I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.
On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.
Mental health issues
She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.
I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.
I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.
But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.
If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.
Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me
Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).
Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”
There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in
I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”
There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up
Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.
Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up
Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.
1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.
2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.
3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.
4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.
I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.
My dear friends left their Florida vacation early. They were just in time! Now the Florida ICUs are packed to overflowing with people who refused to be vaccinated. In Philadelphia, where I live, my nurse friend claims the hospitals are not overwhelmed, but they are not sure how long that will last. Once the schools get going they might turn into daily superspreader events!
In the face of all this frightening news, one acquaintance is refusing the vaccine. They said, “I guess you think I am really dumb. But from what I have studied, I seriously think I might die if I let that needle get into my arm.” Thinking I might consider them “dumb” was not dumb. Many people in Philly base their faith on some semblance of science, so anyone who is skeptical of the vaccines automatically ends up in a persecuted minority group.
I am not going to go into the politics of how the vaccinated can turn into the Red Guard and the unvaccinated into the Rohingya, as interesting as that is. I am interested in why some people resist the vaccines. I am interested in the resistance we all feel to change, even positive change, like getting some assurance we won’t die if we are vaccinated.
Resistance is one of the mysteries psychotherapists (and pastors, social workers, parents) encounter all the time. Peter Michaelson writes
Psychological resistance is like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring individuals and the actualized self they desperately want to become. Bringing this resistance into view is vitally important to our personal development.
People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure ad infinitum. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage.
Why did you come to psychotherapy if you did not want to develop? Why did you get into this group if you did not want to participate? Why did you marry me if you did not want to be vulnerable? Why did you go to the amusement park if you did not want to ride roller coasters? The answer to those questions is probably, “Resistance.”
Resistance is about shame
The “discovery” of resistance was central to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. He was fascinated by everyone’s personal repression project. He, and everyone since, trace the foundation of resistance to shame. If the resistance is becoming visible, it will peek out from behind our various fig leaves: perfectionism, criticizing, disrespect, self-criticism, preoccupation with appearance, social withdrawal, independence, invulnerability, and our inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.
If you have been reading the Bible you can see most of these traits in the story of Adam and Eve. We could all tell our personal history and it would look like the Adam and Eve story. We don’t really need to study the Bible to find a story about resistance — we are all listening to the snake charm us into eating the fruit of it. We seem to choose freedom to be alone and against rather than the freedom to be together and moving with God — even though we don’t really want to.
Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me some of the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13)
Until our eyes were opened to our own potential for evil, we were fine being naked. No one told us we were shameful. We were fine with our privates and had no need for privacy. But now we sure do!
Does shame make us immune to the vaccine?
Many people have written wonderful books on the subject of shame/repression/resistance. I was just trying to give you the gist of how I see it so I could talk to you about how to respond to people who refuse to get the vaccine.
I think my few clients who are resisting the vaccine may be finding a huge and convenient way to occupy their fear and shame in the cause of their autonomy, much like Adam and Eve arguing with God. I heard of someone saying the vaccine was like the mark of the beast and they should be brave enough to be deprived of work if it was really the end times — I am so out of touch with Evangelicals I had not heard that connection yet. Another said even if the FDA approved the vaccine they would not allow anything to teach their cells to do things — they immediately referenced the Tuskegee experiments as a good reason to be skeptical. I thought that was at least a better argument.
But their arguments mostly seem based in resistance. We might make a good argument, but we might not recognize our feelings, fantasies, and motives underneath it. Pretty soon we are canceling or rescheduling appointments with our therapists because they might talk about things that don’t fit our narrative. We might forget the work we already did in therapy. We might not remember homework assignments. Those could all be signs of resistance to growth. Shame tends to lock us out of the territory where our feelings run free and we explore without judgment and it tends to lock us into the lame defense systems that delude us into thinking we can protect ourselves from what we fear without faith, hope and love.
Is there a way to change a vaccine-resistor’s mind?
