The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three of A Resurrection Shaped Life.
The school year had only just ended. Summer stretched out before me for an eternity. At least, that’s how it seemed to my ten-year-old self. I was playing with a couple of kids at the end of my old street. I didn’t know them well. Their names are lost to me now.
Like most of the houses in my old neighborhood, their home was probably a rental. The front porch sagged in the middle, giving the impression that the whole building was gradually collapsing in on itself. The walls were shedding their battered asbestos shingles in various places. We were playing in the front yard, a sun-hardened patch of red clay dotted with small clumps of untended weeds.
The boys’ mother leaned out of a screen door at the side of the house. She looked down at me from the stoop and said, “I thought you built that fancy new house out on the bypass. What’s the matter? Couldn’t y’all make the payments?” She was smiling in a way that didn’t seem friendly.
My throat tightened and my eyes began to water. I looked down at my feet. “Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled.
When I glanced up, I noticed that her expression seemed brighter, as if someone had paid her a compliment. “Well, that’s just what happens to some people.” She said the words with an air of triumph, turned back to the house, and let the screen door slam behind her.
Choking back tears I made some excuse and walked off toward my own apartment. I was living in a shabby, furnished set of rooms in an old house that my mother had rented after leaving my father. You see, my father still lived in that nice, newly built house. Actually, it was the 900-square- foot house I mentioned in chapter 1. My mother had gathered me up with the belongings she could carry and escaped her abuser.
The mother of those boys assumed that I was back in the old neighborhood because we had gotten what was coming to us. We had put on airs by building a house that people like us had no business living in. We had tried to look like we were better than she was, better than the people like her. It did her heart good to see somebody like us put in our place. We were, she supposed, getting a well-deserved taste of shame.
Shame was crushing me, all right. But the woman was utterly wrong about the source of my deep feelings of humiliation. My world wasn’t right. And since I was accustomed to finding somebody to blame when things went wrong, I had identified the likeliest candidate: me.
It’s not that I thought that I had done something immoral. I was wrong simply by virtue of being me. My speech was garbled by an uncorrected cleft palate—everybody saw me as deformed. People did not say “immigrant” in that small, rural town. My mother was a foreigner. She didn’t talk right. Act right. She didn’t belong. And, of course, I didn’t belong as a result. Now my parents were getting a divorce. In that place and at that time, being divorced made a person less than others. The demise of my parents’ marriage tainted me. Like I said, I was wrong by virtue of being me.
That is what shame looks and feels like. Shame is different from guilt. Feelings of guilt arise from specific wrongdoing. Something we did—or neglected to do—fell short of the mark. Remorse urges us to seek forgiveness, to make things right, and to amend our ways. By contrast, shame is the visceral sense that we are unlovable. All of us will encounter rejection and even contempt from other people at one time or another. When we’re weighed down by shame, we start to believe that we deserve no better. We’re just no good and our critics have found us out.
All humans possess inherent dignity and unconditional worth. Each of us deserves respect. And yet, to assert these truths while in the grip of shame rings hollow to our own ears. We can’t really believe it because we don’t feel it. Overcoming shame involves changing our minds about ourselves. And Jesus came in part to help us do precisely that. Jesus changes our minds about ourselves by changing our minds about God.
***I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt. A Resurrection Shaped Life is available here or at your favorite local bookstore. Stay tuned for word about an upcoming virtual retreat. To schedule me for virtual talks, workshops, or sermons contact my assistant Holly Windham (email@example.com). Stay safe. Be well.***
This feels to me like a testimony on the need for kindness. What a different experience, indeed a different world, if your playmates’ mother had shared words of kindness and acceptance. It takes a lot of work and grace to be able to be kind, especially in the midst of life’s hardship and the suffering of stress responses, but what a transforming gift to those we encounter!