Daring Greatly: Exploring Scarcity Culture and Vulnerability in Children’s Literature

One of the many things I love about #the4500 is the abundance of book recommendations I’ve picked up over the last six months. I’ve read more books this year than I have in a long time—and have an ever-growing list of titles that is waiting in the wings.

After For the Love, there is one book that stood out to me as it kept being mentioned from the very beginnings of the group’s formation: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. Anna (tweeter-extraordinaire who coined #the4500) proudly “pushes it like crack” to everyone who will listen—and now I understand why. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but already, its foundational truths of how we have to show up and engage with every part of our lives—not just the pretty parts—are already embedded in my thoughts.

I won’t lie—it’s not an easy book to read; if you really dig in and get real with yourself, there’s a lot of soul-searching questions and statements to delve into. For the first three chapters (and the introduction), I felt like I was being sucker-punched in the face with everything I was doing wrong in regard to showing up and living authentically. Granted, I already knew I wasn’t doing so before I even started the book but it cut a lot deeper to give my behaviors a name.

Last week, I chatted briefly (sort of) with Anna about what I’d read so far, but up to that point, I’d kept most of my thoughts in my head—true introvert style. And other than how I applied Brown’s theories and research to my own actions, I hadn’t made any other connections with the outside world (very uncharacteristic for me because once you’ve taken Literary Theory with Dr. Cathy Sepko, you will never again read a text without making as many connections with the outer world as possible).

But the afternoon after Anna and I talked, my co-teacher was reading a book (Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White) to our students. I was sitting in the corner of the room, listening and monitoring the littles. On the first page was the sentence, “When she was a little girl, money had been scarce.” As soon as I heard the word ‘scarce,’ I immediately thought of Brown’s belief that a culture of scarcity is the root of our society’s fear of vulnerability. (Let me stop here to say that I didn’t actually realize what I was doing until later in the book when I started thinking of strategies of vulnerability the character [Rebecca Estelle] was employing. I realize it’s ridiculous, yet there I was, applying this theory to children’s literature.)

According to Brown, scarcity “thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack.” In the story, Rebecca Estelle is a woman who plants a garden every spring, growing “a little bit of everything—except pumpkins. Rebecca Estelle hated pumpkins!” She hated them because, as a child, money was lacking and her family ate pumpkin in all its possible forms: baked, steamed, stewed, mashed, rotten, boiled, etc. She “decided she would never eat pumpkins again. Or even look at one.” By applying Brown’s theory, one could say that Rebecca Estelle carried the shame of lack (in this case, a lack of money) from her childhood. Because pumpkins were tied closely with that shame, she just avoided them altogether—bringing us to one of Brown’s three main vulnerability shields: numbing.

Rebecca Estelle was faced with her avoidance of engaging with her long-held shame when a pumpkin truck passed by her house one day. She refused to even look at the truck; “she turned her back and concentrated on picking up the last fallen leaf.” In this act, Rebecca Estelle practices the vulnerability shield of numbing, which Brown defines as “the embrace of whatever deadens the pain of discomfort and pain.” And she continues this practice well into the story, because as the truck passed by, a pumpkin fell off and splattered in Rebecca Estelle’s yard. So, with shovel in hand, she responded with avoidance, and buried that pumpkin:

“Well, I won’t touch it.”

“And I won’t look at it.”

“I won’t think about that pumpkin ever again,” she declared.

“I will ignore them and they will die.”

You can probably guess what happened. That pumpkin grew the next fall. And grew. And grew. Into MANY pumpkins. The very thing Rebecca Estelle was trying to avoid? Well, it grew until she couldn’t avoid it any longer. It overwhelmed her.

Since this is a children’s book, the plot moves quickly from this point. Rebecca Estelle becomes determined to get rid of the pumpkins, but in doing so, she begins to open herself to vulnerability: “She thought and she thought. Her mind went back to all the pumpkins she had eaten as a young girl, when pumpkins were the only food her family had… ‘Some people might need these pumpkins…We’ll give them away.’” So she starts baking—pies, muffins, tarts, cakes, bread, pudding, cookies—pumpkin everything. She carved jack-o-lanterns to draw the attention of the townspeople. She begins to re-engage with that part of her life. She began “to exhibit the courage to show up and let [her]self be seen.”

Once Rebecca Estelle lowered the shield that protected her from her shame and showed up for her own life, the door opened, allowing the townspeople in—and in they came, “young and old, everyone in town came.” And Rebecca Estelle was able to give out of her abundance, because “there [was] plenty.” She began to dare greatly by “engaging with [her] vulnerability.

Aren’t we just like Rebecca Estelle? Affected by experiences long after they’re worthy of our attention? Caught up in avoiding the not-so-pleasant emotions we face? Fearing what will happen if we just let them go? What would happen if we could truly embrace vulnerability and show up for our own lives? Maybe it would make us more authentic not only with ourselves, but with those around us too.


Playlist: You Make Me Brave, Bethel Music & Amanda Cook

 Letting Go, Steffany Gretzinger

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