Quite a few of my young, “blue” friends have had a hard 2021 with relatives (often older) who are sure not wearing a mask and refusing to bend the knee to liberal scientists is the cornerstone of their God-given freedom. If one is not up on all the conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media, arguing with them may be even more futile than it usually seems. For example, one of my clients told me about the mysterious deaths their friends reported (third-hand sometimes) about people who had received the AstraZeneca/ Johnson and Johnson vaccine and died of blood clots so thick the usual procedure to remove them was clogged up! That’s a lot of detail! Many people are become experts, they think, on the virus and the defensive cloud of the evidence they collect makes them dig in their heels when it comes to the vaccines.
I think their process has a lot to do with the invisible wall of resistance. Jennifer Delgado gave some helpful summaries of what it takes to change one’s mind and heart. She says, “We can feel motivated to change, but if something keeps us” from acting, “like fear, motivation will not be enough to overcome the resistance.” Right now, I think many people are facing the most fearsome time of their lives. Many are applying defensive skills they have been developing since childhood harder than ever to resist the threatening change that is upon them.
In the midst, Jesus says:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27
The cycle of resistance to personal change
As they watch people face their fears when they need to change, Delgado and others have referred us to the well-known stages Elizabeth Kubler-Ross noted in the emotional cycle following a death. A pandemic is fear coming at us, but it meets fear coming from us, the fear stored up in us. The false autonomy we protect masks the shame that motivates it. The thought of losing our defense against feeling our fear and shame is terrifying. It takes a lot for us to accept we need to do anything but protect ourselves from it. Making a good decision about vaccines would better come from the fearlessness we gain when we trust Jesus and receive His peace. But trust may not be our knee-jerk reaction.
Regardless of whether we trust Jesus or not, we will likely go through some version of Kubler-Ross’s stages when it comes to the little death we experience when we change.
We probably feel paralyzed or blocked when we first confront change. We hit the wall.
We may close our eyes to reality and to the need for transformation. We carry on as if nothing is happening.
When we can no longer deny the change, we probably react with frustration or rage. At this point the feelings we repressed earlier usually emerge.
We try to find a way out of what is already happening. We are moved to avoid it. We don’t fully accept what is evident.
We finally accept that change is inevitable. But we do not accept it, which usually leads to irritation or depression.
We realize we must react. We look for realistic solutions and new ways to cope which adapt to the new reality.
We come to a new homeostasis. We move forward into a new stage of development.
When it comes to arguments about whether to get vaccinated, we might be talking to someone stuck at that second bullet point, someone in denial. They have their reasons for resistance, some of which they might not know about yet. I don’t think people should be bludgeoned because of their lack of development. Jesus is patient with each of us.
As you look at the stages above, you can see that people might get stuck at any one of the further steps toward new awareness or new behavior. How many divorced people are still angry? How many abused people are still depressed? How many perfectionistic people are still dithering about how to let go of their control?
10 challenges for the vaccine resistors
We want to change. At the same time we want to remain the same, or do the same things. We want to return to the garden, but we also just redecorated the psyche we formed outside its walls. For instance, I just finished grandchild “camp” and they thought this year would be the same as the last. Stable grandparents are comforting. The changes disappointed them before they tried the new events. Change unleashes resistance. The more we face up to it, the greater our transformation might be. In the case of the vaccine, we have heard many people recently hospitalized begging people to get the shot, now that they have been hurled into acceptance by the disease.
I have been trying to get my mind and heart around this invisible wall into which I and many of my clients and fellow church members are colliding. I want to be generous with people who are not “dumb” but are facing tremendous fears in the face of decisions about how to live through the hardest era of their lives. Here are ten things vaccine resistors might need to face, in my opinion, before they can make the choice to get the shot. One or more may reflect the resistance you feel as you are facing any change that pushes your shame button. Be generous with yourself and others.
Need to get out of the zone of control. Most of us feel relatively safe in our “comfort zone.” I’ve started calling it the “zone of control” since a lot of people are not comfortable in their status quo even if they are committed to protecting it. If we think what we have done for years will keep working, many times delusionally, there is no reason to change. If the disease has not struck close to home or has been survived, people feel justified in their zone.
Need to face fear. Fear is the basis for resistance to change. Usually, we jump into the unknown only if we believe what awaits us is worth it. Fearful, often disinformed people are frantically making a deal, under pressure from untrusted authorities, to risk their lives by accepting the vaccine.
