I have never understood the appeal of TED talks. I’ve never sought them out and I’ve rarely been interested in any of the speakers. Even when someone famous that I’m generally excited about has blasted over social media that clarion call I’m preparing for/about to deliver/you should watch my TED talk, I’m still apathetic about it. Why see the movie when you can read the book, right? I had to watch one the other day, for a class of all things.
That TED talk is from Brené Brown, who is the kind of noted psychologist/sociologist that I’ve never heard of, who has sold millions of books that I’ve never read. Her TED talk has 32 million views, and so far I’m responsible for two of them.
She had me, initially, at the sentence: “Stories are just data with a soul.”
When I was a kid, my mom and I were involved in a drunk driving accident. We had been at an intersection waiting for the light to change, when the drunk man blew through his light and crashed into the front of my mom’s Oldsmobile. After that, I remember sitting on the side of the road, on the curb, until the police arrived to talk to my mom. I remember folks standing around trying to look like they weren’t gawking.
When she’d given her statement, my mom and I packed up our stuff and we went home.
When I was a freshman in college at the University of Florida, the city of Gainesville was being hunted by a serial killer. Before he was caught, this man stalked, raped, and murdered five students who lived very near to campus. Panicked parents arrived in waves to pick up frightened students to take them home to safety.
I lived on campus. So when my mom called to ask if she should make the 3-hour drive to pick me up, I made a what is now a cringe-worthy joke about how I would be fine since this killer seemed to be killing only white folks.
I had nothing to fear.
So, I stayed.
When I lived in Austin a few years back, I took the bus to work every day because I didn’t have a lot of money or a car. One day, I looked out my bus window and saw, very clearly, a car approaching the intersection. Fast. That car, very clearly, did not intend to stop at the designated stop sign.
My last lucid thought for a while would be that car is totally going to hit us. I should say something.
I did what you’re not supposed to do when a crash is coming—I braced for impact. I vastly underestimated the force of that impact. I can only imagine the cacophony of sounds around me when the car slammed into us; I don’t actually remember them now. The pictures are still there in my mind, like cut scenes from a movie, but the sounds are all gone.
I remember the sight of shattered glass in the air. The disorientation as the bus careened off the road. Gasping for breath as a passenger tumbled onto me. The final jolt as the bus hit a building.
There was the feeling of being trapped, bottled up, as we tried to escape the bus. A moment later, the familiar blinking red and blue lights. Someone outside managed to pry the front door open just enough for us to squeeze through one by one. As I stumbled by the bus driver, I saw that her left leg was pinned between her seat and the front of the mangled bus, metal and meat bent together like a crushed soda can.
When I exited the bus, I noticed a very pregnant woman sobbing, trying to reach her husband on the phone. I went to her to ask if she was okay. She handed me the phone at about the moment her husband’s voice clicked on the line. She clutched my hand while I talked to him—and her—explaining what had happened and that everyone would be okay. That their unborn child would be okay. What hospital the paramedics were taking her to.
I eventually made my way to the hospital, where I ended up with the tiniest of fractures in the finger of one hand, and a nagging back injury that will plague me to the end of my days.
But generally, I’m okay.
To borrow Brown’s parlance, all the things I told you would be just “data points”.
These are the stories.
The drunk man died instantly. I don’t remember anyone asking if me or my mom were okay after that accident. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her about it. I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought about that drunk man’s family.
For years when I told anyone the story about how I lived in a town with a serial killer, I usually focused on that phone call between me and my mom, as if it illustrated this unique relationship I have with her. Now I know that phone call has less to do with “us”, and more to do with “me”.
It’s been years since that bus accident in Austin, but I am still scared of being a passenger in any kind of moving vehicle. I’ll go as far as pumping invisible brakes any time a car approaches, especially at intersections. It took me years not to be afraid of driving anything that had more wheels than a Schwinn bike.
