Content warning: Child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, traumatic loss.

In her introduction to Living Brave: Lessons From Hurt, Lighting the Way to Hope, Shannon Dingle tells her readers,

This is not the book I intended to write.

Dingle had completed a first draft of a book about surviving and naming the truth of a childhood blasted to smithereens by horrific sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Then, on July 19, 2019, her husband Lee died because of a freak accident that occurred while playing with their children in the ocean, leaving Shannon a widow and single mother of six at age 37. If this is not the book she intended to write, it’s because she subsequently gave herself permission to pen the book she needed to write: “This book will be about giving ourselves permission to be brave without following any cultural script for what brave looks like on a big screen or in headlines.” [L.B. 8]

I first encountered Shannon Dingle on Twitter, where her activity includes searingly honest sharing about grief and the aftermath of loss, the challenges of living with disability, and the daily work of single parenthood of her ‘created family.’ (Shannon and Lee have/had two biological children and four adopted children.) Reading her pull-no-punches tweets was good preparation for the book, but so was its introduction. Dingle offers instructions for box breathing (slow inhale to four counts; hold for four counts, slow exhale to four counts, hold for four counts) for those for whom the content of the book will be difficult, which is to say, for most readers, myself included.

But Dingle’s voice is warm and centered and impassioned. She invites the reader along as she tells of such horrors as permanent bodily harm at the hands of pedophiles and the specifics of Lee’s deadly injury. She does this not so shock, but to build a case that bravery is possible, even in the face of the most grievous cruelty and loss. Each chapter offers a practice Dingle considers an essential component of living brave. (For the grammar aficionados in our midst: Dingle does explain her use of an adjective—“brave” rather than “bravely”—in the introduction.) In the chapter “Hard Truths” she explains why she doesn’t pretty up her language about, among other things, Lee’s death.

No, [Lee] didn’t transition. He didn’t pass away. He didn’t leave. He isn’t late.

He died.

He’s dead.

This is a constant in my life.

If you prefer other language for your loved ones, if that makes grief easier to carry, then go for it. For me, though, it feels like we’re trying to tuck the trauma into a warm bed and dress it up in the morning. Trauma is real, and it doesn’t come with tidy bows… [80-81]

…The hard truth about hard truths is that we can’t learn them until we’re willing to dwell in discomfort and even darkness by their side. The good news, though, is that we don’t have to go it alone. [82]

This last idea is a core tenet throughout the book: that we are created for community, that we belong to one another, and that no one gets through the most difficult parts of life without the friend who texts and shows up when they are needed, without some community to help them bear the burdens of grief and trauma. Dingle admits the challenge of accepting aid when you are more naturally predisposed to giving it. “And somehow, the helpers are still there, ready and eager to hear me say yes to community, to not powering through on my own, to loosening boundaries to let others in instead of trying to be an island standing alone” [198].

Another constant in the book is the acknowledgement that each path to brave living is unique. For instance, the practices of “Powerful Words” and “Not Keeping Secrets” don’t automatically enlist one into public disclosure of trauma. As a writer, Dingle owns this as her path, all the while reminding us that it is survival that is paramount, not telling. It is a challenge for many survivors of trauma to be able to acknowledge the fullness of their pain, never mind telling it to one other person. But those struggling to survive trauma need what Dingle calls “hope dealers,” people and things “infusing hope into [one’s] life.” This can include telling one person, but it must always include telling oneself.

Hope is brave. And hope, Dingle concludes, is possible—even for someone who has survived the unspeakable. “Holding close the hope that the light will shine again soon when the world is full of shadows? That’s the epitome of living brave.” [216]

“Living Brave” is a book I want to marinate in, possibly because I never tire of Shannon Dingle’s voice. Sharing her journey through the “unspeakable,” she speaks (unpacking that colloquialism as she does). Recalling devastating loss, she reveals what remains in the richness of a deeply examined life, with all its commitments and hardships. And to those of us with our own sorrows, she never talks down, rejecting a hierarchy of suffering (“Oppression Olympics”) in favor of a table to which she invites us. There, quoting Rachel Held Evans, she insists: “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re you.” And I believe her.

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Pat Raube has served as the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York since 2007, and is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York (MDiv). She is a contributor to the RevGals’ book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” (SkyLight Paths Publishing). A native of the Jersey shore and in love with the New England coastline, she is happy to report that yes, she has been to the ocean this year.

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