Need to learn new things. When we believe we do not have the skills, abilities, or strengths needed to cope with transformation, we often do not recognize it, but resist it. This includes learning about ourselves (and that dreaded shame!). The massive amount of information and disinformation about the vaccines shuts some people down.
Need to challenge habits. If we have done things in the same way for a long time, it will be very difficult to change. We rarely just do something new because it would also impact how we relate, think, and feel. We already have ruts in our brain where our habits run free. Our relationships have habits. Our brains and our schedules supply physical resistance to our psychological resistance.
Need to be humble. When we perceive change is imposed on us, our first reaction is usually rejection. If we are not consulted, we will likely participate minimally, if at all. Americans might be the least humble people on the planet, so it is no surprise our virus incidence is high, even though we can effectively fight it.
Need to go beyond the overwhelm. The Covid years have pushed us over the edge. So many people are anxious and depressed. Our tolerance level for change has been exceeded. We have been overwhelmed so much by events and the media amplification of them, more resistance has developed to stave off further exhaustion and saturation. I think I noted this at the Phillies game last week when almost no one would get ramped up when the screen shouted “Make some noise!” We screened out the noisy demand to make noise. We’re tired.
Need to get beyond the either/or. Sometimes change presents a breaking point with some of our beliefs or opinions. Our brain might be fritzed with internal disagreement. “If this is the mark of the beast, I’d better not take it” meets “I am going to be so embarrassed if God does not protect me and the vaccine was a gift I refused.”
Need to act. Change usually requires the best we’ve got. Like we say, “Dig deep.” If we can’t marshal the motivation, we might give up on the transformation we desire. A client’s spouse finally agreed to get vaccinated like her mate, but she hasn’t gotten around to it for several months. It must be resistance.
Need to broaden one’s capacity. We are often capable of more than we think. Shame diminishes us. Our resistance to change may be due to it occurring when we already feel like we are in a tough spot. “I can’t face one more thing. I am going to wait it out and see what happens.”
Need to develop new traits. Some of us are naturally or developmentally more willing to change while others are tied to what they know. If you are suffering from certain mental illnesses you may think you have control over everything that happens to you or you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will be more resistant to change. Psychotherapists often diagnose and label people with “illnesses” and those labels end up as identities and those identities end up as strait jackets. You may think you are condemned to not cooperating with your salvation, but Jesus still holds out his hand to you.
I needed to write this for myself, so I hope it helped you, too. We all wake up every day to a world that seems to be hurtling toward disaster: conflict all around, disease, climate change. It is no wonder people resist the vaccine! We were fearful before we had all these good reasons to be fearful!
I found myself resisting my natural empathy as I became frustrated with resistant clients and heard stories from others relating a similar way. But I choose to spread peace with Jesus today. I will not let my heart mimic the trouble I find in people and respond to their fear with fear. I want to learn more about speaking peace to them as they struggle through their difficult process: bumping into the wall of their innate resistance and bending under weight of fear that falls on them no matter how hard they try to avoid it. I certainly do not need to threaten or shame anyone who is already fighting a losing battle not to feel their fear and shame!
I had an odd reaction to a frightening situation the other day. The more I think about it, the more of a parable it becomes.
It was simple, actually. I had struggled to pedal up the steep park path adjacent to Ford Rd. I got back on my bike after walking a bit, still panting. I slowly rode through the crosswalk on Chamonix. The truck I thought was certainly far enough away to see me was coming up to the stop sign. It slowed but apparently intended to run the stop sign, as usual. I yelled. The driver stopped whatever else he was doing and braked in time for me to push myself off his hood. I wobbled over to the far curb, gave a look back and almost toppled onto the sidewalk. I was furious. The driver paused then sped away.
In her book, Dear White Peacemakers Osheta Moore, who will speak more later, quotes a psychologist, Leon F. Seltzer, talking about my initial response:
“When you experience anger, it’s almost impossible not to feel like a victim, for virtually all anger can be understood as a reaction to what feels threatening or unfair to you.” — like when you expect personal care and community spirit to protect you in the sidewalk but someone runs the stop sign. Seltzer goes on, “In such instances, you feel unjustifiably attacked, taken advantage of, betrayed, violated or powerless. And your anger, essentially retaliatory in nature, serves the function of restoring to you a sense of righteousness and control, even dignity and respect.”
