Tag Archives: shame

Transformation

“That must be so difficult,” people often say when they learn I work at a cancer support center.

“It can be,” I reply.

Every day, people tell us of their fears and anxieties, stories of their financial troubles because of the cost of medical care and the difficult decisions they face regarding treatment options.

Where can they get money to relieve their financial troubles? Should they continue with treatment knowing it is only prolonging life for a short time? Should they try an experimental treatment when traditional options have failed?

Dealing with vulnerability can be very challenging and even difficult.

But my work can also be very gratifying.

I get to see fears and anxieties melt away when people feel heard and their concerns validated. I am privileged to watch people support one another and see them move from fear to trust, from despair to hope. Every day, I see transformation.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, I had a few “melt-downs,” moments when my patience ran out or my fears overwhelmed me. Sometimes I yelled. Other times, I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. Afterward, I felt guilty. Here was Jim, facing his death—and there I was, wallowing in self-pity. Remorse and shame engulfed me.

Then one day at the grocery store, I met my neighbor’s daughter who was caring for both her ill husband and aged mother. It must have been just after a melt-down, because I confessed my bad behavior. Delores waved me off. “It happens,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she, too, gets tired and frustrated, and how she, too, has been known to yell or cry.

“It’s normal,” She said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Before that encounter, I had felt like a terrible person, the only person in the world who would yell at a man dying from brain cancer. Talking with Delores, though, gave me a different perspective and helped me let go of the high expectations I had for myself.

I walked away from that encounter telling myself, “You are not Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” and then realizing that even Mother Teresa probably had melt-downs. We are all human.

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The value of sharing our human fears and weaknesses is not restricted to cancer care.

I have also seen it when adults walked into the literacy center where I worked in Pennsylvania, feeling inadequate and shameful because of their lack of literacy skills—and then meeting other adults are in the same boat.

I experienced it the first time I attended a gathering of adult children of alcoholics and realized I was not alone, that others understood my experience because they had gone through something similar.

Once that understanding of a shared experience happens—whatever the experience—healing can begin.

Admitting my fear, confessing my shame or giving voice to my secret can be cathartic and can lead to greater compassion—for myself and for others.

When has that been true for you?

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Leaning into vulnerability

The day after my neighbor Margaret came to mind while on retreat recently, I walked the labyrinth. At the center, I stopped and prayed for insight: Why had the memory of my pledge to Margaret come to mind?

The words from Psalm 89 came to me: “I have made a covenant with my chosen…”

I walked back through the labyrinth repeating those words.

I have made a covenant with my chosen.

What are you trying to tell me, God?

And then I remembered that when I was fifteen years old, I had said to myself, “One day I am going to write a book about my life, and it will start like this: From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in a special way.

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I didn’t know exactly what it meant that God had called me, how it had happened or why God had picked me, but I knew it is true. God had chosen me when I was eight years old.

At that early age, God had somehow made a covenant with me. And now, on retreat almost sixty years later, God was reminding me of that covenant.

The thing about the pledge I made to Margaret is that it was made with my full knowledge and consent. God’s covenant when I was eight was one-sided; God initiated it. I didn’t fully consent.

For many years, I was noncommittal about God. Having been chosen by God only seemed to make me different and somehow weird—I was the kid who loved going to church.

Church was my refuge. As I inhaled the smell of burning beeswax candles, I also breathed in the mystery of God’s grace. I loved the hushed quiet and the space to retreat into myself.

Inside church, I felt close to God. It was there that I experienced God’s desire to be in a relationship with me, where I heard God asking me to say yes to the covenant God initiated.

Inside church, I could be God’s but once outside, I did not know how to trust that relationship or to live it out.

While my fifteen-year-old self knew that something significant had happened to me when I was eight, my adult self has been clueless as to how that could be of interest. On retreat, God gave me an insight.

I went back to the first piece I posted on this blog more than six years ago. God is doing something new.

Much has changed over these past six years—new home in a new state, working in a near field, new friends.

But the most significant change is being vulnerable enough to share my story—with all its difficulties and traumas. I am learning to move beyond shame and to trust that the sky will not fall if I reveal something long kept secret.

My part of the covenant is to tell how God’s grace has infused my life and transformed pain into compassion, fear into trust.

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Misplaced loyalty

When we were in our mid-thirties, my cousin wrote me and asked if we could get together for dinner the next time I came home for a visit.

