2020 is not canceled, according to Emmy-nominated actress Amy Brenneman. In her podcast, “The Challengers,” Brenneman sits down with friends, family and experts for conversations surrounding life’s biggest challenges that have the potential to be our greatest teaching moments and opportunities for growth.
“Of course, hard times are inevitable,” said Brenneman, “but often a guest will finish-off the bad news with something like, ‘but it’s been really nice to slow down’ or ‘we eat together as a family every night.'”
“Challenges are a part of all of our lives, but it’s often how we deal with them that defines who we are,” she explained. During a recent interview with WrapWomen, the podcast host opened up about overcoming personal hardships, adapting to life during COVID-19 and not being afraid to face challenges head-on.
Before starting this podcast, what made you realize “I need to do this!”
The “ah-ha” moment for me was realizing that the way I view a challenge differs quite substantially from the way they are typically perceived. In my experience, challenges are not something to overcome, to vanquish and then tout how I dominated the challenge. In my experience, challenges have changed me, softened me, allowed me to foster new empathy and build new communities. As I say in my introduction every week, challenges can be viewed “not as roadblocks, but as doorways that can lead to transformation.” As in many other places in public and private life, the old American narrative of domination is being transformed into a new narrative of community building and acknowledgment of commonalities.
I have had my own share of challenges. Growing up with an alcoholic parent, infertility, chronic illness and parenting a child with special needs – just to name a few. In every single one of those instances, the overall pattern was surprisingly similar. I would initially feel isolated, overwhelmed and out of step with “normal.” But as I reached out for help, learned about my situation, accepted the challenge and met others who were experiencing the same things – my world grew. Both internally and externally. I learned there is in fact no “normal” at all. Every single person has challenges. What differs is how honest he or she is about it, and how willing they are to grow from it. This was a conversation I very much wanted to have.
Do you have a favorite episode or guest?
I have no favorite guests or episodes! Don’t make me play favorites! I will say that I have a soft spot for the ones with my husband, Brad Silberling. Brad started us off Season 1 by talking about the challenge he faced after his girlfriend Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered, five years before I met him. In that case, the way that experience changed him directly affected me – in the best of ways. He knew how to love, he knew life was short and he was brave enough to choose life in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy. I had heard most of the details before – but not all – and once again was in awe of his ability to articulate the unspeakable. I think it meant a lot to listeners to hear a married couple talk intimately – not about day to day domestic stuff – but about what lay at the heart and soul of their union.
How has COVID-19 affected the production of your podcast?
In between Season 1 and Season 2, we created bonus episodes that came directly from the experience of COVID-19 and quarantine. When COVID hit and quarantine was our new reality, my producers and I mulled out how to proceed. That’s when it hit me: normally, challenges are initially isolating because a person finds themselves struggling with something new – nothing in their life previously has prepared them for this. They feel alone.
With COVID-19, we’re all struggling at the same time with the same challenge. Having vastly different experiences to be sure, but as I said to my daughter, it is safe to assume that most people on the earth are thinking about the same thing right now. How unique is that?
We decided to launch “The Challengers Live” which are episodes of the podcast filmed on Zoom, then soon after put up on the audio platform. They are loose, spontaneous, often about the current situation, not about something historical. We look at quarantine, politics, school, health – many aspects of life that are directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic. And we have committed to doing “The Challengers Live” weekly until quarantine lifts – you can count on it!
During quarantine, have you noticed any patterns or overarching themes in your podcast conversations?
Overarching themes during quarantine are trying to discern the good news/bad news of this time. Of course, there is much bad news: unemployment, disruption of school, jobs, stressors of all kinds. But often a guest will finish with the bad news and say something like, “but it’s been really nice to slow down” or “we eat together as a family every night” or “the skies are so blue, and the birds are so happy.” Similarly, the theme of time. Folks will say, “the days slow down with little structure” and simultaneously, “it is amazing how fast we learned to do things differently. Habits that seemed set in stone dissolve overnight.” Because the situation daily is so fluid, I hear people (and myself) trying to “make sense” of it all, to decide if things are “good” or “bad” but all we can do hold on to each other and experience the sand shifting under our feet.
How do you select which guests come on your show?
Choosing guests is extremely organic. Most often, it is someone I know who I think could shed light or someone I just know to be a badass in one way or another! My producers suggested a few – like therapist Jonathan Kruger or the episode with graduating seniors who saw their senior year evaporate. Mostly, it is organic for sure.
What sort of challenges do you personally come across most often?
I think the challenge I come across most often is just being with something – not fixing or having an opinion. And this is at the heart of “The Challengers.” Perhaps it is baked into the American narrative (or maybe it’s just me?) but there is such a rush to opinion, solution and triumph: “Here’s how I overcame my problem – you can too!” or “I didn’t let my challenge beat me!” It’s so militant, and of course, shames all of us who didn’t overcome our challenge.
My father was a sober alcoholic. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in 12-step rooms. We witness one another. We speak our secrets. We support each other. We simply learn to be with one another and face the challenges, without having to muscle through. I need to remind myself to do this every single day. I have a strong ego and a strong will. Which is okay, when it is used in a productive way. But real growth and change – individually and as a culture – usually takes patience, acceptance and learning how to tolerate discomfort without rushing to fix it. Those solutions usually don’t stick anyway.
You can listen to “The Challengers” on Apple Podcasts.
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