And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. - Genesis 3:10
The story of Adam and Eve is strange and fantastic, and at first glance it may seem difficult to relate to. Or at least, it seems difficult until Adam and Eve discover shame. When we hear of them scrambling to hide from God the story suddenly becomes all too familiar. Each of us knows that moment of uncomfortable exposure when we wish we could sink into the floor and disappear from the disapproving glare of another.
Like Adam and Eve, shame is a developed emotion within us. Infants and babies do not exhibit it to any degree but starting around the age of two or three they start to recognize when they have been caught in bad situation and will cry because of it. Though shame is not present at the beginning it is inevitable. Like sexual feelings, the fact that it isn’t present from birth does not mean that it is any less real or certain.
Shame is an essential, if unpleasant, part of learning how to conduct oneself within a society. Every child develops it alongside of their need for friends and social identity. When properly handled, it will guide is into becoming a healthy, well-adjusted individual. But that requires us to embrace its pain, and too often try to find ways to short-circuit it instead. This, of course, means hiding our shame and crafting the façade to cover it, and this means splitting ourselves into two realities.
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. - Matthew 26:41
Literature and theater have long been fascinated with the dual nature of man. The Phantom of the Opera shows us a man both hideous and beautiful. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde features a man who is one part kind and one part violent. The Brothers Karamazov is full of characters who believe they are one way but then discover another side to themselves.
Yesterday we discussed the part of our personality that we wear like a mask, a façade that we use to cover the shameful way we feel inside. Many the addict has confessed to a dual life, trying to sustain two completely opposite existences. If the façade is intended to attract the people that we want to like us, then the inner shame tends to be all the qualities that we think would repulse those same people. Addicts express sentiments such as “people think I’m so great, but if they knew who I really was, they’d run for the hills.” Thus, shame represents all the qualities that we think make us unlovable.
And this makes our shame very difficult to expose. It is literally the things that we feel will make people abhor us and reject us, so how are we to willingly unveil those very parts to other people? It feels like an act of suicide!
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! - Isaiah 5:20 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; - 2 Timothy 4:3
Of course, there is not only shame, but shamelessness. There are those whose answer to unpleasant feelings of embarrassment and exposure is to reject those feelings and put gross excess and inappropriate behavior on a pedestal.
Perhaps some feelings of shame are nurtured in us by society, and perhaps some of those things we ought not to feel ashamed about, but just as excessive heat and sharpness should cause pain, excessive indulgence and immorality should cause shame. Those that live shamelessly may think they are living a truer existence because they have thrown away the phony outer layer of the façade, but in reality they have made their shame into their façade. Being accepting of the unacceptable is not authentic, it is just as much a fraud as the person trying to live a dual life.
There are also those who admit to their shameful deeds, and admit that they are shameful, but pitifully conclude that there is nothing they can do about it. They are just no good, and that’s how it is.
Thus, just as how those who self-identify with their façade stunt themselves by living a lie, so too do those who self-identify with their shame. Because while shame is a deeper layer of our psyche, it is still not the true us. Stopping our progression at this level will still prevent us from living with fulness and joy.
Yesterday I explained my own façade, the way I try to put on an intelligent and kind face to everyone I meet. But what is beneath that layer? What is my shame? What are the secret behaviors I have always felt rendered me completely unlovable?
Well, as one might expect, they tend to be the opposite of the façade that I try project. They are my lack of intelligence and my selfishness.
For lack of intelligence, I have always felt that I am lagging behind the curve. I have always been terrified to have my knowledge tested, and for the first several years of college I cheated in every test that I could. Eventually I was caught and brought before a school counselor. I thought I was going to try to lie my way out of it right up until the moment I opened my mouth. Admitting to my stupidity and immoral behavior would be social suicide after all. But something came over me in that moment, and I peeled back the façade and showed my shame instead. I admitted that the accusation was completely true, that I had cheated, and that I had been doing so for quite some while. And, most unexpectedly, I actually felt relieved to have finally been discovered.
Fortunately for me, the school showed mercy. I did not die socially, I was not expelled, and from that moment on I never cheated on a test again. But the temptation to do so was always there. I still dreaded having my knowledge measured, because I was never able to shake the feeling that my intelligence on its own would never be enough. But a change had finally occurred, where I was willing to accept failure and embarrassment rather than pretend to something false.
For selfishness, I have my addictions. Compulsive behaviors that are based around getting what instantaneous pleasure I want, with no regard for whoever is harmed as a result. My addictions are primarily in the form of lust, overeating, and excessive media use.
Of these three, lust is certainly the one that has brought me the most shame. I have felt absolutely disgusted with myself for how I would use women for my own gratification, viewing pornography and typing away in chat rooms, all the while pretending to be a loving husband and an attentive father. I told myself for years that I could not break the façade, that I could not ruin the image of a shining knight that my wife and son had for me. As with the cheating in school, I really believed that I could never tell the truth, and unlike with school, I knew how to cover my tracks well enough that I would likely never be caught. I lived the lie and I never let the mask slip.
Until, one day, I did. One day I had had enough, and I wrote my wife a letter and left it on our doorstep. In the next two days I met with my ecclesiastical leader and scheduled an appointment with an addiction recovery program. Since that moment, my secret shame has been out in the open, as I have shared all my worst moments with therapy and twelve step groups. Much to my surprise, revealing my shame has not made me fundamentally unlovable. In fact, it has drawn people closer.
However, accepting that we have this layer of shame and bringing it to the light is still not the end of the road. There is a reason why we do the things that we are ashamed of, and that reason emanates from another layer further down. Tomorrow we will approach the layer of our wounds, and we will do so gingerly and carefully. We will come to understand their pain and how we mishandle them with shame and façade.