We grew up more like sisters than cousins, and as children, she knew me better than anyone else.

Her request to meet seemed a bit odd, though, because we had drifted apart after high school.

Now she was in therapy and had some questions for me. Her childhood memories were fuzzy and had some blank spaces; she hoped I would be able to bring clarity to her murkiness and fill in some of the blanks.

At dinner, she asked about one of our uncles. I shuddered.

“If we had known of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch,’” she said, “he would have been a bad-touch uncle.” I agreed.

As far back as I could remember, I had tried to avoid this uncle, who liked to bounce me on his lap and “tickle” my still-undeveloped breasts. She confided that she, too, had learned to give him a wide berth.

Even at a young age we both knew that other adults saw anything wrong in what he did to us, and no one would stop him.

“What about us?” my cousin asked. “Why didn’t anyone protect us? Why were we left to feel shame for something he did?”

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The memory of that dinner with my cousin thirty years ago resurfaced recently.

Lately, I seem to be tuned into the secrets people keep. In novels—where more is left unsaid than shared—and television detective stories—where people withhold facts from the police—what goes unsaid has been catching my attention.

Why the hesitation? The resistance? Why not tell all? 

The answer frequently is the desire to protect someone.

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Perhaps novelists and screenwriters are emphasizing the things people don’t say as a way of pointing out how common the practice is. Perhaps they are using their craft to nudge people into greater honesty because they know how harmful secrets can be, how damaging it is to protect people who are abusing their power.

Maybe I am more aware of the destructiveness of keeping secrets and protecting people because of what is happening in my church. Those in power seem to be willing to do anything to hold onto their power, covering up egregious acts and maintaining a code of silence. Or maybe it is because of politicians and celebrities demanding loyalty or paying hush money to keep their secrets.

Other than that dinner with my cousin, I have not talked about my uncle and the impact his actions had on me.

One thing I can see clearly, though, is how this early lesson helped shape my sense of “loyalty” and my understanding of the need to protect people who have something to lose—be it their reputation, job or family.  

In the end, the truth usually comes out. And it often turns out that people already knew, or at least had an inkling, of the truth.

See my wounds

While praying with the resurrection stories this week—scripture passages I have read dozens of times, heard preached about every year and thought I knew so well—I had an “aha” moment.

The idea that Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, that his death had a redemptive quality is not new.

This year, though, the image of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples after his resurrection took on a different meaning for me.

Recently, I have been pondering sharing more of my wounds. I have written pieces that expose parts of my story that have been long kept secret. Although I have been through years of therapy to help me get past the shame, I can still be crippled by it. Don’t tell are two words that reverberate in my mind and prevent me from full disclosure.

I admire others who get past shame and tell all and am amazed by those who seem to have escaped shame all together.

But I have not been able to shake off shame. I still cringe whenever I reveal a detail of my past, when I speak of something I have been warned not to tell.

Reading the resurrection stories this year and imagining the scene of Jesus standing with his fearful disciples sparked a new insight.

Jesus got his wounds in a shameful fashion. He was mistreated by his own religious leaders and crucified as a common criminal.

The disciples scattered rather than stand at the foot of the cross and watch the man they respected be humiliated and disgraced. He had been their leader, but now he was broken—not powerful at all, but humbly submitting to ridicule, abuse and death.  

And yet, just days later, there he was, standing in their midst and inviting them to look at his wounds.

For Jesus, they were not marks of shame, but rather signs of victory. He was proud to show the marks of his suffering.

The disciples had been cowering in a locked room when Jesus appeared and invited them to look at his wounds.

What was clearer to me this year is that if Jesus could endure humiliation and overcome shame, so could his disciples. He was inviting them (and me) to shake off shame, to convert what looked like weakness into power, to break free of the bonds that kept them in hiding, behind locked doors.

Jesus broke through their fears and invited them to spread the word that humiliating treatment did not define or limit him, but rather he converted that treatment into true freedom.

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Fear drives people to abuse power and victimize vulnerable people.

By showing his wounds as signs of triumph over the fears of others, Jesus was offering the ultimate freedom. He did not let what had happened to him to limit or define him, and he invites me to do the same.

Showing his wounds was the exclamation point on his message that fear is useless and that trust in God leads to freedom.     

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Shaking off shame

Last year, I connected with Jake Owensby’s blog, