Habits are hard things to break. I quit smoking almost 30 years ago (cold turkey). It was more than difficult and came only after many failed attempts. But, in many ways, such a habit is among the easier to deal with. Far more difficult, and far more deadly, are the habitual patterns of human interaction that mark our lives. They are the single most important source of anxiety, depression and despair as well as anger and violence. These habits are so common that we think of them as normal and unchangeable. Many aspects of these habits are by-products of modern culture and its assumptions. For the most part, these habits constitute the truly sinful patterns in our lives, though most of them will never be rightly acknowledged or confessed.
The most significant of these patterns of interaction involve shame, a topic to which I have been giving special attention. It plays a fundamental role within the personality and holds a key place in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. Shame, in psychological terms, has to do with “global” feelings regarding the self. It answers the question: “Who or what am I?” There can be shame about particular things we have done (guilt), often termed “moral shame.” Whenever I am speaking with someone (or even about someone) and make a global assertion (“you are an idiot,” “you are a racist,” etc.), I have shamed them. I am not here saying that all such statements are wrong. There are occasions in which moral shame is important in helping someone understand that their behavior is having terrible consequences. But there is a hidden cost in every assertion of shame. That cost is found in the communal character of shame itself.
Whenever we encounter shame in someone else, we ourselves experience shame. It is a collective experience. The person who forgets their line in a play is not only embarrassed and ashamed, the entire audience experiences some shared sense of shame. It is odd, perhaps, but we are simply wired that way. Thus, when we induce shame in another (even theoretically), we are never immune. We grab them and jump off the cliff with them.
Think about political judgments. No one could have come through this past year in America without substantial political opinions. Regardless of who you might think is wrong, evil, incompetent, crude, criminal, dangerous, etc., the very thought carries with it some share of the shame. For the very thought itself is a shaming event. If we express the thought, perhaps posting a comment or article on Facebook, we ourselves experience shame, though primarily as anger or sadness (shame is, most often, morphed into these emotions instantaneously). The depths of anger and depression that engulfed the nation (mostly anger) this past year are simply the aggregate of our public shame. It offers no joy. What little “joy” most experience is, in fact, schadenfreude, the perverse pleasure we experience over someone else’s shame.
And this represents a cycle of sorts, a habitual behavior. Shame begets shame. If I make a negative global statement regarding you, your ideas or opinions, the result is shame (yours and mine). Generally, that will provoke an angry or depressed response, which will engender shame in me, followed by my angry or depressed response. And so the cycle goes. It is a downward spiral in which no one wins. It is a communion of death.
Such cycles often govern huge segments of our lives, with people slowly building lifestyles of avoidance. Shame is painful (as is its accompanying anger and sadness). Spiritually, this cycle of shaming is a fulfillment of the warning that those who judge will themselves be judged, only in a very short-term and intense manner. Those who shame are automatically drawn into the experience of shame themselves. The judgment of shaming is always mutual.
Breaking the Cycle
It is common in the spiritual life to look for peace of mind or ways to engage in the work of salvation. One of the key admonitions of the Fathers is to “guard your heart.” Technically called “nepsis” or “sobriety,” this guarding of the heart refers to paying attention to the character of our thoughts and actions. Few things can be as central to the spiritual life as taking care to break the habit and cycle of shame.
Modern public life is often grounded in the forces of shame and its conflicts. Our self-conception as democratic individuals leads us to assume that we are responsible for the outcome of history and that our voices and opinions shape the world. The corollary, of course, is that the cacophony of other voices competes with ours to do the same. Our neighbor becomes our competitor, often our enemy, numbered among those who bear the shame of ruining the world. The thought that we could ignore this demand of history’s outcome sounds like surrender and capitulation.
Christianity is not a blueprint for fixing the world or correcting the outcome of history. It does not consist of the project of building the kingdom of God in this world. Were such a thing the case, Christ would have been a Mohammed-like character. Instead, He is the Crucified God. Only the Cross addresses the cycle of shame and breaks it. It does this by “bearing” shame rather than creating it.
This is the very heart of the gospel, and the deep scandal of Christianity (and the primary reason it is so rarely practiced). In general, we do not believe in the Cross as a way of life. Instead, we remove the Cross into a parenthetical historical event where God does something to save us. We can refer to the event as a historical moment, and even depict it in art and hang it on the wall or around our necks. But to see the Cross as the road map of the Christian life is not only unthinkable, it is something against which most Christians will argue with vehemence.
What we put in place of the Cross is a moral project, the reconstruction of the world – done in the name of the Cross. And though this moral reconstruction has many salutary points (if it ever actually worked), it is nevertheless ultimately the product of violence and shame. That is the nature of the political life of the secular world. “This practice is good. Those who do it are good, those who don’t are bad.” And we muster all of the various forces of persuasion (including shame) to bring it about. We see ourselves as the agents of a better world, in the name of the Cross.
However, the Cross has nothing in common with this project. The Elder Sophrony correctly described the Cross with the words, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” The “way of shame” is Christ’s path of bearing shame rather than creating shame. It is the breaking of the cycle by willingly and voluntarily accepting an unjust shame, even the shame of the other.
The mocking shame of the Cross can be heard on the lips of those who crucified Him: “If you are the Christ, come down from the Cross!” To “come down” is to engage in the violence of reaction and the forceful correction of the world. It is to vanquish those who shame Him and force them (and the world) to behave. We ourselves have engaged in the same mockery ever since: “Why doesn’t God do something about this? Why does God allow such evil?”
“Allowing such evil” belongs to the very character of the Cross and God’s way with the world. Allowing such evil is of a piece with allowing my own freedom. Christ’s healing of my evil is accomplished by His acceptance of my evil within the burden of shame that He is willing to bear. In in the very evil that He allows, I find that He has united Himself to me. He enters my shame and transforms me at that very point – and nowhere else!
This is the content of the Cross. And we are invited to be participants in that very same work:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross. (Phi 2:5-8)
“Let this mind be in you…” St. Paul’s description of Christ’s self-emptying embrace of our shame (“even the death of the Cross”) is also given as the prescription of the Christian life. Others may run the world and manage the outcome of history. For us, Christ Crucified is the true outcome of history and the end of all things. His resurrection stands as witness to this and invitation to follow Him. And, make no mistake, it is into the shame of the Cross that we are invited to walk.
Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
In our voluntary union with Christ and His Cross, we bear a little shame, and bring the cycle of shame and violence into the silence and healing of paradise.