Could the “the good life” be costing us our freedom?
A missionary to Guatemala was standing in our kitchen—and two police officers were standing on our doorstep—when I decided I needed to answer that question. The question itself had been posed to me two days earlier.
By a Ukrainian immigrant standing in our driveway.
He was thumbing through the debris of our summer yard sale when I introduced myself. He told me his family had been in the U.S. for several years. I asked him if he was happy here. His answer surprised me.
He said, “My children want to return to the Ukraine, because there is no freedom here in the United States. In the Ukraine, you can have a beer and walk across a field and no one stops you, no one tells you it’s not your field. In the U.S., you can’t do that. Everything is controlled. There is no freedom.”
I think it went in one ear and out the other.
Until two days later when a visiting missionary parked on the wrong side of our street, and within minutes there were two squad cars at our curb. That doesn’t happen in Guatemala. Or the Ukraine, apparently.
Could the cost of our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness be an over-controlled land and a subtle loss of freedom? But even more important to me as a psychologist: if this is true at the local and national level, might it also be true at the individual level?
I think the answer to that question begins and ends with our shame.
FROM ONE ENSLAVEMENT TO ANOTHER
From our earliest days, we soak up messages about our flaws and brokenness. We infant-cry too long and too loud in the dark hours of the night and a frustrated parent puts us down hard and doesn’t come back and our repulsiveness gets worked into our emotional DNA. We cry over spilled milk—not because we’re out of milk but because a parent is out of patience—and our mistakes become fused to our core. We gain our adolescent weight before we gain our adolescent height and the kids giggle as we jiggle and our value gets confused with the numbers on the scale.
Life is chaotic and every mistake and problem and hardship rings out like a gavel—another verdict cast against our worthiness. We feel fundamentally lacking at our core.
And we run from it. We bury it and we seek a safe harbor.
In the good life.
The good life is our solution to shame. It’s a place of perfection, where we try to make it impossible for anyone to shame us again. We accrue wealth and accolades and a meticulously constructed façade.
But the good life requires enormous amounts of control.
Every dollar is watched like a hawk. Our children—these little extensions of our own perfection—must be hovered over and policed. Every blade of grass cut and every shrub trimmed pristinely. Every hair must be in place. Danger and risk must be eliminated. Safety helmets are bought. Insurance policies galore. Kids aren’t allowed to walk outside alone. And dangerous emotions like anger and sadness? Buried deep. No room for them in this “brave new world.”
Is it any wonder the good life ends up feeling like a prison?
We don’t heal our shame with the good life. We get enslaved by the good life.
THE OPPOSITE OF SHAME
So, how do we heal our shame?
For centuries, cultures have considered the opposite of shame to be honor. In these days, I think we consider the opposite of shame to be perfection and pride and status.
But the opposite of shame is none of these.
The opposite of shame is mess: the mess of life and the mess of our selves embraced with a radical self-acceptance and the grace of belovedness. The healing of our shame begins when our heart stops beating to the self-loathing cadence of “I am a hideous mess,” and begins singing to the redemptive rhythm of “I am a glorious mess.”
My nine-year-old son Aidan—who we sometimes refer to as the absent-minded professor—is often so busy thinking that life gets a little messy for him. Several weeks ago, he walked out of his bedroom, ostensibly ready for school. He presented himself in the kitchen and looked down at himself. One foot was bare and the other had two socks on it. He looked up at us, a wry smile on his face, and shaking his head turned back toward the bedroom, saying, “My brain, it sure is silly sometimes.”
My heart cracked at the absolute shamelessness in his voice. A little boy, with a knowing smile, absolutely embracing his messy self. Lopsided socks and all.
FROM SLAVERY TO REVOLUTION
When we try to control, and order, and perfect everything, we may successfully hide our shame. For awhile. But we are also creating a delusion. Because real life is messy. It’s blood-sweat-and-tears messy. It’s anxiety and sadness and embarrassment messy. It’s tragic and unpredictable.
And it is absolutely beautiful.
Not despite the mess, but because of the mess.
And you are, too.
You are the opposite of perfect. You’re a perfect mess. Quirks and failures and insecurities and triumphs and blissful moments and all. The whole glorious mess of you.
Does this mean we accept everything and never change anything about ourselves? Do we just walk through the world with two socks on one foot? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the sometimes hard and painful process of transformation can also be a joyful journey, because our lives no longer depend upon it. Because it’s all icing on the cake and we get to redeem it all with a wry smile.
The Ukrainian immigrant at my summer yard sale changed the way I think about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He helped me realize life is messy. Liberty is the freedom to embrace this fundamental reality. And happiness? Well, happiness is doing so shamelessly.
And people who have embraced the mess—shameless people—start a lot of trouble in this world. They can’t be controlled or dominated with fear and shame. So they are absolutely free to love gracefully and to live fully with a reckless abandon.
And this makes the shameless people the true revolutionaries.
How about you? Want to join the freedom of a glorious, messy revolution?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.