Mental Health Monday: Picture Memories and Foreboding Joy

This morning I continued my reading in Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. I read chapter 4: “The Vulnerability Armory.” She writes about the masks we wear to protect ourselves from pain. And specifically about what she calls three “vulnerability shields”:

Foreboding Joy



Perfectionism and numbing have been in my stockpile of masks for most of my life. Well, perfectionism has always been there—even in childhood—but I guess the numbing is something I learned as an adult, when I had the autonomy to make unhealthy choices about food and drink and other things I could use to numb the pain. But this thing Brown calls “foreboding joy” was a new concept for me. She describes it several ways, but I like this definition:

 In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup…. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This fear cripples us and keeps us from enjoying the moment—the ordinary moments—that are right in front of us. She tells the story of being with her first grade daughter on a paddleboat, feeding ducks in the park:

At one point … I realized that she had stopped pedaling and was sitting perfectly still in her seat. Her hands were wrapped around the bread sack, her head was tilted back, and her eyes were closed. The sun was shining on her uplifted face and she had a quiet smile on her face. I was so struck by her beauty and her vulnerability that I could barely catch my breath. I watched for a full minute, but when she didn’t move, I got a little nervous. “Ellie? Is everything okay, sweetie?”

Her smile widened and she opened her eyes. She looked at me and said, “I’m fine, Mama. I was just making a picture memory…. It’s a picture I take in my mind when I’m really, really happy. I close my eyes and take a picture so when I’m feeling sad or scared or lonely, I can look at my picture memories.”

As I read this, I realize that I’ve been doing this for years with my camera and my writing—making picture and word memories. But sometimes—when I’m especially mindful—I also do this without those props. That’s what happened Saturday afternoon when I was at a lovely outdoor mall with my friend, Daphne, in Little Rock. We had just eaten lunch at Local Lime, where I had the best ahi tuna cheviche and the freshest salsa and homemade chips I had ever tasted, so my tummy was already making picture memories. After a lot of rainy days, the sun was shining and it was gorgeous. Daphne headed into a nearby shop while I sat on a bench with my eyes closed, soaking up the sunshine. I was missing the beach, but I decided to enjoy the sunshine right there in Arkansas, and the memories of all the fun I was having on my birthday weekend. When I opened my eyes, a little girl about four years old was lying on her stomach with her face propped up in her hands, staring at me, smiling. Her hair was glowing in the sunshine, and I found myself saying, “I love your hair!”

redhairedgirls“It’s red.” That’s all she said. Her mother—also a red-haired beauty—was standing nearby and laughed as her daughter hopped off the bench and danced around in the sunshine. We chatted briefly, and then they were off on their errands, and I was left alone on the bench with the sun on my face and the memory in my heart. When Daphne returned and we walked arm-in-arm in and out of several shops that afternoon, the memory of the sun on my face, and the red-haired mother and daughter brought me even more joy than the new shoes and jeans I found.

I know that rainy days will always come again—physically and metaphorically. I was stuck in construction traffic for 45 minutes on my drive home from Little Rock last night, with rain compounding the trip near the end. And clouds are still gathering here in Memphis today. But my heart is full of picture memories from a wonderful weekend, sunshine on my face, and a precious little red-haired girl.