The Unexpected Value of Shame

Once I sat across at dinner from a woman whom I knew was having an affair, but no one else at the table knew that. (And she didn't know I knew.)

She lectured me about watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, saying she didn't want that type of spirit in her house.

It was a weird moment.

I tell you this not so you will think badly of her, but to show that we are terrible judges of our own character. All of us.

There are reasons Jesus tells the story about us pointing out the speck in our brother's eye and missing the plank in our own. It's because we are incredibly prone to do that.

This week, I listened to Monica Lewinsky's TED talk on the Price of Shame. You know her story.  A 22-year-old falls in love with her boss and winds up in no less than 40 rap songs. (It is a really good talk.) Shame destroys some people.  The news is full of tragic stories where this has happened. (In her talk, she references Tyler Clementi.)

But if you survive that initial wanting-to-die piece, shame crafts people.  There is value in learning who you are outside of what others say or think about you. Not only does shame makes quick work of what is real and what is fake when it comes to our closest relationships, but it also makes quick work of what we think about ourselves.

While I have no idea what it is like to "walk a mile in Monica Lewinski's headline," I do know the life of a young woman pregnant and unmarried in a Southern Baptist culture some 27 years ago. While it felt pretty awful at the time, it was the single best thing that ever happened to me.

Why? In addition to getting to be mom to the awesome Chase Hutchison, I suddenly had no ability to see specks.

For the record, all the shaming, judgement, rejection and ugly things said that got said to me back then, had very little impact except to make me feel bad. What saved my heart was love and compassion. The ones who valued me over my reputation.

So why do we more often choose judgment rather than love?  I don't think it is about the other person at all. I believe it is about us.  Throwing stones is the best possible deflection. Everybody has shame. And we can either be vulnerable enough to be honest about it, or we can make sure the guns are pointed at someone else and hide in the shadows so that no one sees ours. (I'm guessing most of us know that choice makes for a scary, dark, bullet-filled world.)

The weird thing is that our shame is "common." The goal of our lives isn't to get through without doing anything wrong, but to get through letting love transform us. And sometimes we have to fail spectacularly in order to be able do that. Why? Because the spectacular failures are the ones that everyone sees.  The smaller ones are easier for us to manage and hide.  And the thing about hidden shame is that it makes us inordinately focused on specks.

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© Random Cathy
Maira Gall