Brown tells her enraptured audience (whom we don’t ever see, which is disconcerting in its own way) that she began her research trying to study connection. Specifically, who lacks it and why they don’t have it. She hit upon an epiphany. Namely, that people who lack connection suffer from shame, which she defines as the fear of connection. Not satisfied with that level of understanding, she wanted to unearth the difference between people with connection versus those without it. The data told her that the people who were able to connect with others had one important characteristic: they had a very strong sense of love and belonging… for themselves. They simply believed they were worthy of connection with other people.
By this time in the video, I’m really starting to become impressed with Brown’s Indiana Jones-like devotion to finding The Truth. Because she’s still not happy, Brown starts going back through her data, through all her stories, looking for the soul. What she finds is that all those people who are able to connect with others—based simply on the belief that they are worthy of connection—do it because they don’t have this need to be perfect. They embrace the imperfection. They welcome the uncertainty. They do not fear being vulnerable.
Hold up. Wait a minute.
It was at this point in her study story that Brené had a bit of a breakdown.
So did I.
If there is anything that I know as a black woman it is that we don’t get to be vulnerable. Weakness equals victimhood. We are not allowed to be scared. I know this like those women who follow Daenerys on “Game of Thrones” constantly remind everyone that something is undeniably true by saying “It is known”. I know this. We have archetypes, and memes, and #BlackGirlMagic because we all know this. There are only Strong (and Angry) Black Women, Sassy Black Friends, and Majestic Nubian Queens.
You are not supposed to be so bothered by a car accident in your childhood that the idea of having a glass of wine with friends at dinner, no matter the occasion, frightens you.
You are not allowed to be afraid of the prospect of serial-killing white men.
You cannot be so enveloped by the anxiety surrounding an incident in your life that you think of it in terms of before it happened and after it happened. Nightmares are off the table, certainly. Panic attacks are forbidden. Dread is unthinkable. You absolutely, positively are not permitted to have soul-crushing recollections that the worse thing about that bus accident was that, for about an hour, you couldn’t find a person to console you the way you consoled an unknown pregnant woman. You should not remember that hour feeling like you were in a Faraday cage of human contact.
If none of those things are in the realm of possibility, then the fear that you may not be a decent person, a supportive wife, or a passable writer, isn’t worth sharing or even writing down.
Brené had her breakdown, or what her therapist called her Spiritual Awakening, for about a year. She emerged from her chrysalis with the knowledge that we cannot be compassionate with others until we are compassionate with ourselves. That to be vulnerable is to experience the fullness of the human experience. That we are all worthy of love and belonging.
Brené also had me when she said: “When we work from a place that says, ‘I'm enough’ ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
I do not call my thing a breakdown or an awakening. I just delicately refer to it as My 40s.
Even now, I resist embracing my vulnerability. Just a few months ago I was involved in a hit and run accident. The other driver slammed into the rear of my car while I was at a dead stop in bumper to bumper traffic. There was a moment where I thought we were going to pull to the side of the road like considerate human beings and do the things you do after an accident. But as soon as the guy saw daylight, he sped away. I was shocked and hurt—on this insanely personal level—to be hit, injured and… discarded for lack of a better term. It took everything in my soul to eat my feelings and call my husband, crying, to say I need you and I am scared.
Every day it gets a bit easier to have these vulnerable moments—like I did four days ago, the day before I saw Brené’s video—and write about whether “I’m good enough, woman enough, enough enough, to be a writer—period”.
Today, I am enough.
Brené Brown calls her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability”.
Non-fiction piece by Tina Davis
Tina Davis is majoring in English and Professional & Technical Communication, and minoring in Women’s & Gender Studies. When she isn’t trying to figure out this writing thing, Tina either has her head in a book, is watching too much HGTV, or is digging in her herb garden. Tina lives in Richardson, TX with her supportive (and coffee-making-genius) husband, Omar, and their crotchety cat, Thomas.