Happy (belated) New Year from Time Eternal!
There are few times of the year that carry more collective hope and shame than the beginning of January.
On the one hand, hope. That magnitude of stepping into a fresh, brand-new year summons within us a surge of new hopes and expectations. Like clockwork, we find ourselves inspired to be(come) better, more put-together versions of ourselves. I don’t know how to explain it, but the start of a new year makes time seem “cleaner” and less muddled, and this makes us want to hope.
On the other hand, shame. Because this annual re-awakening of our ideal selves can be a hugely vulnerable experience–it’s not easy to face a part of ourselves we want to improve or strengthen. This is especially true when the novelty of the new year begins to fade, and we find ourselves face-to-face with more or less the same people we were a few weeks ago.
It’s at that juncture, I think, shame quickly enters the game. Actually, it has been there all along, calmly biding its time. Shame knows it won’t have to work hard to gain authority in our hearts.
It’s helpful to recognize that shame can be its own kind of time-keeping mechanism.
I call it the “calendar of shame”— the mental landscape of silent anniversaries that recall our sense of inadequacy and despondency. We go about the normal calendars of our lives–birthdays, holidays, vacations, feast days, namedays–never conscious of how heavily our calendars of shame weigh us down. “Our years,” like the Psalmist wrote, are “spent in thought like a spider” (Psalm 89:9, SAAS).
Although everyone has a calendar of shame, for some it is more populated with reminders than for others. We can hear it whispering throughout the year, at critical junctures when we are more prone than usual to disappointment:
- Another New Year and I still haven’t lost weight.
- Another birthday and I’m still single.
- Another feast day and I’m late for Church / not in Church again.
- Another confession and I’m still struggling with the same old problem(s).
- Another year sober but I’m off the bandwagon.
- Another year goes by and I’m stuck in same old job.
- Another Great Lent and I have yet to get with the program.
- Another Christmas and I still have no one to spend the holidays with.
Shame is one of the darkest, most powerful and universal drivers of human behavior. When we are ashamed, we feel over-exposed and despicable, which motivates us to hide. As our psyche becomes chronically clouded by shame, our lives conform to a pattern of alienation and isolation.
It’s an impulse that dates back, I think, to Adam and Eve: their first response after eating fruit fruit the tree of knowledge was to cover up their nakedness. One of the most beautiful gestures in the entire Bible is what God does after He finds them huddled under the fig-leaf aprons they’d sewn: He provides garment of animal skin to shield their nakedness. The coverings, of course, foreshadowed our salvation in Christ, but on a more immediate level it shows that God understands how alienating shame is.
God did not scold Adam and Eve for acting out of shame—He knew they were at their weakest point, that everything within them was telling them to hide from Him. He clothed them so they would feel safe enough to have some semblance of communion with Him. Such a loving gesture speaks more loudly than words. It says “I see your shame, and I want to be with you anyway.”
Speaking from my little corner of the human condition, I don’t think love gets more real or powerful than that. I’m reminding myself of that this month, hemmed in by the strange New Year’s admixture of hope and ideals and the shame that creeps in under the radar.
I love the metaphor of the shame calendar because it illustrates exactly what shame does—bringing us back, again and again, to the same old memories, the same old wounds.
But as a writer who has wrangle this post into a conclusion, it’s proving difficult to tie up this metaphor into a pretty bow. I considered keeping the calendrical symbolism going and ending on a smiley upbeat–let’s “turn a new page” in our calendars, I wanted to say, or let’s “cross off the dates” of our shame. But if you have ever felt actual shame for a fraction of a split second, those cutesy statements will elicit the same reaction they did for me: <vigorous eye roll>.
Taking things in a more realistic direction…
If I know anything about calendars, it’s that they are extremely durable over time–they don’t change easily, even if we want them to. (Case in point: we’re still using more or less the same civil calendar since 45 BC, aside from the upgrade to the Gregorian calendar.) Calendars of shame, I’m assuming, are no different–they stick around. We can smile and turn a new page, and blot out the dates of shame. But sooner or later, they will find us, someday when we are lonely or disappointed or when we’ve screwed up. Like a repetitive record, our calendars of shame will remind us of all the times we’ve been less than adequate. And then what?
The only thing that brings me comfort is that as repetitive as shame is, God’s love and grace are infinitely more so. In Christ, forgiveness is offered over and over and over—not just once, but “seventy times seven,” the number that best represents infinity (Mt 18:22). Christ depicts forgiveness in an almost boringly predictable way. Has your neighbor wronged you? Forgive him, then forgive him again, and keep forgiving him. It’s a mere inkling of the way God forgives us.
And in the Divine Liturgy, we find a similarly repetitive movement back and back and back to Christ, though everything within us may want to retreat and hide—we pray ”again and again in peace”; we cross ourselves; we call “Lord have mercy.” We do this all countless times in any given service, in any given year of the Church. We may never catch up with the many times our calendars of shame whisper their lies to us, but I think the repetition somehow helps refashion the way we mark time. It turns time into a movement back–not back to memories of our shame, but back to engagement, back to communion, back to Himself and out of “all the pieces of our shame,” to borrow a phrase from Rilke.
It’s a slow journey—like I said, calendars don’t change easily. They are kind of like redemption itself. And so, perhaps it isn’t such a bad place to end after all: let us turn a new page. And let us keep turning a new page, though everything within us may want to hide behind it.
“I see your shame, and I want to be with you anyway.”