I Wish I Was Clark Kent (And I Wish You Were Too)

Every blog post should be written like a love letter.

Donald Miller implores every blogger to remember that you are writing to a real reader, with a real life, a life that may actually be impacted by what you write. According to Miller, every writer should fix the reader in mind, by loving them (http://donaldmilleris.com, September 16, 2011). In that sense, I suppose, every blog post is like a love letter. However, love letters are never written only for their intended reader. Philosopher and theologian, Peter Rollins, reminds us that love letters have another purpose, as well: 

“Love letters always get to their destination. Love letters always get to the person they’re addressed to, because, in a sense, love letters are addressed to the one who’s writing them. That’s why we often write love letters that we don’t even send…they’re there for us to work through our feelings, to work through our emotions… the one who is speaking it is the one who really needs to hear it” (February 20, 2011).

I think that is true of my blog posts so far: I am writing to you, but I am also writing to myself. (Even shrinks need to be reminded that life is a story, that redemption is slow, that shame undermines our story, and that we all need new, fresh voices to help us narrate our lives.) But I think that is especially true of today’s post. You see, I’m a cautious person. I was the kid who avoided the cracks on the sidewalk, not for fun, but because, “Who knows?” I figured my mother really needed her back, and I wasn’t about to mess it up for her. My nickname in my church wilderness group was “Shy Fox,” and my Sunday school teacher once told my parents that she was concerned about my mental capacity because I never talked. For a kid like that, it’s very hard to imagine yourself growing up into a hero. I mean, Clark Kent may wear his glasses askew for effect, but let’s be honest, when you’ve been jumping over buildings for most of your life, it’s not much of stretch to imagine yourself a grown hero. However, when you’re a third-grade boy named Kelly, in your third new school in three years, and on the first day of class when your name is called the boy next to you says, “She’s not here,” and you shrink down and can’t imagine correcting him, well, being a hero seems like a serious longshot.

Yet, I’m convinced that deep down, we all yearn to play the role of a hero in our own story. I think we want it, not to satisfy our narcissistic need for attention and acclaim, but because heroes save and protect and leave the world a better place. Somewhere in us, we know that if our story can be about those things, then when the credits roll, we can be at peace with ourselves and the stories we have told.

But I wonder if we have given up on real-life, I’m-living-it-out-in-the-world-of-flesh-and-blood heroism? If the young people I meet with in my office every day are any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The kids that I’m talking to are insightful and articulate, and they have something to say: They look around their world, and they see parents whose stories are about scrambling to make mortgage payments and fighting to protect their fragile egos (by the way, I’m guilty as charged), and they wonder why, if that is the story awaiting them in adulthood, they should try so hard to grow up. They have parents and teachers who are telling them that life is all about being in the top quarter of their graduating class and getting a step ahead of their competition, and they sense that their authority figures have lost the plot. They see the aimless stories being lived out around them, and no one is giving them a better story to join. So, many of them have given up on being someone meaningful in their own story. The consequence is that they are bored to death. Most of the kids I talk to are not delinquent or rebellious or disturbed—they are bored. Question: “What would life be like if you quit smoking pot?” Answer: “Boring.” Question: “What would life be like if you quit having sex with random people?” Answer: “Boring.” You get the idea.

But it isn’t all the drugs and sex that has me thinking about this as a crisis of heroism. After all, teenagers have been having sex and doing drugs for a very long time. Rather, it’s the video games. It’s the games the kids are playing that have made me realize how much our kids are hungering for a story in which to be a hero. The majority of the most popular video games being played today are called role-playing games (RPGs for short, or “first-person shooter games;” think Call of Duty and Halo), in which the gamer is playing the role of a hero within the context of the game’s “story.” The stories themselves are not particularly creative: the world is in danger of annihilation, whether at the hands of zombies or aliens or some other sinister force, and it is your job to almost single-handedly save the world from destruction. Now that’s a hero. They play for hours, because with controller in hand, they can step into the role of a hero and save something big, whenever they want. And with no other alternatives being offered in their real lives, a generation of adolescents is abdicating heroism and sacrifice to the video game console and the movie screen.

This is tragic, because we need real-life, flesh-and-blood heroes. We need them badly. We need the obvious heroes: the police officers who dedicate their lives to making sure that drugs don’t find their way into our children’s veins, the firefighters who will climb up burning towers while those towers are falling down, or the men and women in uniform who believe so deeply in the value of freedom that they are willing to die for it. But we need the quiet and hidden heroes just as badly. We need the pre-school brother who grabs his sister’s hand so she doesn’t step in front of a moving car. We need the first grade boy who is reading books to raise money for orphans in Rwanda. We need the second grade girl who is collecting pennies for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. We need the middle school girl who spends all of her social collateral by standing between the mean girls and the girl with big glasses and braces, because that girl’s tears rupture her heart. We need high school almost-men who resist the advances of confused young women, because they care more for her heart than for her body. We need leaders who leave work early to tutor disadvantaged children in after school reading programs. We need men and women who watch the snow falling and think first about the elderly woman across the street who will need her front walk shoveled. We need business people and homemakers who drop what they are doing and flock to disaster areas after hurricanes and tsunamis hit. We need people who are willing to sacrifice a season to build wells for parched tongues in West Africa.

I want you to know, I have seen the look in a kid’s eyes when he realizes that he doesn’t have to sit in front of a television to be a hero, and it thrills me to my core. Girls who choose a summer trip to the inner city over cheerleading camp. Boys who write poetry, despite the taunts of the masses, because that is what their heart is saying and they think it might make their friends better people. I have seen middle-aged men, just fired from a job that was supposed to be unloseable, decide that their stories stink and that they’re going to do something that matters in the world, even if it means cancelling a cable subscription and chewing up a 401k, and it makes me want to sing. I have seen women who have spent decades lying down while their husbands dictate everything begin to stand up straight and place themselves between him and the kids, and it makes me want to be a better person.

Thank you, to all of you who are insisting that your story be meaningful and that you play the role of a hero in this world. You give me hope.

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.”