The other night I was giving my youngest a bath. No simple task—far different from his water-loving older brother in that regard. Grungy from a warm spring day playing in the sandbox some hours earlier at preschool, little boy was itching to be clean again. Oh, kids and sand. It’s like they’re magnetic to one another. Even the ones who despise being dirty, can’t seem to resist its temptation. Once they touch it—even if only for a split-second—it’s gonna end up in your house, car, and clothes. Oy vey. Wrangling our pint-sized Hulk into the lukewarm shower *weeping and gnashing of teeth* it finally came time to wash his hair—peppered with the tiny black and brown specks. Looking like a seasoned chicken breast ready for the grill, I made sure not to skimp on the tear-free shampoo. Lathering up his golden blonde mane, he cried out with the moans of his favorite first word—Noooo! I was hopeful that the sand would wash away with ease. Ha. As if. Scrub-a-dub-dub. Rinsing out the suds and drying him off, I combed through his hair. Lo and behold, there they still were—taunting me! Those pesky granules gripped to his scalp for dear life. Not from a lack of trying though. Contemplating a second soaping, I decided to wait and see if they’d work their way out overnight. Sand—try as we may, it always sticks with you.
Shame is like sand. We pick it up—many times unknowingly—in the messiness of life; and no matter how hard we work to remove it, still somehow a small trace of it always remains. That tiny voice persists in tearing us apart. Shame gets down deep in the soft and tender parts of our lives and chafes away—raw and unforgiving. It was a couple years ago, in reading the brilliantly candid writing of Brené Brown (Daring Greatly), when I learned the difference between guilt and shame. The former is the feeling of I did wrong, whereas the latter is the feeling of I am wrong/unworthy. Often we confuse the two. I’d venture to say all of us—even those who don’t realize or are too afraid to admit it—suffer more from unresolved shame than that of guilt itself. Though similar, one is a response to an action and the other is a reaction to oneself. When I do something wrong, I feel guilt for my transgression(s). On the other hand, shame flows out of all kinds of situations and perceptions. Simply assuming the thoughts of another person can lead us to an overwhelming shamefulness. It really doesn’t take anything at all for us to be seized by shame’s suffocating message. I, myself, am no stranger to its unrelenting sting. At any given moment I can (and do) feel it pulling down on me. Something, anything, or even nothing is said by another person, and there I am sinking beneath its crashing, stifling waves. Consumed. All from that itty bitty fleck picked up from who knows where.
It’s such an integral part of our lives, that I’m not sure many of us could even pick shame out of a lineup. We are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of its criminality. Chances are we’ve each been shamed out of or into something at least a dozen times—probably starting amidst, if not before, the prime confusion and questioning of our adolescence. In the same way, we heap shame on others out of fear and/or anger. I believe all shame either begins or ends internally. We convince ourselves that we/others are horrible, wretched, despicable, and therefore should cower and hide from others/us. It’s impossible to trust and extend oneself into vulnerable relationships with one another, when shame is constantly perched upon our shoulder whispering fear. The church—its leaders and laity alike—is no stranger to sowing shame within those whom it doesn’t understand and is too afraid to engage. After many generations of practice, it seems to have become part and parcel to our public discourse. We shame each other on the smallest of differences. Oh, you think think/believe/feel/live differently than me about x, y, or z? Shame on you. So, what’s one to do about all the sand? It’s not confined to just the sandbox or shoreline. Is there any clean-all that can fully wash it away? Unfortunately, all the loofahs in the world cannot get it from sticking onto us. Perhaps a first step in cleanliness is self-awareness. Are we aware of it at work within us, and the damn-age it does? Name it—take away its silent stigma. But then next take an honest look at yourself—your words and actions—and ask how you are contributing, in one way or another, to the shame of others. Are we not only aware, but also accountable, to how we perpetuate it into perpetuity? The vicious cycle both envelopes and exceeds us. Ignoring it, doesn’t remove the speck(s) in my eye—much less covering me and my neighbor. Here’s to a life of hopefully scrubbing it away, little by little. Wash up.
– Pastor Andrew