Recovering from Shame

Woody Allen once said something like, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”

Meaning-600x402Humor has a way of delivering hard and tender truths that we might otherwise fend off. Satirists coax us into lowering our guard with the promise of a good laugh. The best among them can make us laugh until we cry. Their words release the tears we’ve kept bottled up in some deep and painful place within us.

At a few points in my life, I have not been who I wanted to be. I don’t mean that I didn’t receive the job I sought or the grade I studied to make or the trophy I raced to win.

I mean that I let myself down by letting other people down. I had wanted to be someone else. Someone worthy of admiration and respect. A person of honor and courage. And I wasn’t. The story I could tell about myself was nothing short of an indictment. I suppose that’s what we mean by shame.

When I was much younger, a friend of mine was in dire trouble. She needed someone to walk with her through a tough time. Afraid of being entangled in scandal, facing rejection, and enduring contempt if I stood by her and spoke up for her, I faded away.

I deserted a friend. It was a terrible betrayal of a person who had been kind to me and who had supported me when I was wrestling some of my own inner demons.

Even though that incident lies in the distant past, it is not merely water under the bridge. For years I tried simply to set the memory aside, to run from it, or to make up for my failure by pouring myself into good and meaningful work.shame-600x280

None of this did much good, at least not for long. The shame endured and infected many of my new experiences. Eventually, I came to realize that—even when hidden from view—the story of betraying my friend established shame as a dominant theme for the story I was telling myself about my whole life.

I was reducing myself to the worst story I could tell about myself. Shame was progressively crushing the life out of me.

There is no erasing or compensating for this or any other shabby episode of my life. I needed to find a way to tell my story—including this miserable episode—without shame. To put this a slightly different way, I needed to find meaning in even the most regrettable event of my life in order to live what Brené Brown calls a whole-hearted life.

As I reflect on the narrative of Jesus’ Passion, I imagine that Peter faced a similar spiritual and emotional crossroads. Peter had thought of himself as the super disciple.

At the Last Supper, Jesus had predicted that one of his followers would betray him and that all of them would abandon him. Peter blurted out that he would never desert Jesus. Even if it meant a painful death, Peter would stick by his Rabbi.

AloneAnd yet, Peter nodded off while Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane. When an armed gang arrived to arrest Jesus, Peter bolted with the rest of the disciples. Finally, he denied even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times. He had wanted to be someone else.

On Palm Sunday—and throughout Holy Week—our texts and our liturgies encourage us, as Brené Brown would say, to reckon with our most difficult emotions and to rumble with the stories we are telling about ourselves.

The Gospel reading ends with the dead Jesus. If you hear the extended option, Jesus’ battered corpse has been sealed in a borrowed tomb. Full stop.

We are encouraged to linger at this worst of moments as a way of recovering from the episodes for which we heap the most blame upon ourselves. Peter’s subplot has been my helpful guide in telling a more life-giving story about myself.

I stand as best as I can in Peter’s shoes, stunned as much by his own actions as by Jesus’ brutal execution. He had wanted to be the good one. The holy one. The Big Man on the Religious Campus. And he ran. He lied to save his own skin. He had so wanted to be someone else.

Unlike Judas, Peter did not commit suicide. I suspect that’s because Peter realized that hope inscribes even our worst moments with meaning. Peter had not yet experienced what the third day would bring.beautiful-birds-child-dreams-hope-favim-com-173804

He had not yet seen and heard and supped with the risen Jesus. But somewhere deep in his marrow he felt that Jesus could and would still make something of even the one who had betrayed and abandoned him.

Reflecting on his experiences in German concentration camps, the late Viktor Frankl said that we keep living in even the most devastating circumstances because we can find meaning. Hope for tomorrow bestows that meaning on the cruelest of present moments.

When my life seemed to be crashing on the reefs, my mother used always to say, “Tomorrow is another day.” It finally dawned on me that she too had learned this lesson in her time in the Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen.

Paradoxically, it is in the worst of our moments that we will know the resurrection most viscerally. As we die to a self that we wish we had been, we awaken to the new creation that we are becoming in the risen Christ.

22 thoughts on “Recovering from Shame

  1. Bless you for your vulnerability, honesty, and hope filled words. Truly the only way we can live a whole-hearted life and serve our whole-hearted Savior.

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  2. Thank you for this insightful meditiatio9n. I, too, have wanted to be somebody else or, perhaps more accurately, be somewhere else where everyone would be pleasant, ready to go for coffee or a glass of wine, pleased to see me, and not tangled up in the everyday world of work, obligations, family and those other friends I’d left behind. I wish you a rich Holy Week.

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  3. Thank you for these deeply courageous and compassionate words. Your vulnerability and honesty is a gift that is profoundly appreciated. Blessings for the journey of Holy Week!

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    • Hi Nelda! For a season of my life I stopped publishing things until I could answer the question, “Why am I doing this?” Eventually, the answer came as something like, “To be helpful to people.” Thanks for letting me know that I’m still doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Blessed Holy Week….

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  4. Oh my goodness, so many need this. To set aside,cover bury how we’ve hurt others. I had someone call after for years you appoligize for something g he did when we were teenagers. What a blessing for us both. We are friends now. Praise God. Thank you for your story.

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  5. I am saving this for someone who has lived in shame for much of his life. He recently confided he is going to seek help, to hopefully stop hurting others, me among that group. His first therapy session is on Good Friday. He has not believed in god since a child, when terrible things were done to him, and he felt that God did not answer his prayers. I pray that through my faith, he finds the peace he deserves. Thank you.

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  6. I am a survivor of early childhood trauma. After 60 and 1/2 years, last Wednesday I realized that it is OK for me to “take up space” in this world and that I do belong here. This piece would have meant little to me before last week; it means a lot to me now. Thank you.

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    • Karis, it grieves me to hear of your long struggle with childhood trauma. And your epiphany that you belong here makes my heart glad. Thank you for sharing this with me and for making my world a better place today by being a part of it.

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  7. As a priest who is led to share the “slings and arrows” of my own life’s ups & downs to connect with people and keep it real, I am hesitant about going too far and then seeming weak or incapable. Your candor about your struggles with shame were insightful. Thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone.

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  8. A blessed Good Friday Reverend Owensby ! I hope you and yours are well as we all take time to reflect on a conviction worth reflecting upon .
    I can’t think of a better antidote for the distress of shame than Jesus , although
    psychotherapy is helpful one with Jesus is usually the terminus of the therapy . Thanks .

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