Shame is a wound made from the inside, dividing us from both ourselves and others.
FromThe Psychology of Shame, Gershen Kaufman
I have been working on papers for presentations at the Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY, in February. The conference is entitled, “Encountering God.” My second paper focuses on the place of shame in our encounter with God and takes me back to a topic that has never been far from my mind for about the past 5 years. I continue to “mine” the Fathers, noting their thoughts on shame. Quite notably, St. John of the Ladder says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” Observing myself and others, I know that shame is omnipresent, frequently mislabeled and very often quite crippling. I cannot in this article begin to say all that needs to be said on the topic, but I want to make a particular observation.
Shame can be described as “global” in character. For example, I could say that I am not very good at sports. That is a specific observation that may carry no particular sense of shame. If, on the other hand, I say that I am “clumsy,” or “awkward,” I am making more of a global observation. I have gone from the specific to the general and the wound begins to be felt. Shame is about “who I am,” my global sense of self.
It is a bad habit in our speech that we frequently make global statements about very specific things. A husband and wife begin an argument with a global statement: “You never pay attention to what I’m saying!” Shame begets shame, which, most often (particularly in men), begets anger. And so the argument rages in a spiral of shame-anger-shame-anger. And the wound goes deeper.
The wounds of shame last long after the argument has ceased. We indeed experience a separation, dividing us not only from the other, but from ourselves as well. The conversation that shame creates often continues in the head for an extended period of time (days or more). “I pay attention! She’s the one who ignores what I say…I can’t believe she said that! My mother used to say things like that and I hated it!” You can write your own version of this because it is universal.
The inner argument is an extremely ineffective way of restoring and healing the alienation that has occurred. It stays in our mind, not because we are alienated from the other, but because we are alienated from ourselves. And we continue the argument trying to heal a wound – while the inner argument is only deepening the wound. Most often, we “get over it” not by healing, but by the distractions of other things. But the wound remains, waiting for the next assault.
Our culture’s language has become increasingly shaming in character. We make global pronouncements at the drop of a hat. The bitterness and pain of our political life, for example, is driven largely by the mutual shaming that occurs. We not only disagree with people, we globalize the argument. They do not merely disagree with me, they are racist, stupid, homophobic, Neanderthal, hater’s, etc. This is warfare rather than speech – a warfare of shaming that only deepens the spiral of misery. It becomes demonic at some point, in that our adversary utterly hates our existence. And nothing wounds us as effectively as shame.
Nations regularly shame one another and often have a difficult time being reconciled within themselves. The shame of defeat after WWI was, doubtless, the single greatest engine driving the angry rise of Hitlerism. The triumphalism of one nation over another can be a repeated source of shaming. Americans often wonder why they encounter Anti-Americanism. We have excelled in a foreign policy that begets shame. Acts of generosity, well-meant, easily and unwittingly produce shame. The so-called “export of democracy” (as though we were really good at it) can also be a way of saying, “You’re primitive, backwards and don’t even know how to run a nation.”
Contact with shame begets shame. When a child suddenly comes to a stop during a recital, all eyes in the audience go to the floor. The child’s shame is felt by all (Andy Kaufman did comedy routines based on performing in a shameful manner, causing deep discomfort in his audiences). And so in our exchanges of shame we create a mutual prison, a common hell in which we cycle between the shame of our unworthiness and the anger of our protest against life.
The accusations that produce shame don’t even have to be true. We carry enough shame within us to easily subscribe to even unwarranted shame.
In our Orthodox prayers, we pray that we may someday stand before the fearful judgment seat of Christ, “without shame.” That would be to stand before God, in the integrity of ourselves-made-whole. Repentance is, on its deepest level, the willingness to “bear a little shame” (in the words of the Elder Sophrony), to reveal ourselves in the truth, the nakedness of our being. The Elder wisely says, “a little,” since we cannot bear more most of the time.
In no way does this endorse shame as good, or give a pass to toxic shame. It is to recognize that shame is a fact of life, something that, according to clinical studies, is “hard-wired” into our bodies. It is the abuse of shame that creates the deepest wounds of our lives. As God heals those wounds, He does so by touching them, removing the sting and reestablishing the wholeness of our lives.
To see God face to face is the promise of true wholeness. To behold Him, without shame or fear. Soon, please.