I’ve been thinking a good deal about shame during the last few years. The book that cracked open my heart with regard to the subject was Dr. Curt Thompson’s The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Dr. Thompson is a kind and gentle fellow-traveler who has dealt with the brunt of shame, and who has given his life to uncover shame’s dark and lasting effects. If you’re not a reader, you can listen to this discussion between Dr. Thompson and Ian Cron which center’s around the book. Be prepared to weep at the truth of it.
I work in a customer service role at a local museum, and can’t help but overhear conversations between parents and their children. For some reason, a museum can bring out the reverent side in a lot of people, and I often hear parents hushing their children in an effort to keep the peace. Kids don’t have the same filters we grown-ups often have, and so they just function as they are, asking their questions, making their needs known, and just being who they are. (I’m kinda jealous sometimes!)
A few days ago I overheard a mother shushing her young son who I guessed to be four years old. He was having a hard time deciding whether he wanted a simple wooden toy she had offered to purchase, and so he carried it around the gift shop, processing out loud in an attempt to make a decision. This was a tough one, folks. Ultimately deciding he didn’t want the toy, his mom started to put it back in the bin, but stoped when he protested.
“Do you want this or not?” she asked. I was mesmerized as he stood there for a solid 30 seconds quietly staring at the toy, squarely in the valley of decision. Yes, the toy was a must-have, he concluded, and so she returned it to him to carry, along with this this response:
“I swear, little man, you are so much right now.”
My heart hurt when I heard those words. And I wondered how his little heart felt? He couldn’t have possibly named the prick he surely felt. Most adults can’t even recognize shame when it happens, given its multivalent kaleidoscopic manifestations. Shame is, I believe, so endemic in our ways of relating that we don’t even recognize how it is interwoven into our interactions. The little boy’s bowed head, and suddenly quiet voice, however, gave evidence of his sense that something not good had just happened. I’m not criticizing this mother – she seemed to love her child, and to care about his happiness. Honestly, I’ve heard much more strident – yea, abusive – language come out of an adult’s mouth directed toward a child. Still. Shame is so sneaky in the ways it infiltrates our lives.
Dr. Thompson emphasizes in his book that, “although the description of our experience of shame is often couched in words, its essence is first felt.” He tells in his book the story of Alison, a young girl who brought her test score to show her mother : a 92%. Although most of us would be pretty impressed by such a score, her mother, instead, replied, “What happened to the other 8 percent?” Thus began the self-talk: “work harder,” “you’re not enough.” These words reinforced the feeling of shame, and created what Thompson calls an “unending loop” of feelings that “strengthen the felt experience.”
Ever since I overheard this exchange, that little boy’s sober countenance has been cemented in my mind. How might his mother have responded in a way which removed shame, and replaced it with a different reaction? I’m guessing here, but perhaps she could have said, “You were having a hard time deciding there, buddy. Did you want a different toy? Or did you just not feel like picking a toy today?” I wondered how it might have been to give place, space, and voice to what he was feeling in a way that resulted in growth? Is there a better way to to describe someone other than “so much?” Instead of shaming someone for trying to figure out how they feel or what they really want, wouldn’t it be better to help them process so that they could know? And in so doing, wouldn’t we build solid, confident foundations on which to build similar decisions in the future?
“It’s only a toy,” some might say, but is it? In his little mind that was a big deal. And a healthy response now could lay the framework for healthy responses later in life. It could also teach him that taking the time to search his heart and reason out his decision – no matter how long it took – is a good thing. It’s not being “too much.”
With proper work, we as adults can look back over the panorama of our lives and see how shame has framed nearly every facet. It is the universal affliction; no one is immune. No wonder the writer of Hebrews was so specific in reminding us that addressing shame was such a key part of Christ’s work on the cross:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
The initiating and perfecting of our faith, then, is wrapped up in the way Christ took on himself the debilitating experience of shame known by all humankind. As reconcilers, then, we who carry on Christ’s work can pray for hearts to sense, eyes to see, and ears to hear those experiences of shame in others, and to reframe, redefine, and offer new narratives grounded in the hope of the Gospel.
The very thought of this leaves me in awe and wonder, that our lovely Christ would call the very people who perpetuate and carry shame to be the ones who do the nimble work of healing this debilitating disease of the soul. No, we are not “so much,” to him – none of us are. We are deeply loved and wholly accepted – we are enough.