It is a steep road to no condemnation
True. We get angry. Then other feelings kick in. After I composed myself, I rode the short way I had left to go and my anger turned to shame. I didn’t want to tell anyone about what happened. They would say, “You should be more careful! (Stop trusting people in any way).” And I thought they might think but not say, “You might be too old to be left alone on a bike.” And one or two might say, “Did you go over and ball the guy out? You just gave him a dirty look from behind your sunglasses?” A religious voice got in there, too, “Why are you upset? You’re fine.” (Or maybe that was my mother).
I had to pause my self-condemnation to shout, basically, “The truck almost killed you!” I had another near-death experience and I condemned myself for not preventing it and for even feeling something about it. I hope you don’t do such things, but I suspect you do.
Parables don’t have morals, but the lesson I get out of this one is, “If the truck almost kills you in the crosswalk, it is not your fault.” I am prone to react as if I should be some god-like being impervious to assault and responsible to prevent evil. I’m not. A lot of Christians think they should never get angry and go directly to the shame. Sometimes I am angry and do not sin by condemning myself for what made me angry.
Osheta Moore helps us get to Beloved
My story and similar stories got applied in various ways this week.
If Bill Cosby is released on a technicality it doesn’t mean you lied about what he did to you or your abusers have a right to abuse.
If your boss installed self-interested leaders to compete for your power in the office it doesn’t mean you are a terrible executive.
If your wife keeps telling you you are a loser, it does not necessarily mean her feelings should be your feelings.
And, if you feel like every time you open your mouth about what you think or feel in this polarized society someone is likely to hold you in contempt, that does not put them in charge of your destiny.
“There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. We are free from the laws of sin and death.”
That last truck brings me back to Osheta Moore. Thanks to the Jesus Collective for introducing us to this interesting new prophet among the many writers who rushed to their keyboards while Derek Chauvin’s case wound its way through the system. I think she may be the best to blossom from all that sowing.
She is certainly taking on the question, “What does one do when the truck runs the stop sign?” It is a live question for Black and other people of color living under White Supremacy enacted by slave-creating capitalism. That semi’s a proven killer. I hope that truck is becoming a reality which more and more “white” people can see, as well, since it is about to run over their souls every day if they don’t dodge it (or don’t stop driving it!). OK, the parable may be getting a bit too stretched. But we are all threatened by this evil construct. Osheta Moore speaks to the White peacemakers to whom her book is written about the anger and shame associated with it:
“I don’t call anyone racist. I think for too many of you, you have worked hard to heal from toxic self-identities: fat, stupid, ugly, poor, lazy, not enough, too much. I began this book with an exploration of Belovedness and practices to help you settle into your Belovedness because I believe that only when you know you are Beloved – simply because you are human – only from that grounded place can you do anti-racism. If you believe you are a racist or you take on all the emotional, historical, and societal baggage that comes with that word, then you’re prone to unhelpful thought patterns like “I’m the worst” and “What’s the point, I can’t change anything on my own” and “I can’t believe my White pastor, friends, family members are still stuck in racist thinking, thank God I’m not like them.” None of these help you be a peacemaker.
When I think about your fragility in anti-racism, I choose to think of it as a fear response. Are you like my daughter who uses humor or bravado to deflect? Are you like my middle boy who gets quiet, retreats, and stonewalls? Are you like my oldest who ignores his anxious energy by barreling ahead, running from the trigger?”
Condemning oneself or others or absorbing condemnation will not solve the problem. Truth in love, yes. (That’s terrifying enough!). Condemnation, no. (Can’t/won’t deal). When the White Supremacy truck threatens to run me over I blame the truck. Even if I was in the way, there was never a good reason not to love me.
We needed Osheta’s book a long time ago
I wish Osheta Moore had written her book a long time ago. I wish Gerry West and I had written it (Gerry was Circle of Hope’s first Black pastor in 1997). We were writing in terms of white repentance and black forgiveness as a way into reconciliation. We couldn’t see the way into community without those rare actions. We were probably too focused on relationships when the real truck was the system. I wish the CERJ group I trained with had written it (Christians Enacting Reconciliation and Justice); they were mediators and negotiators, Black, Hispanic, Korean and White. We might have been too focused on technique when we needed mercy. I wish the Damascus Road trainers had written it: the Mennonite trainers and consultants who pioneered anti-racism awareness and deeply influenced our foundation as an anti-racist church. They were probably too focused on curriculum and filled with good, old middle PA shame. We’ve all grown a lot over the years. When Gwen and I first named our conviction anti-racism, we usually quickly added, “That’s a project we will probably die trying to complete.”
