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July 8, 2019

You Matter: Sunday Vespers Talk by Math Instructor Mary Elizabeth Martin

Sixty-seven years ago, my dad received the long-awaited news that he would be following his older brother to boarding school. The youngest of four children, my dad was the last one still at home in his small hillside town in Brazil. His two older sisters had already been studying in America for a few years and his older brother had been writing home monthly with news about his life at school. My father missed his siblings tremendously and was eager to follow in their foot- steps. As summer turned to fall, my father began packing his steamer trunk with essential items –a tie, a blazer, stationary for writing home, an address book and a winter coat. There were no electronics, no iPhones, and no laptop to pack. Maybe, if he was lucky, a typewriter would be available at school and someone in his dorm would have a record player. Eager with years of anticipation, my father set his sights on his new home in America. Still to this day at 81 years old, my father remembers the excitement coupled with anxiousness that he felt those first few weeks and months at boarding school. Would he make friends? Would people think he was different? Would he be able to do the work? When would he see his family again? Would he find a new home away from home? Would he find belonging?

My mother had a parallel path, following her older sister to boarding school; however, she did not want to leave her parents or her safe home. But, expectations of the time forced my grandparents to send all three of their daughters away to school since my grandfather worked at an all-male boarding school. Therefore, my mother packed up her trunk and began to face similar questions and fears as my father. Will I find friends? Who will take care of me? Will I belong in this new world?

This summer, Mr. Montgomery asked several adults to speak in vespers about “why you, our students, matter?” The answer to his question seems so simple — You matter absolutely. You matter because you are here. You matter because we love you. But how do humans, especially teenagers, believe that they matter? Maybe there is a connection between believing you matter and finding true belonging?

Dr. Brene Brown’s book entitled “Braving the Wilderness” explores the idea of True Belonging. Brown defines belonging as “the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and stand- ing alone in the wilderness. True Belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brown argues that we are living in a society so full of divisiveness and social disconnection that we have gotten better at pulling ourselves apart than at working together.

Unfortunately, her idea about disconnection is reinforced frequently in the news and on social media. We often watch different groups of people strike out against each other with violence, anger, and with very little effort to try to understand a different position or belief. However, Brown also believes that the power of love and courage can overcome detachment and hate and create connections and belonging. I do too. Before we can begin the good and critical work of connecting human spirits, we must first begin knowing our own heart and our own authentic self. Only then will we connect with other others, find true belonging and be able to take our strength, gifts and light into the greater world.

Brown offers four key elements to finding belonging. Now, listen. These four pieces of advice are not shiny and new. They are ancient actions of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love. We live in a time that seems to have forgotten some of these simple lessons. So, please allow me to review what Brene Brown teaches:

Her first piece of advice is entitled “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

Last spring, the city of Asheville experienced a tragedy when a mother and two of her children lost their lives as a result of senseless violence. My family and many others from the Asheville community attended the candlelight vigil for the family of the victims. During the service, the brother of the mother who was killed spoke out into the night sky asking, “Why? Why didn’t my sister ask for help? Why didn’t my sister talk to me? Why did my sister and her boyfriend suffer alone?” The brother cried out to the crowd with confusion asking his questions over and over. Between the pleas, he emphasized that he would have offered his hand to both adults in order to provide help and support to two people in need. That evening while he spoke, his voice had no tremors of anger or revenge…just vibrations of love. How easy would it have been for him to have used his moment to lash out, to blame, to let his anger control his words? Yet, he chose to MOVE IN. He chose to show empathy in order to effect change, to erase anger, to create positive dialogue, and to send a message of love and forgiveness to his community. What strength and courage.

What would our own hearts feel like if we spent time MOVING IN to those with whom we don’t agree? What grace would grow in our hearts and minds that could be extended to others?

Speak Truth to Bologna. Be Civil. This second charge connects seamlessly with MOVING IN, and it is hard to do one without the other. When you find that you are fundamentally disagreeing with others to a point that you find yourself disliking their presence, MOVE IN and show courage by listening and engaging in more conversation (sometime easier said than done).

Brown challenges her readers to try to stand in the other person’s shoes and find out from where the person is coming. Be okay with healthy discomfort but get help if the discomfort becomes severe or moves towards dehumanization. Think, ask questions bravely, and offer feedback or comments with generosity and civility. MOVE IN where you might see acts of dishonesty and ask for TRUTH.

In her book ,“Letter to My Daughter”, Maya Angelou states, “We all swallow the untruth in part to keep the peace and in part because we do not wish to deal with the truth. I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything; however, it is liberating to be honest.” Couple the honesty with an open and kind heart and imagine the progress and possible connection.

