The phrase “in the arena” is how author Brene Brown describes the experience of showing up, taking a risk and putting ourselves out there.
This blog is built around turning points, those moments in life when everything changes — including and especially you. A turning point fundamentally reshapes who you are. Reflecting on my own experiences, and talking to others about theirs, I’ve found that turning points seem to come with three distinct components:
— “Before“: what life was like before everything changed
— “During“: the decision or event that changed everything
— “After“: how you were changed, how those around you were changed, how life was different after that
The “arena” Brown talks about is where the action happens. It’s the space where the biggest shifts occur. It’s the “during” component of a turning point.
What does the arena feel like? If you’ve been there, you never forget it (although you might wish you could). You know you’re in it when you’re thinking something like:
“Oh my God, I cannot believe I am actually doing this.”
“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.”
“The moment I have dreamt
about for months has finally arrived, and all I can think about is finding a bathroom to hide out/throw up in.”
In other words, you know you’re in the arena when you’re in it. And it’s too late to get out of it.
There’s a story I tell about one of my “arena moments” that my kids love because it features both a beloved cousin AND a Star Wars villain.
My niece Brigitta was due to be born during the peak of the hazelnut harvest, when my brother-in-law would be in the fields and unreachable for several hours each day. My sister-in-law asked me if I would be her birth coach.
My mother-in-law thought it was a terrible idea. I was childless at the time. “She’ll never want to have kids if she sees that!” Not to worry, I assured her. I was a science major. Blood and guts do not scare me. I can handle this.
Have you ever seen a baby being born? It’s a miracle. An unbelievable, exhilarating, terrifying, messy miracle.
Birth is an arena experience.
I should say here that my niece Brigitta is one the most beautiful and poised young women I know. She’s an actress, dancer, singer, and scholar. She’s a gracious, thoughtful, fun-loving older sister to my kids, who adore her.
But at the moment of her birth, dear friends, my niece Brigitta looked exactly like Darth Maul. With the body of an alien. Her head was dark maroon and bumpy. The rest of her was pasty gray.
The logical thing would have been to run like hell. I have seen those movies, and I know what happens next. Sigourney Weaver was not there to save us. Running was not an option. It was too late.
I looked frantically at the midwife. What do we do? We cannot show this alien baby to Marianne. She has labored for hours, she’s worked so hard…we can’t let her see this. Please read my mind…and do something!”
At that point, someone in a white coat took the baby by the ankles, turned her upside down, and clapped her hard on the back three times. There were some suctiony sounds, and then a sharp breath —
— and the most amazing thing happened. Brigitta began to cry, and within one minute, she had pinked up and become the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen in my life. She was a perfect pink rose.
It’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever been a part of, and I almost missed it because I almost chickened out. When it got scary, I wanted to turn tail and run the other way. I cannot handle this!
Luckily, it was too late to back out. There are some things that you can’t unsee, and Darth Maul’s head on a tiny gray alien body is one of them. But seeing the miracle of birth, of life, of a baby’s first breath? That’s pretty damn stunning, and spectacular.
And that’s the thing about the arena: when you’re in it, you know because you’re way outside your comfort zone. Where the miracles happen.