Shame is a story-killer.
If our lives are like a long road in a vast landscape that crests on the horizon, and if story is the vehicle of our lives, moving us from a broken beginning to a redemptive conclusion, then shame is like bad fuel, clogging the carburetor, preventing our stories from even getting started. Let me say that again: shame prevents redemption.*
I am increasingly convicted that we get the truth of this backwards—we think that something is going to come into our lives to redeem what has gone before, and we think that the redemption we experience will somehow dry up our shame. But the reality is that shame trumps redemption every time, because it prevents us from entering into the very story that will bring redemption to our lives. Shame binds us. It keeps us waiting for a story to define us and to heal us, and so we fail to take up our existential pens and become the authors of our own stories. Shame has the power to do this, because at its very core, shame is a cancer in us that whispers, “You are irredeemable.”
The dictionary defines shame as “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous…done by oneself or another.” This is an adequate start, but shame is so much more. So. Much. More. Shame is a murmuring voice inside, convincing us that the things we did, the mistakes we made, the actions we would die to take back, were not just things we did, but are a reflection of who we are. Shame purrs almost irresistibly, “You are, at the very core of you, broken, filthy, ugly, a failure, a loser, unacceptable, disappointing, ignorant, depraved, weak, alone, or despicable.” And always, it cajoles, “You are irredeemable.” It is so quiet that we rarely realize it is there. It is like air in a room—it can be everywhere, it influences everything we do, and we are often completely unaware of it.
Sometimes, though, shame tips its hand, and we experience it in subtle ways. It is the rush of color to our face following an innocent joke made at our expense. It is the subtle lie that masks our mistakes, uttered in the silent conviction that being known, really known, will make others avert their eyes. It is the frightened rush of adrenaline when asked to speak up, to reveal even the smallest parts of our broken inner space. At other times, shame comes crashing in, and there is nothing subtle about it. It is a dark depression that tells us to stay in bed, because we have nothing to offer the world and, even if we did, the world would eat us alive. It is a sweeping panic, screaming that nothing and no one is safe enough to trust with who we are. It is a deep, deep loneliness that takes us by the shoulders and looks us in the eye and tells us that we are alone because no one can stomach us.
And when we experience shame, and when we buy into the lie that we are irredeemable, we foreclose on our story. When we think there is nothing good in us, we simply quit believing that our story can be redeemed. Life becomes about protecting ourselves from the view of others, lest they discover who we really are at our core. Our stories become a tale ripe with hiddenness, tentativeness, and fear. Our lives become stagnant and apathetic at best, and small, shriveled, and dead at worst.
I was reminded this week of the power that shame has to shape and limit, and sometimes end, our story, when I came across the November 21, 2011, issue of Sports Illustrated in our clinic waiting room. The cover featured Joe Paterno, walking across Beaver Stadium, head bowed, and the cover screamed, “The Failure and Shame of Penn State.” By now, most of us are familiar with the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal that is so big and so explosive that, in late 2011, it captured the horrified, sickened attention of many, regardless of their affinity for football. Although it is a twisted story, with a number of storylines, many people seemed most compelled by the fall from grace of one of the most revered figures in sports history—the coach, Joe Paterno, who had knowledge of wrongdoing and failed to exercise the full extent of his power in bringing a corrupt man to justice. So within a week, Sports Illustrated was advertising the failure and shame of Penn State. But a university, an institution, cannot feel shame, only people can. And one person in particular seemed to bear the brunt of this shame, the man on the cover.
Two months ago, Joe Paterno was a vital octogenarian, at the helm of one of the most successful athletic programs in the history of college sports. This week, sadly, he succumbed to cancer and died a relatively quiet death. How can one explain such a quick descent from life to death? Yes, he was an old man and cancer is a powerful and deadly force. But I think, in the end, Joe Paterno had two forms of cancer. Sports Illustrated publicly diagnosed his second cancer, his shame, more than two months ago, and I believe it was the power of that shame that so quickly transformed a life-long fighter into the ultimate subject of surrender. Sports Illustrated declared, “Paterno’s place in the record book is assured, but…the dark final chapter ruined the story” (pg. 50). The dark final chapter ruined the story. I think this is another way of saying that his story was irredeemable, that JoePa’s failure to act and to protect was a shame that he could not overcome. Indeed, when that kind of shame sets in, the story could be over.
But we need not succumb to the power of shame. Regardless of whether your shame is very small and hidden or like a mountain inside of you, whether it is subtle and quiet or advertised to the entire world like a cover story on the magazine of your life, the shame we experience does not have to be the end of the story. In fact, our shame can be the beginning—the beginning of a story that brings change, healing, and redemption.
I’ve had some song lyrics bouncing around in my head for the last couple of weeks (when they get stuck there for a day, well, that’s annoying, but when they stick around for weeks, they must mean something more):
“And in one little moment, it all implodes. This isn’t everything you are. Breathe deeply in the silence, no sudden moves. This isn’t everything you are. Just take the hand that’s offered, and hold on tight. This isn’t everything you are. There’s joy not far from here, I know there is. This isn’t everything you are.”**
There are places in the world where a different voice, a new voice, can begin to speak to you. It says, “Steady, I’m here, and you are more than your shame.” This voice doesn’t try to convince us that everything is okay, or that we are flawless or whole. Quite the opposite. It assures us that we don’t have it all together, that we make mistakes and live broken lives, but that we are more than our mistakes and our regrets. So. Much. More. The new voice is steady and persistent, and if we listen to it, with time, it begins to compete with the voice of shame, and it rings so true that we can begin to trust it. And then new things begin to happen. We can name our regrets, and then walk past them , telling a new and better story with our lives. We can make mistakes, maybe even mess up really big, and we can apologize and decide that regardless of who decides to forgive us, we have forgiven ourselves. We can admit that we are awfully messy inside, and decide that the mess is not the end of things, but that it is the beginning of a great project of redemption.
There are places in the world where a new voice is telling a different story about us. Sometimes it is the voice of a friend. Sometimes it is a family member. Sometimes it is a therapist. Sometimes we hear it in the places we least expect. If you need that voice, don’t let your shame be the closing act. Let the next scene of your story be the search for that voice.
*This would be one of those moments that I’m typing something I believe conclusively while aware that I believed something equally conclusive and mutually exclusive not so long ago. I’ll let you decide how wrong I am.
**Snow Patrol, Fallen Empires, “This Isn’t Everything You Are.”