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A wretch like me

We all feel shame. Instead of running from it, maybe we should take a cue from the Bible and face up to our flaws and frailties.

By Trisha Elliott

When I was nine years old, a church music director told me I couldn’t sing. During choir rehearsal, she asked me to mouth the words. I was so ashamed that I stopped singing in public — for about 20 years. After I became a minister, a mentor told me that to be an effective worship leader, I needed to try to sing.

I took her challenge seriously and joined a church band. The first time we sang on stage, I had a full-blown panic attack. It was humiliating. Getting back on stage afterward was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Shame has a way of sticking, especially when it settles in early.

Shame is universal. All of us can identify with the Psalmist: “I live in disgrace all day long, and my face is covered with shame” (Psalm 44:15). When we wish the ground would swallow us up or when we’re tempted to lash ourselves, the stories of our faith can pull us out of the mire. In a shame-phobic world, scripture prophetically dives into our most shunned emotion.

We are capable of feeling shame as early as two years old, experts say, but we spend a lifetime denying it. One study found that in therapy sessions, shame was the emotion most frequently expressed, occurring more than all other emotions combined. But while therapists and clients used the words “grief,” “fear” or “anger,” “shame” was rarely mentioned. In The Psychology of Shame, first published in 1989, psychologist and author Gershen Kaufman argues that North American society is shame-based, yet there is shame about shame. “It is not pride that binds us, it is shame. The taboo on shame is so strict . . . that we behave as if shame does not exist,” he writes. The Voices United hymnbook actually suggests alternative lyrics for Amazing Grace, replacing “saved a wretch like me” with “saved and strengthened me.” Few of us want to think, much less sing, about ourselves as wretched even when we feel deep down that the word fits.

While we hide from shame, the Bible tackles it head on. No sooner are the first humans created than they fail epically. Adam and Eve scramble to sew together fig leaves after being booted out of Eden for disobeying a direct order. In the New Testament, lepers stand on the edge of the community shouting “Unclean!” so that others can avoid contracting the shame of their illness. Jesus spent so much time with the scarlet-letter crowd that the most frequent accusation levelled against him was eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” In the end, Jesus endured a shameful execution; he was publicly stripped, spat on and hung on a cross, the word “traitor” nailed over his head.

Shame is guilt’s more insidious cousin. While guilt refers to a feeling that we have done something bad, shame is feeling that we ourselves are bad. Shame is so painful that to cope with it, we deny, deflect and avoid it. Some of us deal with shame by striving for perfection, only to become more ashamed when we fail to measure up to our own impossible standards. Thus begins what clinicians call the “cycle of shame”: shame begets shame, and around it goes.

Which is not to say we should aspire to be shameless. Embarrassment, shyness and self-consciousness are forms of shame that aren’t bad unless they are extreme. Shame can be helpful when it motivates us to reform our damaged sense of integrity. It’s when shame gets permanently branded in our souls that we’re in trouble. That’s when we need to revisit our old, old stories of forgiveness, grace and redemption.

After the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel squanders his inheritance, falls into poverty and sulks home, his father runs to meet him, inviting the entire community to a lavish party. When the parable was told, it was customary for a son who brought shame on his family to be publicly beaten before he could reintegrate into the community; in context, the parable is an extravagant illustration of Divine acceptance.

Peter’s approach to discipleship got off to a shaky start with his betrayal of Jesus. Jesus shot him a look, the kind that dredges the depths of the soul, drawing up the most humiliating bits. Peter couldn’t stand to see himself reflected negatively in Jesus’ eyes, and he fled, weeping bitterly.

“My power is made perfect in weakness,” Jesus taught — maybe because his most effective followers were deeply flawed. Whatever the inspiration, his teaching flies in the face of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps culture, where vulnerability is hushed up.

American shame expert Brené Brown argues that overcoming harmful shame is about knowing we are enough. But knowledge of “enough-ness” requires becoming vulnerable, exposing our weaknesses and failures to ourselves and others. “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” she lectures in a TED talk.

Monica Lewinsky made a mistake she says she “regrets deeply” when she was 22 years old. In a recent Ted Talk called The Price of Shame, she divulges the cost of being publicly humiliated worldwide thanks in large part to the Internet. “I lost my reputation. I lost my dignity. I lost everything. I almost lost my life. . . . Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

Divine empathy lies at the heart of scripture. The cornerstone of spiritual renewal, says theologian Paul Tillich, is “acceptance of one’s acceptance by God.” A case in point: “grace” — mentioned 123 times in the New Testament — derives from the Greek word charis, related to “rejoice.” Despite our shame, God rejoices in us. When we loathe ourselves most, there is a power in the universe beckoning us to develop a deeper capacity to love ourselves and others. This might necessitate repairing the harm we have done or changing our behaviours. Grace may be free, but the road to redemption isn’t always a cakewalk.

Recovering from toxic shame requires taking a hard look at where our shame comes from, why we feel it and how our theology speaks to it. When Brown interviewed people who were resilient to harmful shame, she found some common tendencies: they recognize what triggers their shame, talk to themselves lovingly, reach out to people they trust and tell their story. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” she says.

That’s why shame is often healed in community. Enter the church. By providing small, intimate groups marked by honest sharing, a minister who’s available to listen non-judgmentally to private confessions, and services that touch on the underbelly of “negative” emotions, churches can create a safe environment for shame to surface, be dealt with and released.

Recovering from shame is possible. Christianity originated with a radical overcoming of the shame of crucifixion. From there, the promise of redemption was conveyed through the Apostle Paul, a former slave trader and murderer. Despite denying Jesus three times, Peter went on to become one of the founders of the early church. Good news for those whose lives have been robbed by shame and who desperately need to hear Jesus’ promise: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

For me, abundant life involves singing my heart out. Since my meltdown, I have sung in front of huge crowds. At a local homeless shelter, I led so many singsongs that the clients nicknamed me “The Voice.” One day, while I was singing at a congregant’s hospice bedside, three strangers asked if I would also sing to their dying loved ones. I sang all afternoon. The tragedy of shame is its power to limit us. Faithfulness involves putting shame in its proper place. When we put shame where it belongs, we may discover a voice we didn’t know we had. Our lives can, as Psalm 96 goes, “Sing a new song to the Lord!”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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