And here we go. Donald Trump is still unleashing a powerful defense of the White Supremacy on which the U.S. is founded and with which we are all infected, even the Beloved Community, the church. Osheta Moore stares right back at it, standing on the Sermon on the Mount and teaching its third way between the polarities of the world:
“Jesus teaches that those who try to save their lives will lose them and those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Anti-racism peacemaking is an invitation to interrogate your defenses, know your fear responses, and respond with nonviolence. White peacemaker, my prayer is you’ll do this nonviolent work within yourself, first by calling yourself a Beloved and then by acknowledging your fragility. Fragility needs to be an idea that’s neutralized. We all have our fragilities….
What would it be like to know, White Peacemaker, that you have emotional tools and reserve to attend to all the uncomfortable feelings that anti-racism brings up? You see, of all the most grounded and generous White Peacemakers I’ve encountered, they have all done one thing: they have, through therapy, dialogue, spiritual direction, meditation, and study, embraced self-compassion and cultivated self-awareness. They have practices that center them and have loving accountability. They’ve laid down the swords and shields that belong to their inner critic and inner skeptic. They’re not thinking of anti-racism as a battle; they are anti-racism peacemakers who engage with curiosity and mercy.”
That’s good theology and generous relating! I still think standing with Jesus grounded in the Sermon on the Mount is the best hope I can offer the world. Being and building the Beloved Community and pushing into the darkness with light together is the deep, deep work the church does in alliance with everyone about to get run over and with anyone ashamed of how meager their resources appeared when death rolled up.
People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.
The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.
What is shame?
Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!
Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]
We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.
What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?
Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.
The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.
If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.
It is what we do about shame that matters
The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?
We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!
Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.
That is the extent of the Egyptian Arabic Jonny has taught me and I still can’t pronounce it. (Shame on me!) According to him, it is an important phrase to know if you want to know about Egyptians and maybe the whole Middle East. He often calls them a shame culture. For people schooled in western philosophy and theology, the sociologists need to remind us that we are from a guilt culture.
The generalizations of sociologists are hard to defend but they can be instructive to think about. Want to know more about how they label you? Here’s a full treatment of the building blocks of godless societies: fear, shame and guilt. It will help you get your mind around the ideas: link.
What runs a shame culture
If you don’t want the full treatment, here’s the idea of what runs a shame culture:
Basically, shame is an act against the accepted system of values. You feel shame when you are going against what others think you should be going with. It is especially activated when an outsider finds out that you have committed a shameful act. One author puts it this way: “He who has done a shameful deed must conceal it, for revealing one disgrace is to commit another disgrace.” There is an Arab proverb that says, “A concealed shame is two thirds forgiven.”
A 20th Century Syrian scholar, Kazem Daghestani, tells of an Arab husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. He drew a gun and pointed it at the couple while addressing the man. “I could kill you with one shot but I will let you go if you swear to keep secret the relationship you have had with my wife. If you ever talk about it I will kill you.” The man took that oath and left. The husband divorced his wife without divulging the cause. He was not concerned about the loss of his wife or her punishment but about his reputation. Public shaming and not the nature of the deed itself or the individual’s feelings had determined his action. That’s an old example from mid-twentieth century, but it is still applicable — and it tells the story of a lot of what happens in the Middle East. People are carrying secret shame.