Think now of your Harkness discussions which are a cornerstone of our Humanities department. Your teachers demand respect around the table, right? They challenge you to speak truth even when speaking truth may not be what you see the outside world doing. What would a discussion feel like if disrespect or lack of civility sat at the table and dominated the conversation? Would learning happen? Would students speak truth to what they really believed? It is sad but true that we can all think of examples in the world where help is not being given, kindness is not being shown, and people are being hurt because people cannot speak truth to each other with civility and generosity.

I think we should dare to imagine a world in which all humans speak truth to each other with kindness and respect. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to sort each other or disconnect.

And, if we speak truth to others then we practice being true to ourselves.

This summer, after many discussions about soccer teams, stats, and players, each member of my family crafted his/her World Cup bracket and proceeded to watch as many World Cup games as possible…..even after my team, Brasil, was knocked out of the challenge. Sad times. On a flight out to Oregon I was very dismayed that Brazil would be playing Mexico while we were in the air. I wouldn’t know which team won until we landed! Imagine my delight when we figured out how to watch the game on the plane’s mini-TV. Thankfully, Brasil won that game. I was thrilled with the victory but even happier with the excitement the game created on the plane. My sons’ seats were behind me and each time I looked back at them, there were a few more kids crammed in the seats and aisle cheering for the Brazilian super star, Neymar! I’m sure that they were breaking all kinds of seat belt regulations, but they were spreading joy all over that plane. Even the flight attendants in the back were dialed in and cheering. My family and I didn’t know those kids on the plane, and we will probably never see them again. But, on that flight we were lucky to share joy with complete strangers. Brown’s third charge asks us to “show up for collective moments of joy and pain so that we can bear witness to inextricable human connection.” On that plane for that one game, our little cheering squad was connected to one another.

Think about the moments of collective joy and pain at Asheville School. It’s easy to think about moments of joy — singing the school hymn with pride, congratulating our actors when the curtain closes, rooting the soccer team to victory, celebrating our seniors on graduation day….. Moments of pain are harder to return to but still help us practice connecting to other humans. Bearing witness to moments of joy and pain remind us that the human spirit is capable of those emotions. Brown even goes so far as to say that she believes that sharing pain and hurt with complete strangers will save the world, not just help someone find be- longing. Why? Because when we share these moments or even when we witness these moments, we become vulnerable, we connect heart to heart with other humans. We are reminded that we are not alone in our feelings and that we belong.

Brown’s final charge is for each of us to develop a “Strong back, soft front and wild heart.”

She states that in order to gain true belonging and be our authentic self, we each need to show courage and vulnerability. It is in vulnerability that we will learn trust, contentment, courage and love. We absolutely should be awake to struggles and differences in the world while cultivating our own joy without guilt. We must speak the truth, hold ourselves accountable, be tough and tender, strong and loving.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, none of these points are new ideas. Many institutions have mottos built upon truth, honor, courage and civility. Our beloved school’s four core values are perseverance, integrity, respect, and compassion. PIRC. All four of these values are found in Brown’s lessons.

If we take hold of her charges and try to do the work she recommends, we will begin to know OURSELVES FIRST and therefore find belonging. True Belonging, which lives in our hearts, will be ours because we will believe in ourselves AND will be linked to others by love and the human spirit.

Brown believes we find that truth and connection when we:
• Move in, especially towards those with whom we disagree
• When we speak truth to falsehoods with civility.
• When we show up for moments of collective joy and pain so we can bear witness to human connection
• And, when we develop a strong back, soft front and wild heart.

You took a leap of courage and faith when you came to Asheville School. My parents took a similar jump when they left their safe, predictable homes to try something brand new. My parents each found a home away from home by developing courage in the classroom, bearing witness to moments of happiness and hardship, asking hard and honest questions of themselves and others, show- ing forgiveness, speaking truth, and extending a helping hand especially when it was difficult to do so. I believe Brene Brown would be very proud of the good work we do here at Asheville School around belonging, speaking truth, connect- ing as human spirits, and developing our strong back and soft fronts. I see Asheville School students practicing Brown’s charges every day, and I’m inspired and filled with promise. Each graduation day I am optimistic and incredibly hopeful when we send seniors out into the world- seniors who have embraced speaking truth with civility, who have moved in to talk with people who have different beliefs, and seniors who have shared high and low moments with others. And, each August, I’m humbled and encouraged when I meet a new set of students who also want to make the world a better place starting in their own hearts.

My hope for you now during your time at Asheville School is that you find your authentic self and believe in yourself so fully that you can find comfort in standing alone, when necessary, and be proud to be a part of a community connected by human spirits and love.

Remember this — No one belongs here more than you. You are loved, you are valued, and you have a spirit that is full of compassion, integrity, courage, and kindness.