By Fr. Stephen Freeman, pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.
“For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sirach 4:21)
There is a popular definition of shame that describes it as “how we feel about who we are.” Along with this is a definition of guilt as a feeling of “how we feel about what we have done.” Those are oversimplifications but they are a useful place to start. Because race in our culture is a central part of how we see ourselves (“who I am”), it is inherently the case that shame is involved. But today, I want to take us much deeper into the phenomenon of shame and see what is really going on, how we can deal with it, and how it affects our relationships. Finally, I will offer some thoughts on the place that shame holds in our spiritual life, both shame that is of a sinful nature, as well as healthy shame which is glory and grace.
We are hard-wired for shame
I pray this is not a distraction – but it is worth considering, before anything, the actual neuro-biological basis of the experience of shame. The psychologist, Sylvan Tomkins, first identified nine structures in our human “wiring” that he labeled as “affects.” They are: Distress-Anguish; Interest-Excitement; Enjoyment-Joy; Surprise-Startle; Anger- Rage; Fear-Terror; Shame-Humiliation; Disgust; and Dissmell. These are reactions that are inborn. For example, the “surprise-startle” affect. When we play “peek-a-boo” with an infant, the child does not need to be taught how to play the game. They know the game because it consists in our “surprising” them, engaging a reflex that has been there from the beginning. Tomkins theorized that these primitive affects combine with our life experience over time to form emotions and the major aspects of our personality.
It is useful to identify this, I think, because when we speak of “shame” – we tend to have in mind that more-developed emotional experience with all of its associations. But it’s useful to think about it in its most fundamental aspects, particularly when we come to think of what is called “healthy shame.” And it will be necessary to speak of healthy shame in order to discover the route past toxic shame towards healing.
At this primary level, “shame” is an affect that is our “self-protection” signal. It marks a “stop” in our experience. It can be as innocent as signaling a boundary. Interestingly, it is also the affect that is perhaps most deeply involved in the experience of the holy. Think for a moment about someone entering a “Holy Place,” such as an old cathedral. We instinctively (meaning an affect is involved) become quiet, lowering our voice to a whisper. It is the instinct of “self-protection” – there is some sort of vulnerability we are undergoing (Aslan is not exactly a “tame” lion). We “hide,” in a certain way. It would be possible, I think, to do an entire presentation on this alone. But we have much harder work to do.
This fundamental affect of “self-protection” easily becomes mired in very negative, dangerous experiences. The body remembers these things. An immediate question for us is, “How does this have anything to do with the “shame” question of “How I feel about who I am?”
A good story for thinking about this is the Genesis account of the Garden. Created by God, we were “naked and unashamed.” There is no boundary of vulnerability between the man and the woman and God. They are utterly safe. With the first sin, they become aware of their nakedness – there is a new feeling – that of being unsafe and exposed. They hide – it is the most primal reaction of shame. Commonly, we experience shame most notably in the face. Embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. We turn our face away, we look down and cannot make eye contact. We hide.
Nothing is more “exposed” or “exposing” than our sense of self-identity. Most of our lives are spent “hiding” in one manner or another. God “clothed” Adam and Eve with “garments of skin.” We have continued to “clothe” ourselves with garments that seek to define our identity, or hide it, etc. Tattoos, for example, serve to “clothe” us with marks of identity. And, of course, the “clothing” of our racial characteristics provides another such identity marker (one that cannot be hidden). The same is true of language dialects. All the various clues to our identity risk exposing us to unwanted and even dangerous attention. As such, we spend a fair amount of time seeking to control precisely whatever it is that we expose of ourselves to others. We join groups whose music, style of dress, use of words, etc., mark us as members, creating a sense of safety and protection in our belonging.
It is worth noting that it is in adolescence as we move outside of the protective intimacy of the family and into the more social world that will eventually become the place of our adulthood – it is there that we begin to make these first forays into creating identities. Adolescents and teens are extremely prone to clump themselves into cliques. It is also the time where we begin to see bullying come to the fore – as some seek to define themselves by exerting dominance over others. Shame is brutal.
Our intimate relationships, of course, are “intimate” precisely because it is there where we expose ourselves the most. As such, they are potentially the most “dangerous” places in our lives (and, potentially, the safest places in our lives).
While I am speaking about the shame affect, I also want to touch on Disgust and even Dissmell. Disgust is our signal to spit something out. Dissmell tells us to avoid something. Anyone who has raised a child has probably seen both of these many times at the dinner table! But they are hard-wired and difficult to ignore. As we begin to think about racial identity (particularly as experienced in American culture) these affects are also very much in play. It’s to the racial applications that I want to now turn.
