JoePa and the Death of Story

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.” 

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • mindfullyhealing

    THANK YOU for this. I’ve been thinking a lot about shame and disconnection, and fighting so hard to push the shame aside to be able to allow myself to really, truly connect.
    When you said: “you are more than your shame,” it really struck me. It’s not “hey, let that shame go, NOW!” and it’s not “shame is all there is”. It’s a perfect middle place…”there’s shame, and there’s more”. THAT is something I can work with.
    Thanks.

  • Kandis

    Not one of us are perfect, sometimes in retrospect we may make a bad decision but I know a God who loves us and welcomes us back into His open arms whenever we miss the mark. In our world it saddens me that this one mistake can negate an honorable man’s legacy. He will only be known for the scandal. My take away from this experience is to love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul, serve your family and your community, but more importantly take some time to smell the roses because our lives are a mere vapor and only what we do for Jesus Christ will last.

  • Jennifer Merck

    Kelly, are you familiar with *The Jesus Storybook Bible*? Your post reminds me of the theme running through the book that the “Big Lie” the serpent told Eve was, “He doesn’t love you.” What was the result? They covered themselves in shame. When we believe to our core that we are not valuable and unlovable, we cannot let go of that shame. Thanks for this. You have great insights.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks to all of you for reading and engaging! To mindfullyhealing, I’m glad it resonated with you. And I want you to know that your blog is beautifully articulating the process of healing. Kandis, thank you for your thoughtful words. And Jennifer, yes, we are on our second copy of that Bible! The kids love it, and I think one of the reasons is the way it knits seemingly disjointed scenes into a cohesive narrative.

  • franklintait

    I really appreciate what you have written. Shame has sabatoged many a plan in my life – and others on occasion add to my struggle with a sense of shame. It is a continual battle to allow God to ground me in his unconditional love.

    Just a word, though, if I could, on using the JoPa case as an example (I know you were not trying to disparage him) – I know someone very close Penn State – and what is often politically correct to write in a nationally distributed magazine does not reflect accurately what really happens on the ground. It is all too easy to shame others for ‘not doing enough’. Paterno did act, but the chain of command above him did not. In the end, someone had to take the fall – Paterno.

    I think your point applies well to Paterno, in any case, as one who was inordinately shamed and scapegoated – that the public humiliation and shame inordinately placed upon him led to his passing away so soon after this happened. As you wrote above, shame can be deeply destructive – it can even seep all the way into the very marrow of our bones and like a thief steal and sap our very life and hope – such that even the bonds of lifelong friendship and love can’t overcome – and some despair even of God’s love. I don’t think he died of personal shame – though he said, as we all have, that he wished he would have done more – I think what mainly contributed to his death was his being shamed/humiliated mercilessly and publicly by the Penn State administration and by a public press which too easily soils the life and reputation of a man who sought to walk with integrity – indeed the press loved the scandal of it. Disgrace sells – and JoPa was highly respected.

    But . . .

    I love your thoughts on not letting shame be the end, on not succumbing to the power of shame – that it can be a beginning rather than an end. For me, it is easy to feel powerless in the face of the damage that shame can cause, or has caused through ones lifetime. The thought of moving on, of beginning again can feel like a trivializing of the past – but not to do anything is, I think, to die a slow and painful death in every sphere of ones life. But nothing can separate us from the love of Christ – not even shame – for he bore our sin and shame, using it as an opportunity to manifest the full extent of the Father’s love. The words seem so vague and trite as I type them, but their reality is nothing short of amazing.

    Dr. Flanagan, thank you again. I love your heart and enjoy your writing and insights very much. I look forward to reading your posts in the future. God bless you richly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Franklin, I think I got the final version of your comment up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think you’re right on–we often use “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably, but they are two very different things. One does not need to be guilty to be shamed. In fact, shame is often magnified by actual innocence, because the lie about who we are is that much bigger. Thanks for understanding that I wasn’t trying to pass a verdict of guilt on JoePa, but instead was trying to reflect on the sad toll that shame can take on a person.

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