Your secret shame
You are probably carrying secret shame too, Egyptian or not. When you got up today, your “shame attendant” probably started doing its internal job. Maybe you looked in the mirror and said, “Yuck.” You got ready for a shower and it said, “Too fat. Too thin. Too hairy. Too out-of-shape. Too unattractive to make love to.” The background music of our secret shame is playing all day and we never let anyone else hear it because that would feel even more shameful. So we end up dragged around by it all day; trying to feel better in spite of it all day. Right now as I write this, my left foot still hurts because I went down to the basement to turn on my laundry in the dryer (Forgot it last night, stupid) and I hit my foot on my toolbox. (Did not take it clear down to the workbench, lazy.) When I yelled in surprise and pain, my first thoughts were, “Why did you leave that there (you dummy!)?” And I also immediately thought that I did not want to tell Gwen I had hit my foot because she disapproves of me leaving my stuff lying around. My shame attendant was in full swing.
At my conference this weekend Curt Thompson called shame the “vector” that evil uses to dis-integrate the universe. He is an MD so I think he meant: Shame is like “an organism, typically a biting insect or tick, that transmits a disease or parasite from one animal or plant to another.” Shame transmits anti-love and dis-connection. It transmits the dis-ease resident in a shame-activated person to another victim. It is a spiritual self-destruction virus. But he might mean this:
Regardless, shame is a dis-integrator. It separates us from our true selves and definitely keeps us from transparently loving of others. Our shame attendant monitors our every move so we present a self that conforms to whatever we think will make us look good enough to survive the constant threat we perceive. Gwen cares more about my toe than about her sense of proper tidiness. But my shame attendant needs that to be proved before it allows me to receive her love. I am still tempted to think I will be ashamed if I show up as myself. In other contexts, when my true self poked his head up from his bunker, the shame attendant was spot on and someone did shout “Shame on you!” in some way, trying to get me back into line with what is killing everyone. Some sociologist chimed in and said, “From a shame culture, eh?” I’ve been bitten by the tic so many times that I am tempted to give up altogether.
Jesus wore the shame
As a matter of fact, Curt Thompson said that the whole temptation of Jesus story is written for the salvation of people who live in a shame culture and for each of us (all of us) who have a shame attendant. We see that the ultimate shame attendant, the devil, accuses the Son of God and tries to get Him to give in to conforming to a God-free, love-free, truth-free world. “Prove it!” Satan keeps saying to Jesus. “You don’t know that your needs will be satisfied, because you aren’t worth saving. You don’t know that you are honored as the Son, it needs verification. You have no power in this world that the world does not give you, prove your allegiance.”
This daily, relentless fact of shame’s dis-integrating power is why Dr. Thompson was so thankful to point out that the life of Jesus and facts of the cross so completely disintegrate the dis-integrator:
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
In the King James Version it says Jesus “despised” the shame. He looked at it as the disintegrator it is. Even more, he fought it to the finish and publicly wore it by hanging on a cross. People shouted “Shame on you!” while he was dying there. But bringing the shame of the world into the light crippled its power. Rising from the dead provided hope for all of us making our way through this world into our own resurrection.
We are a circle of hope because of the great promise of God in Jesus:
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).
Despise the shame that creates that “despicable you” your shame attendant is relentlessly trying to make the true you. In Christ, we are the children of God and the whole universe is waiting to see what we will become.
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I really have no idea what is going to happen — most of the time, I like it that way. I don’t really know if Circle of Hope can sustain itself, since it runs on conviction and covenant. I don’t know whether the stock market will dive and take us with it, whether aggrieved people will unite and upend the social order, whether my friends will move away, or whether my pipes will freeze in the endless winter. Most of the time, all that uncertainty seems like a good excuse to have faith. It is a great grace that living by faith is more fulfilling than knowing whether I should have bought salt before it was all sold out.
But people have a lot of guilt and anxiety about not knowing. They are ashamed they made what look like mistakes and they did not know what was going to happen before it happened. Mr. Bates may do something terrible because of his guilt and shame about not knowing what was happening to Mrs. Bates!
The other day I was at a baby shower and people were quite satisfied that they did not have to buy yellow baby clothes because they knew the baby’s gender already — I am sure science developed in utero photography to ease the anxiety about how to decorate the nursery! Maybe you laugh, but people are still angry that the government did not predict and prevent 9/11! Many people defend the government’s right to collect our phone records because they think every measure must be taken so “nothing like that ever happens to anyone ever again!” — we even see our personal experiences as contributions to anxiety relief, guilt reduction and the hope of controlling the future. Don’t we insist that the future must be “better” than the past? And aren’t we taught that good people band together to make sure it will be?