Story from my childhood
My first conscious experience of race was a Baptism into full-blown, Southern racism. I was 4 years old and was with my mother in a local department store. Thirsty, I went for a drink of water. This is 1957. She found me drinking from the fountain marked, “Colored.” She snatched me up and scolded me lightly and said that this was the “fountain for colored people” and that I was not to drink from it. She said nothing more. She did not explain that we were racists and therefore did not drink from the same fountain. Since there was no explanation, I was left with a 4 year-old’s imagination to ponder the problem. The only reason I could think of not to drink from something was because it was unsafe and unclean. The obvious conclusion was that “colored people” were somehow unsafe and unclean. I recall wondering all day long if I had caught something and whether I would start to turn black.
It’s a silly, tragic, example of the many thousands of lessons woven into the experience of the Jim Crow South. Those lessons included not just ideas, but primal, neurobiological reactions. Disgust and Dissmell are far more primary than mere racial theory itself. Ideas are easy to change. Neurobiological reactions are something altogether different. I first heard actual racial theory when I was 10 years old, attending a Baptist youth camp whose counselors were from Bob Jones University. Three years later, I attended a Baptist Church for the last time when my older brother, then a Freshman at Clemson, walked out on a sermon that was preaching segregation and railing against the planned integration of Furman University. I went with him – he was my ride home. It was my introduction to politics, and the beginning of a journey out of my Southern childhood.
While reading Mother Catherine’s small book on race, identity and reconciliation, I was thinking about this deep programming of hard-wiring in our culture. Jim Crow laws are gone, but there are many subtle ways in which these things still remain. If I take these thoughts to something less charged than the racial context – say Appalachians (my own subculture) – we can see some of the same things at work. A strong Appalachian dialect is equated in our culture with laziness, crime, stupidity, lack of cleanliness, etc. It is a strangely acceptable prejudice, with tv shows, commercials, etc., that make use of these stereotypes without compunction. I hear echoes of it in my head: “trailer-park trash,” “Walmart people.”
The world has changed a great deal since my childhood. Inter-racial marriage is now rather common, when it was unheard of and illegal then. There is greater interaction. However, as many have noted, there are “structural” or “systemic” aspects of racism built into many parts of our culture. I think of the world of shame and disgust as part of the “deep structure” of any culture. There are no laws that can touch these things. They require the difficult work of healing within the human heart. I think it is also the case that these deep matters of shame, disgust, and dissmell, are themselves terribly embarrassing. It is relatively easy to talk about economic injustice and police brutality. It is frightfully difficult to admit the presence of these very deep-seated reactions – “passions” of a sort. But it is those deeper reactions that form the psychological framework for injustice that marks our culture.
Healthy Shame and Healing
To think about the work of healing, I want to take us to the place of healthy shame. As noted in the quote from Sirach – there is a shame which is glory and grace. I’ve been asked any number of times by various people why use the term “shame” to describe healthy shame. Isn’t it confusing? The reason is simple – the underlying mechanism for healthy shame and toxic shame is the same. They differ in intensity, and cause. Toxic shame is painful in the extreme and can be completely paralyzing. Healthy shame is painful (in a very small degree) and is essential to living a healthy life. It signals boundaries – a life without boundaries is very unhealthy, indeed.
I will take us back for a minute to the example of the Cathedral. We enter, and instinctively become quiet. It is an architecture that is designed to convey the divine. The German Theologian, Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), famously described this experience as that of the “Wholly Other” (ganz Andere), or the “numinous.” In its presence we are “completely abashed.” In colloquial terms, this primary experience of God says to us, “You’re not Him.” This same experience also reveals the naked truth of ourselves to us. Adam and Eve see their nakedness and hide. In a healthier story, there is Isaiah’s vision. He sees the Lord, “high and lifted up.” At the cry of the Seraphim, Isaiah exclaims, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips!”
Job sees God and says:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6)
“Therefore I despise myself.” Though it might sound like it, this is not toxic shame. It is a healthy acknowledging of the truth, and, thus, the beginning of a true and authentic existence.
Some years back, when I began doing study on the topic of shame (out of a deep personal need), I spent some time with Archm. Zaccharias of Essex. He writes a bit about shame in his work. St. Sophrony, his teacher, instructed him when he first began to hear confessions, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” In my time with him, he spoke about sitting in the presence of God, acknowledging whatever shame I was feeling, and praying, “O God, comfort me.” At its best, this can take place in confession.
I will add parenthetically, that shaming others is not the job of a confessor and can be extremely toxic. The abuse of shame is the very heart of spiritual abuse. Please note this.
