Let’s talk about shame, shall we. Dictionary.com defines shame as, “The painful feeling arising from the dishonorable, improper, ridiculous done by oneself or another.” Some synonyms for shame include, disesteem, dishonor, humiliation, ill repute, self-disgust, self-reproach, skeleton in the cupboard, odium and mortification. There is a pivotal point in childhood when we discover this feeling of shame. In the Adam and Eve story, shame appears when Adam and Eve discover themselves to be separate from God. This moment of disconnection evokes self-awareness and Adam and Eve feel shame for their nakedness, hide and then cover themselves. That sounds about right, doesn’t it? This is a pretty common reaction to shame.
Interestingly, shame appears in childhood around 2-3 years of age. This is that wonderful time when those precious children let everyone know that they are their own person, and definitely separate from their parents. Some of my first memories of shame are being at the grocery store, grabbing the leg that resembles one of my parents and looking up to find a strangers face. It was the first realization of what a mistake was, that I made one and that someone saw me make this mistake. I can still remember that warm wash of shame.
Shame is often described as all consuming and I think that everyone of us here can attest to that, unless there are any sociopaths in crowd. It’s estimated that about 1% of the population does not experience the feelings of shame and anxiety. These people are thought to suffer from sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder. Where most people are motivated to be mutually connected to others, sociopaths are not. Shame is the emotion that indicates our deepest desire to be connected, to one another, to ourselves and to Source. It is felt when we feel that we have done something or there is something about us, that if anyone finds out, it will make us unworthy of connection. It is also felt when our boundaries have been violated as this gives us the message that we are less than and unworthy of respect. We see the latter so often in situations of abuse. In shame’s unhealthy form, we like Adam and Eve become reactive by running, hiding, and possibly becoming angry towards the self or others.
One of the readings for today, is Psalm 51. Though I have heard this psalm many times, I did not know the story behind it until I was asked to do this sermon. In the Psalm, King David is repenting and expressing his sin for commiting adultry with Bathsheba, impregnating her and then having her husband killed. In the story, David does not recognize his wrongdoing until the prophet Nathaniel lets him know about the boundaries that his has crossed in the eyes of God. It is only then, that he feels disconnected from God and shame for his actions. I found this very interesting. I was like, “David, you really didn’t know that was messed up, huh? However, as I thought about that more, I saw so many places in our society where the same thing occurs, in the avoidance of feeling shame and taking responsibility.
I see the avoidance of responsibility in the discourse about race and racism, classism, heterosexism, sexism, capitalism and patriarchy. Relationally and in the context of race, it looks like this; A person of color bravely describes their experience of racism and a white person somehow discredits their experience. This leaves that person or group of people to absorb the shame induced when boundaries where crossed and when someone is treated as less than.
We just saw this in the Trayvon Martin case, where some media sources attempted to slander Martin’s character, to somehow justify the killing. This is a classic case of a moment in history where the shameful shadows of our society were exposed. Many wanted to hide and cover up the blatant horror and shame of the racially motivated murder of a 17 year old child, in his own neighborhood, with nothing but skittles in his pockets. We, and particularly white folks, did not want to claim this as part of our collective, shameful shadow. Right now, we have prophets such as the creators of the Black Lives Matter movement, who have come, like the prophet Nathan did to King David, to awaken our consciousness. If we do the work of ownership and taking responsibility individually and collectively, we move towards transforming the shameful shadows of racism.
As much as I was shocked by David’s ignorance about his behavior, I was equally shocked by his ability to feel, take responsibility and move through his shame. It left me longing for government leaders who could do the same and I wondered why this was so abnormal. Why is it so difficult to admit a mistake? I think it is because we live in a shaming society, but not a shame welcoming/shame witnessing society. Shaming societies are based in dualities. “If you aren’t good, you are bad. If you’re not right you’re wrong.” There are good neighborhoods and there are bad neighborhoods. There are Democrats and Republicans….and the list goes on. Duality leaves little room for the nuances that can transform shame.
In a shame welcoming society there is infinite space between good and bad and it is not linear. It is liminal. We accept that we will all be victims and we will all be perpetrators. In this place where no one can be too attached to being good or being bad. If there is ownership and the taking of responsibility, by those enacting perpetration, compassion and forgiveness can be never ending strings of connection between all of us.
Rumi illustrates this point when he writes, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This is the field where the father, in the prodigal son story, meets his child, and welcomes him home. I wish for us to cultivate this field, first and foremost in the self and then, families, friendships and political/social systems.
We have been working for the past few weeks with the metaphor of Rumi’s “Guest House.” Last week, Sheri described healthy anger as the watchman/watchwoman for your house, protecting your boundaries. As I thought about the personification of healthy shame, I, with a friend, came up with the metaphor of the mailman/woman. Shame is not really meant to come too far into your house. Shame is certainly not meant to be an overnight guest. For those of you who have shared a bed with shame, you know what I am talking about. Shame does not let you get any sleep, snores loud and if you let shame stay too long it takes over every room. It never does its own dishes and leaves a destructive mess. Soon, there is no room for any other guests to come and stay. It’s just you and shame, barricaded in, curtains drawn. Basically, shame becomes the creepiest mailman ever.
I can remember going to bed with shame many nights, as a child and teenager. The mail that shame was delivering said, “You are gay, that makes you different, a little gross and some people won’t like you. P.S. your identity is tied to people liking you so this is really going to suck.” I let those letters stack up for years. I have done many things, in my life, of which to feel some healthy shame, but being Queer is not one of them. Sometimes, our healthy interaction with shame require us to say, “Actually, this letter isn’t for me, return to sender.” I was finally able to do this my junior year of college, when I came to the realization that I was going to tell people my secret that had caused so much private shame. At the moment when I knew this, a new message came in that said, “Addie, everyone who loved you before is still going to love you and it will be even better because they will actually know you.”
When we are interacting with shame in a healthy way we open the door and say, what messages do you have for me today? We sift through the letters say things like, “Oh yeah this is for me. It’s going to take me a couple days to read this over, but I will address it” or “You know what, this was actually supposed to be sent to my mother/father/ancestors” or with the help of the anger watchman, “This is for my abuser, not for me, they may not accept this mail back, but I am certainly not having it in my house anymore.” If you are in a marginalized group then, “This is actually the weird shame projection mail that keeps coming to my house. It really should be sent to the address of white-hetero-patriarchy.”
When we utilize shame in this way it becomes part of an alchemic recipe. Just add a little vulnerablity, bravery, courage, compassion, forgiveness and voula! The end result, as shame researcher Brene Brown, would say is “whole-hearted living” and fearless authenticity. My wish for myself and for everyone is the next time the shame mailman comes, recieve the mail bravely as an invitation to return whole-heartedly to the Garden of Eden. This is the the place of connection with self, others and Source, where you can dance naked and free.