July-August 2023

Reading through this summer’s book, opened my eyes to the extent to which shame is embedded in our society and in our lives. Some of it is self-imposed. This often comes in the form of “what will <fill-in-the-blank> think of me?” For example:

- What will my boss think of me if I don’t go to the office party?

- What will my friends think of me if I keep driving this old car (or, perhaps in certain younger circles, keep wearing the same clothes again and again)?

- What will my priest think of me if I go to confession?

There is a image (almost always false) of who we are that we can become enslaved to. Trying to maintain that image and keep up appearances can be exhausting and almost never as funny as Mrs. Bucket (pronounced – only in her case – bouquet) the old British comedy. And there is a shame that accompanies failing to maintain that image, that we dearly wish to avoid. And so, we go to the office party, even though it gives us a headache, so that our boss would think we are team players. We get a different car or new clothes (even though the old ones were were just fine). And we politely ignore the priest when he talks about confession (even though what he thinks about you can probably be summed up by a line from the, again old, Red Green Show: “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”)

Today’s society also does not help. As much as we as a society seem to be attempting to raise up walls and defenses to help us avoid shame, there seems to be little restraint in trying to heap it on others. Statements like “it’s <fill-in-current-year>, how can you say/think that,” or the labels and slogans bandied about in political or social activism, have nothing to do with rationality. They are attempts to reach that corner of our souls where shame resides and, since shame often leads to conformity, bring us in line. Of course, these attempts often backfire and, instead of reaching the shame corner, they land in the anger corner, provoking an equal and opposite reaction, and so on.

Our answer to all this, as Christians, lies in Christ and with the Church. Christ endured spitting and scourging, being called names, having a crown of thorns placed on His head, and many other things that can bring shame. When we read that “because he has suffered and been tempted he is able to help those who are tempted” the experience of shame is included. In Christ, our true nature is revealed to us. As we learn our true nature by clinging to Christ, all things that are external to that nature – sin and toxic shame among them – stop clinging to us. Instead of finding a place within our hearts and, from there, tormenting us and influencing our thoughts and actions, they slip away, allowing us to grow in holiness.

Of course, in this life, this does not happen perfectly. This is why the sacrament of confession is such an essential part of Christian life: it allows us to scrub off those things that still remain with us and recover the beauty of our baptismal garment. In turn, this makes it easier for sin and toxic shame to slide off and not find a place in our souls.

Before ending, I should also mention that there is such a thing as healthy shame – the emotion that tells us that we have crossed a boundary that we should not have crossed. The discomfort of this shame is not nearly as great as that of toxic shame. Additionally, if we cultivate humility (again, in Christ, one of Whose icons is known as the “Great Humility”) then there is both less of a chance of transgressing such a boundary and a greater chance of being able to give thanks for what we have learned should we do so.

Let us always draw near to Christ and by His grace navigate the tempests of this life, including those brought about by shame.