This gentle exposure, an exercise in vulnerability – in the presence of God – unjudging, forgiving, comforting – is profoundly healing. On a personal level, in therapy sessions, I have worked with personal shame in the context of EMDR, processing those powerful emotions into a place that is “bearable.” It is deeply therapeutic.
Some psychologists have described shame as the “unbearable emotion.” It is painful, even in small amounts. Most of us avoid embarrassment, its lightest form. Rather than experience shame, we most often transform it, almost simultaneously, into a different emotion – most commonly, anger or sadness. That we are a culture that is currently caught up in a vortex of anger is symptomatic of the prevalence of shame. Those with whom we disagree are not just wrong – they are “evil” (or so we think and feel). The language of shame has become mainstream. It is also not a language practice that brings about transformation. It brings about anger and depression and all that goes with it.
And this brings us to the Orthodox Christian practice of bearing a little shame – healthy shame. We understand that repentance is made possible by God’s grace – but that God’s grace makes us aware of our sins – it reveals our shame. But in doing this, God is not crushing us. He is revealing Himself to us, and, in that Light, we see light – the light of the truth of our own self (and our culture as well). It is good to understand that God Himself has led the way in this: “I turned not my face from the shame and the spitting.” In His Pascha, Christ enters the depth of human shame. St. Sophrony of Essex said, “Christ has entered the depths of hell and has promised to meet His friends there.”
I am the descendant of slave owners. The culture that created slaves is part of my inheritance. There have been material benefits that come from that fact. Worse still, part of my inheritance has been a heart that was darkened with shame and disgust – not just racially but elsewhere as well. The entire culture of “Black and White” is itself born out of slave culture and is marked by numerous lies. My authentic existence cannot be found within such a culture – only in the light of Christ.
But we need to sit with the truth, including the shame that goes with it. We should sit with it quietly in the presence of God. “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child at its mother’s breast.” That is a place where healing begins to take place, a transformation of the heart.
America and its modern mythology seeks political solutions for every ill. Doubtless, there are areas of justice that can only be addressed by governing authorities. But such attempts at justice do not and will not heal shame. And shame is the far greater disease.
As an aside. Historically, human beings have used various liturgies, or liturgical events, in the healing of collective shame. American culture struggles with this. Often, its liturgical events are coopted by division and recrimination, thus only making the problem worse. Strangely, the Civil War can be seen as a liturgy of sorts – a bloody effort to exorcise a demon that had inhabited the land for so long. Hymns such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” reveal the deep religious nature of that conflict. Of course, over time, it failed. It was insufficient and was swallowed up in the institutions of Jim Crow. I think that the civil unrest, protests, riots, etc., of the recent past are themselves “liturgies” of a sort. I do not think they will be effective in the healing of shame. Indeed, they are dominated by the language of shame – whether deserved or not.
The role of the Church, and thus, the role of Christians, is to live fully and completely in the role of Christ Himself. We walk as He walked. We live as He lived. It’s in that train of thought that I offer suggestions as the conclusion of this talk.
If we think carefully about the texts of Holy Week, we’ll notice that the Church focuses not so much on the pain of Christ’s death. Rather, it is the mocking and the shame. The nature of the Crucifixion is that it is a shameful death (“even death on a Cross”). It is, therefore, part of our path to acknowledge and bear the shame created in racial relations – we bear it, so that, in Christ, it might be healed. The hallowed ministry of “fools for Christ” consists of a willingness to bear shame, and, in bearing it, to heal it in others. These are four “strategies” that seem appropriate:
- Tell the truth – especially about yourself to yourself. We will not be healed by our excellence (“I am not a racist!”) but by our weakness. Think through your story and look for the feelings of shame and disgust within it.
- Bring the truth into the light – and sit with it. We can do this with trusted persons, including in the context of confession. I will emphasize that this must be voluntary. No one can or should demand that we exposure our shame. And be sure that you’re in a safe context, with a safe person, when you do expose it. Safe means – not judging.
- Overcome barriers where possible. We cannot be reconciled to others when we do not know them face to face. Recognize that these barriers are charged with shame and embarrassment. I think one of the great values of this Fellowship of St. Moses the Black is that its presence and conversation reminds us all of a shame we would like not to admit – and that to be the Church in North America – we must acknowledge and give attention to its healing.
- As much as we can, we need to “bear” our shame and not displace it. Even though many of our thoughts and feelings are a product of a culture we did not create, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. In this, I think, the role of the holy fool is an important example. I could easily imagine an American version of the novel Laurus. The bizarre behaviors would doubtless scandalize us all – and reveal the depths of our hearts. Christ, I think, is walking that path somewhere in our midst. I pray for us that we will have the courage to take up that path when it is made clear to us.