It is a common definition that the emotion of shame is about “who I am.” It centers in feelings of exposure, unworthiness, and damaged identity. Guilt, they say, is about “what I have done.” There are ways to deal with guilt – but shame, if it is actually a matter of “who I am,” runs deep. It is little wonder that the wounds of shame can be toxic. Self-loathing and related pain can so cripple an individual that life becomes nearly impossible. The answer to the question, “Who am I,” is not just important, it is primary.
A difficult aspect of our identity is that it is not always stable. We are not born into the world with a strong identity. We are helpless, unable to fend for ourselves. Our sense of well-being and comfort utterly depends on those around us. If parents neglect a child, what is internalized is not a sense of “I have lousy parents.” Rather, if the child survives, what is felt is, “I wasn’t worth the bother.” A deep internal shame will make life difficult and will manifest itself in a wide variety of damaged forms.
One of the pernicious notions of individualism is its failure to understand that health and well-being are at least as social as they are personal. There are forms of mental illness that are biological in origin. However, the bulk of the things that poison our lives flow out of the failures within our social experience. Chief among those failures are the injuries caused by the experience of shame.
Shame is not inherently bad (though that thought is certainly out there). The neurobiological basis of shame is hard-wired and is as necessary to our well-being as hunger, hearing, sight, anger, etc. It is only when that hard-wired neurobiological response becomes enmeshed in painful scenes that the paralyzing emotion of shame is created. At its core, the hard-wired reaction revolves around disappointed expectations – the experience of “no.” However, that very experience is essential for the formation of boundaries, and boundaries are essential for the formation of identity – including (particularly) healthy identity. The lack of boundaries has a name, “narcissism,” and it is painful and destructive to everyone around it.
But the very mechanism that is essential to the recognition of boundaries is also the mechanism that is at work in creating shame (in all its varieties). We could say that toxic shame, or damaging shame, is the abuse of something that is essential and necessary. That is a useful understanding, and points to just how tricky the acquisition and formation of identity is. It is a razor’s edge and pretty much no one survives the years of its acquisition without a legacy of unwanted shame. The years following that acquisition can often be occupied with the patient work of cleaning up the unwanted bits that shadow our existence. Adults gradually gain a sense of their identity, but very few feel entirely secure about it. “Who am I” can be a haunting question, for example, for someone going through a divorce or a loss of employment. When the props that we have gathered in the establishment of an identity are removed, it’s easy to fall apart.
Identity is worth considering from a theological angle. For though human beings are understood to be created in the image and likeness of God, and to be unique and of infinite worth, “who we are” is not at all clear in our earliest years (and even later). For the Scriptures, identity is often coterminous with naming. Abraham begins his life as “Abram,” his wife Sarah, as “Sarai.” The change in their names represents a revealing and unfolding of an identity that they did not know or understand until coming into contact with God. Jacob becomes “Israel” after wrestling with an angel. The New Testament continues this pattern. Simon is renamed “Peter” by Christ. Saul is “Paul,” etc. And much more than that, the Book of Revelation has this:
To the one who conquers I will give some of othe hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Rev. 2:17)
In my mind, it is similar to St. John’s statement in his first epistle:
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)
In both cases, “who we are” (the name), is something eschatological, something that belongs to the age to come. Who we are is not based on who we were, but on who we shall be. Identity is a movement towards something that we ourselves do not yet know.
Our culture has largely turned this on its head. We locate our identity somewhere in our youth and erect a cult of adoration around it. We worship being young. Tragically, this is the one demographic in the culture in which identity is the least formed and the most likely to be over-burdened with unhealthy shame. Youth cannot have wisdom for it lacks both experience and the judgment born of experience.
Of course, identity as an eschatological reality cannot be marketed. The fleeting disguises that pass for the identities of the young, on the other hand, are almost entirely the product of marketing. We do not so much have an identity as we acquire a brand. The identity marketed by our culture has a violent aspect. We “make our mark” on the world. We demand recognition for our latest imaginings. We even take up the grievances and wounds of history and wear them as an armor of entitlement. The rise of identity politics is particularly aimed at the young, and often surrounded by anger, a sure symptom of a shame-driven reality.
This understanding reveals the emptiness (and pure modernity) of Christian belonging when it is treated as a phenomenon of identity. Such a move reduces the irreducible eschatological reality to nothing more than another worldly brand. Ideological identity arguments (“Orthodoxy is better,” “Catholic is better,” “Reform is better,” etc.) are spiritual nonsense, for the simple reason that no one who boasts of their Christian identity has actually acquired it. And, of course, had that true identity been acquired, there would be no need to speak of it.
Simply put, any Christianity that is not directed towards the eschaton (the end of all things) fails to understand the gospel of Christ. The Kingdom of God is “that which comes” (“Thy Kingdom come”). What we shall be is that which is being revealed. Even Tradition cannot properly be located within history. Vladimir Lossky rightly describes Tradition as the living presence of the Spirit in the Church. That which is true in an early century remains true in a later century, not because of history but because it is made known by one and same Spirit. “Tradition” does not describe something “old,” but something that is “received” or “handed down.” It is not handed down from the past, but from God. The continuity within Tradition exists because God gives to us what He has always given to the Church. This also explains why Christianity (and Orthodox Christianity in particular) is apocalyptic in character – it is always a matter of “that which is to come” being revealed, made known, or uncovered, in our midst.
Interestingly, this spiritual formation is not shaped in the context or experience of shame. It is a gift, a revelation of something which is complete. In that true identity we stand before the judgment seat of Christ (the End of things) “without shame or fear.” In the course of our spiritual life, we learn to “bear a little shame,” in that we come to see who we are in our weakness and sinfulness, and, without anger or sadness, sit with it in God’s presence. This is the very heart of humility.
It is in this humility that we are able to receive that which is given – our new name – the truth of our existence as it is hidden in Christ. Glory to God!