Belonging and the Courage to Keep Painting

Return to the Wilderness

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”

Dr. Maya Angelou

I dusted off my watercolors and paint brushes again this week, unpacking them from my home office. This February has been difficult for me, as it has been for so many others. Many Americans are facing new levels of boredom while essential workers on the front lines have never been busier nor under greater stress. Regardless of which camp you fit in, most of us are exhausted by the pandemic dragging on, a year in and still no end in sight. It is dawning on many that there will be no return to normalcy. We even have a name for it — pandemic fatigue.

Painting became one of my coping mechanisms a few years ago. While I do not call myself an artist, I believe that everyone who has the desire should create art — not to sell but to enjoy the experience. Once again, I am reminding myself that my track record is quite good; I have survived every hard moment when I thought I could not go on. Often, I did so by picking up a paint brush. I express myself in blending colors on a page, allowing hours to pass engulfed in the task at hand, not knowing what the outcome will be.

“Moon Phases,” a watercolor painting by Alissa Paolella

I approach my sadness with curiosity and grace, attempting to express it on paper. When I begin to judge myself harshly, I ask if I would treat a close friend the same way. The answer is always a resounding, “No.” So I continue to paint. 

Expert in Isolation

I spent a few years acting like a recluse, even before it became necessary due to the pandemic. I believed that I had few authentic friendships. I could not find the place that I fit in. Emotional independence, if it is more than a myth that I tell myself, has not benefited me in any tangible way.

As 2019 came to a close, I continued to build a support network by seeking new communities of belonging. I was accepted with open arms into inclusive groups. The loss of those communities was great because I placed a lot of trust and faith in those around me. Sometimes, circumstances are out of our control. My best advice: Forgive often. People come and go from our lives, and it does no good to try to hold on to what is not meant for you.

In 2020, the pandemic struck, and we all retreated into our homes. Before we realized the long-term implications of COVID-19, I naively thought, “I’m an expert at going solo, so what’s a few more weeks?” Weeks turned into months, which turned into a year and longer. I was living alone and felt disconnected because I was physically separated from others. I tried to stay emotionally engaged by nurturing my relationships through video and phone calls. At first, it was exciting and unusual, but as the weeks of isolation turned into months, I, like many others, found it more difficult to keep authentic connections through a screen.

A Reflection on Brené Brown’s ‘Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts’ Podcast

I felt I was postponing my long-desired journey to find where I belong out of necessity. I was again “Braving the Wilderness,” a concept I returned to when I listened to the podcast “Unlocking Us with Brené Brown on Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts.” Brown, a researcher and storyteller, defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. But one thing vulnerability is not is weakness. On the contrary, “it’s our most accurate measure of courage,” she says.

Brown’s definition is backed by over 400,000 pieces of data. Her team measures a person’s capacity for courage by evaluating their willingness to be vulnerable. Who doesn’t want to learn to be more courageous? On the flip side, who actually seeks out opportunities to be vulnerable? It’s all very anxiety-inducing. Like Brown, I would not cultivate vulnerability if I did not know that her research shows, definitively, that it is the most direct path to courage.

Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.

To be courageous is to stay true to yourself. That means knowing what you believe in and having the integrity to stand up for it when your values are threatened. Brown encourages her listeners to be true to themselves, no matter the cost, because there is no greater loss than the loss of ourselves. “A wild heart fights fitting in, and it grieves … when we betray ourselves.” 

“… [O]nce we’ve braved it on our own — once you’ve stood up for what you believe in and once you’ve said, ‘Look, I’m going to belong to myself first and betray myself last’ — that’s the mark of the wild heart.” 

Brene Brown on Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts, “Unlocking Us”

Is your wild heart grieving your self-betrayal?

Quest for True Belonging 

One alternative to having a strong back, soft front and wild heart is the armored front. Perhaps this concept resonates with you more than the strong back, soft front that Brown asks us to wield. We’ve all been there — we come out swinging, somehow believing that if we strike first, we will avoid harm and pain. But often, having an armored front means abandoning ourselves. Brown encourages us to have a “front made of love and a back built of courage.” 

a person with sunglasses, a leather jacket and a brown scarf looks away from the camera over a body of water during sunset
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

“We’re not comfortable with emotions and we equate vulnerability with weakness, or sometimes our experiences of trauma have taught us that vulnerability is actually dangerous,” says Brown. In other words, we may see a soft front as a liability. I believe we are making a huge mistake by doing so. 

“We’ve got to stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that we don’t belong. We will always find it because we’ve made it our mission. We’ve got to stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that we’re not enough. We’ll always find it because we’ve made it our goal.” 

Brené Brown on Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts, “Unlocking Us”

The wilderness will always be hard and scary, and we may always doubt our ability to withstand challenges on our own. The people around us may discourage us from standing up for what we believe in. Others may doubt our ability to survive the wilderness, to stand with a strong back and soft front and to share our vulnerable, wild hearts.

The truth is, we belong exactly where we are, with those who already love us and care about our well-being. We have self-worth regardless of what others think about us, and we have nothing to prove, except our own integrity. That means standing for what we believe in even when it’s not the easy thing to do. Sometimes that means standing alone. But it always means belonging to yourself.

Published by Alissa Paolella

Alissa Paolella is a writer, editor, photographer, social media manager, and marketing communications strategist with over 15 years of experience in the news media, advertising, and health care industries. They have overseen print and digital campaigns for small and large organizations and has served as a communications consultant for numerous nonprofits and universities. In their free time, Alissa enjoys trail-hiking with their camera and almost always has a book (or two) nearby.

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