by Michael King
Here we are, the final day of 2016. You won’t have to look very far to find that it’s become a pretty controversial year. We’ve lost music icons, suffered national tragedies, endured a divisive and vitriolic election season, and the future’s not clear. 2016, it seems, could use some pretty advanced P.R. about now.
The reality, though, is that life is generally some blend of heartbreak and happiness. Most days have setbacks and achievements, laughter and hiccups. The practice of looking at a year, an entire twelve months of dreaming and trying and breaking and building, and deeming it a ‘good year’ or ‘bad year’ … well, I don’t know about it.
But here’s my attempt to boil down my 2016, the year I said would be my ‘bravely forward’ year. So I’ll boil it down to these: The brave moments. The things I’ll carry forward. The things I’ll leave behind.
The brave moments. If a single word could capture my trajectory within 2016, it would be the word ‘brave.’ I got it tattooed across my forearm, ‘BRAVE’, a reminder to show up even when there is risk, to speak when it’s not clear what to say, to leap without the promise of a safe landing.
In June, I woke up to learn there’d been a shooting. Dozens of human beings killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Bullets for their audacity to love. In the wake of the news, I considered the power of hatred. If I were standing in that nightclub, on that night, no piece of me – not my words, not my dreams, not my heart – would have been considered. Uncertain what to do, what to say, I wrote. ‘If, one day, I am killed for being who I am, may my life be a love letter to courage, authenticity, and love itself.’ Among my LGBT+ friends and family, I saw similar expressions of courage. With little to say, with hurt in our hearts, we showed up.
My heart was broken this year. I’ve written on it, rehashed it, and I’m still figuring out a means forward. At the start, my acts of bravery were small: getting out of bed, running beneath the sunlight, trusting others to shoulder some of my pain, taking stubborn ass steps. In the latter parts of the year, they’ve become more pronounced: finding forgiveness, learning to unfurl my fingers and let go, approaching conversations with my walls and weapons down.
At work this year, it’s been my endeavor to discover the impact bravery can have on students. What happens, in other words, when students are given the space and skills to show up, together, and make meaning of the hard things? In the spring, a colleague and I built a class, and we were moved to tears at their willingness to learn, grow, and build together. In the fall, we introduced a ‘Brave Space’ initiative on our campus, whose main focus is to teach our student staff the skills to facilitate the harder talks.
After Election Day, campus was still and solemn. Due to the foresight of a colleague, we had arranged a Brave Space conversation called ‘After the Vote.’ It wasn’t clear what to say, and we were both worried it might collapse in on itself, but the students showed up, and they blew us away.
What I’m taking away. I have a tendency toward marking the milestones, both in my work and in my day-to-day life. Whenever my students are nearing a milestone – the end of a semester, the close of a year, etc. – I tend to ask them two questions: What are you taking away? What are you leaving behind?
Here are some gems, mined from 2016, that I’ll carry with me as I step into 2017:
- Honesty is a mark of strength. I think the most common roadblock to being honest is the risk of being vulnerable, of facing rejection, of appearing weak. In 2016, my ‘greatest hits’ were the times I chose to share what was true rather than what seemed impressive. For me, this year, it meant admitting my broken heart, sharing myself with sincerity regardless of the impression it might make. (Side-lesson: When you speak the truth, you don’t have to invent anything.)
- Empathy is almost always less convenient, and it is more vital than ever. At ‘Brave Space’ meetings, we have boiled empathy down to the idea of seeking to understand. It is decidedly easier to move through life only seeking to understand the people we sort of understand already. Our friends, our families, people of similar political ideologies, body types, romantic orientations, religious perspectives. What is much harder, it seems, is to understand the people we see as unlike ourselves. A shooting in Orlando, the loss of black lives at traffic stops, a contentious election cycle marked by violence and name-calling. All this has made it abundantly clear: We have to learn how to hear people unlike us, to sit down together and speak, to grow.
- The magic is outside our comfort zones, so we’ve got to be brave. The idea is simple: Very few of us imagine ordinary lives for ourselves, but extraordinary outcomes require us to be uncomfortable, take risks, and get up when we stumble. I did that this year. It hurt sometimes, but the transformation was worth it each time.
What I’m leaving behind. What I’m letting go, releasing to the ground before I continue on.
- The idea that I’m only worthy of love if I don’t take up space.
- The strategy of waiting for permission to believe in myself.
- Any belief in high walls, the ‘image’ of doing well, and doing only what’s comfortable.
That’s it. It’s been a beautiful year, all things considered. I’ve tapped into the person I am, and I’ve found a few absolutes. I feel equipped, ready, for whatever’s ahead.
With love and light and the brightest damn vibes.