’re going to hold doors open for a while,
now we can be open for a while,
go sleep in your favorite spot just next to me.
The next two songs – “Freedom” and “All Night Long” – telegraph the relief and renewal that recommitment brought, freed from the chains of grief, and her decision that, “I found the truth beneath your lies.” The closing song shows us once again the sassy Beyonce, “I’m back by popular demand.”
It fascinates me to find a strong resonance of Mark Belletini’s “A Kol Nidrei” in Beyonce’s words. The Kol Nidrei is a verse spoken at Yom Kippur services whose purpose essentially is to annul all the vows that followers made in haste against each other in the preceding year. It invites its listeners into the work of clearing the decks so that we are ready to enter the new year freed of the baggage of the past year’s errors.
OK, Mark says, “let’s set it all down” without hesitation or resentment. All of it: “the disappointments, little and large, the frustrations.” And once we’ve named it all, let us relinquish it, let us open our closed fists filled with self-righteous anger and drop it, all of it, without regret, without reservation.
This is not something we do in the abstract, mouthing words given to us by others that we feel will somehow grant us absolution. This is the tough work of digging in and pulling out all that gnarly stuff, our stuff, stuff we’d rather not face yet which we know is dogging us, keeping us from giving ourselves fully to those we love, to that which fills our hearts. We’re stuck in it, so rather than nurse our griefs and grudges, we are called to release them.
We each know what that is for us. Mark Belletini names part of what’s haunting him:
The useless waiting – for what, what am I waiting for?
The obsession with things we cannot have
Comparing ourselves, to our detriment, with others
Cynical assumptions, unspoken anger, self-doubt, self-pity
Go ahead, add your own. They’re at the tip of your tongue.
Why on earth am I holding on to all that? Can’t we just let it all go? Let’s sink them like stones, let’s drop them like hot rocks into the cool silence. Can’t you just hear them? Ssss.
Never mind feeling sorry for yourself, as JT tells us. It doesn’t save you from your troubled mind. No, let it go. And when it’s gone, as Mark Belletini says, let’s lay back gently, and just float on the calm surface of our lives, these blessed lives that are such a gift. “And (then) let us open our eyes to this new-born world, ready for anything.”
That new awareness is the payoff, the release, the return, the freedom that our bad-ass journey of courage and resilience gives us: where I forgive myself, I forgive you, and we begin again in love.