Today, I ran the vacuum cleaner close to where my nephew Andrew was reading, in my own house, at mid-day. I had every right to clean, but what tumbled reflexively from my core was, “Oh, I am so sorry.” My response revealed my assessment of myself as an inconvenience; a mistake. “Stop apologizing so much,” Andrew said to me. Actually, he says it to me often. His words are wise. He has the keen eyes of one who has known his own early-life torment, and the courage of a youthful mental health professional. He can sniff out ‘unhealthy’ a mile away.
Shame is an un-beckoned, funky companion. It’s like an appendage we try to shake loose or amputate. The reality is we can gently realign ourselves and delicately disrupt shame’s power, but that is not what shame says (or rather screams) to us. Shame’s dread washes over us with the message we suspected – we are deficient. And the moment this message reaches our awareness, it cascades into class five rapids of awful.
I’ve learned that shame, and what it tells me about being “bad” and “foolish” and “stupid,” can’t be conquered. It must be disarmed.
We can try to fight it on our own, but the truth is: it is the kindness in another person’s eyes – eyes on us – that releases us from shame. Especially when kindness comes from the one we expect to be disappointed in us.
I experienced this once when I was a fugitive from the law. Let me explain (even as shame says, “Good luck in explaining, you criminal.”).
When my mother entered her final hours, I was able to secure a flight to Colorado, where I jumped in the car and drove intently south to New Mexico. I was still single, and I brought my dog along for the ride. Half-way through the drive, I came upon a state park. The cottonwoods along a small lake were backlit, the sky was taking on a purple hue, and the dog needed a break, so I decided to stop. There was no one there. I drove along the water and found a nice spot to take a quick walk as I threw a few sticks.
It was just what I needed to catch my breath – feel grounded – before continuing on to my mother’s deathbed. The problem was that when I returned to my car there was a park ranger waiting there to give me a citation for having my dog off the leash. “Dang – that’s a bummer,” I thought as I placed the citation with a small pile of papers in the side pocket of the car. Months went by after my mother’s death with all that entails and – you guessed it – somewhere along the way I forgot about the citation, and I tossed the pile of papers without looking through it carefully.
More months went by.
One weekend when I traveled on the interstate, I was pulled over for speeding. Again, “Dang.”
The officer went through the usual routine, but the time in his vehicle to check on my registration went unpredictably long. I mean, a long time. He meandered back to my car, and when I rolled down the window he said, “M’am, what would you like to tell me about the warrant out for your arrest?”
Stunned and incredulous, I said, “Um, no – I believe that must be a mistake. I have never been arrested.”
He said, “No, but you have an outstanding warrant from an unattended-to violation at a state park.”
For the life of me I could not access what was being referenced. I asked him to please get me more information. When he came back with the name of the state park, the hints and glimmers of my awareness grew. I was flooded with shame and instructed to address my warrant with the judge in Huerfano county.
Huerfano county is a four hour drive from my home. When I called to see if I could attend to the latent ticket through the mail, the district attorney’s office said “No way, you have to stand before the judge.” My legitimate conviction grew, but so did the resulting self-contempt born of shame: Criminal. Fool. Idiot. The words pounded within me as I made the long trek to courthouse.
Sitting in the musty courtroom on a weathered wooden bench, I glanced around and saw that I was among many downtrodden lives. One by one cases were called before the judge and district attorney as they engaged each person from their platform perch- – drug charges, DUI cases, theft.
My name was called. I stood as my file was reviewed. The DA lightly joked, “Judge, what ARE we to do with her?” His banter eased my anxiousness a bit, but then the judge’s face became stern and he began to speak.
“Miss Meyers, I assume you understand how imperative it is that laws be adhered to, and that no one assume they are above the law?”
“And I assume you understand the seriousness of ignoring a citation?”
At this point the judge leaned forward, and pointed his finger for punctuation and said,
“And I assume you will not be doing this again?”
I began to utter the words, “No sir” and as I did I saw the judge withdraw his pointed finger, and then he gave me the biggest, kindest wink a person could ever give.
My shame was completely disarmed. The boulder in my gut was lifted. I could breathe.
A sense of guilt is legitimate when there has been a breaking of shalom; when a breach must be repaired. My dog was off leash (breach of trust with other dog owners), I did not pay the fine for the ticket (breach of trust with the government and my own dignity). More often, though, our shame is something we nurse within ourselves, contemptuously. Either way, the judge’s severity and THEN his wink, tells me the truth: I am seen completely, and loved completely.
We seem to live it intuitively: life does have a judge. We do face him. We stand before him. If we embrace the story-line of Jesus, anything less than this acknowledgement makes us charlatans at worst and self-deceived at best. But you see, that’s the point. The point is – – this judge is more loving and comical and delightful than we could ever imagine. He catches me off guard. He winks. I am set free from guilt – and shame.
What is your perceived impediment, weakness, impurity? The glimmering eyes of Jesus can bring a kindness that no other gaze can provide, but we must join his assessment.
Jan Meyers Proett has been a counselor for over twenty years and is the author of The Allure of Hope, Listening to Love, and Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me. She has worked on behalf of exploited women internationally, but also loves the trails of Colorado, where she lives with her husband, Steve. Follow Jan at her Facebook author page, and her blog.