There are meditations and insights that simply change your life. I recall walking across the campus at Duke some 30 or so years ago. I had been plowing through a book of Orthodox theology (very thick reading). I would read a page and think, and read it again. But I recall very plainly a moment of insight – it regarded some paragraphs surrounding a statement of St. Basil’s. The “coin dropped” as they say. When I got back to my apartment I was silent. My wife asked me what was going on – I tried to explain – but told her that if what I was understanding was true – I would have to rethink everything I ever believed. That’s an insight.
The articles I have offered over the past few years that touch on the topic of shame belong to another such insight. It has been a matter that, when once seen, cannot be unseen, leaving nothing the same. Shame (both healthy and toxic) lies at the very core of our soul and is written even into the fabric of our bodies. In the Scriptures, it is the oldest recorded human experience.
It winds its way throughout the writings of the fathers often unnoticed since it lies within the meaning of other words: humility, envy, jealousy, guilt, awe, wonder, worship (and many others). It also presents itself to me throughout the day as I interact with other people. I hear it in confessions, even casual conversations. It drives our passions far more than any desire. It is called the “master emotion” by some, so it has an almost ubiquitous presence.
However, we live in a culture that has something of a taboo surrounding the subject. Our shame is far too painful most of the time to be revealed and discussed. Every article I write on the topic becomes the occasion for any number of private emails and phone calls. And this is right and appropriate. Safety is essential in the healing of shame.
It does not surprise me, upon reflection, to note that Scripture and the liturgical tradition describe Christ’s suffering primarily in terms of shame. Many would rather discuss them in terms of violence, transaction and punishment – such topics are ever so much safer. We may never have hit another person, but who has not engaged in mocking, or been its victim? And the story of such a thing is deeply painful, regardless of whether we did it or had it done to us.
Shame is alienation, the rupture of communion and relationship. It is abandonment of a peculiar sort – suggesting that we are alone because we deserve to be. The loneliness, particularly within our modern age, is driven largely from the alienation of ruptured communion. On some level, everyone experiences not just loneliness, but a slight sense of danger in public settings. It may be described rather benignly as “social anxiety,” but it could just as well be described as public shame. We are anxious because we feel vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is a symptom of shame.
The exposure suffered in the state of shame is unbearable and demands a covering. Human beings as social creatures seek to clothe themselves. We look in the mirror and measure our appearance as though seeing ourselves through another’s eyes. Only that which feels safe and comfortable will do in public. Of course, some outfits can be provocative, even outrageous. Strangely, these are born of a deeper shame – “shamelessness” is itself an offensive version of a defensive strategy. In such a guise the guise itself so predominates that the shame it hides is almost completely obscured. Of course, I now seem to no longer see an outfit, only the public proclamation of the shame within. And, I have found that my entire personhood can be hidden beneath the folds of a cassock. Many do not see “me,” only “priest.” It is a danger.
For the young (and increasingly for the old), tattooing has become a popular form of clothing. We write our secret identities on our arms and legs, backs and torsos, sometimes on the face. Our identities become indelible so that we cannot deny them if we wanted. Of course, such branding may be as innocent as the latest fashion, but the inner drive remains the same.
There are other clothes that serve the same purpose. We dress ourselves in our opinions, or in the ideologies that mark our lives (both secular and religious). The labels and slogans, shibboleths and mantras of our mental tribes serve not only to hide our shame from others, but also from ourselves. The religion and politics of identity are the politics of shame, though it never speaks its true name.
Shame is particularly problematic in the modern world where many natural “identities” have been disappearing. The extended family has often been reduced to mere biology, maintained only by strained vacation visits. Immediate families are often unstable, yielding “blended” families. Sexual thoughts and desires have rather recently been pressed into a category of “identity,” leaving many adolescents feeling confused and tortured with uncertainty, and unsafe, regardless of what they do. We do not know where we belong (and feel shamed). We have to invent new identities for ourselves.
Our shame binds us into groups (where others “like us” can feel protected). Identity is frequently “tribal” in character and it seems that almost any tribe will do. Those who analyze social media note that one of the strongest tendencies is to associate with those with whom we agree. The tribal behaviors in these new settings often rival scenes from The Lord of the Flies. Social media are at least equally Anti-Social media.
All of this is the world we live in, and the world into which Christ was born. There is nothing we see that was not seen then. We have invented nothing new in our shame. Our creativity is largely confined to how we hide from our own shame and how we harness the shame of others to control and manage them.
But my thoughts say to me that we can only find Christ within our shame (both the toxic and the good). We find Him within the toxic because Christ has descended into hell and purposed to meet us there. That purposeful meeting is for our healing, our liberation and re-creation whenever we dare to go there. But He is also within the good shame as we behold His wonder and His glory and accept our own emptiness in their presence. And in that moment and place, what is empty is filled – what is naked is clothed upon. The soul becomes a mirror for His glory.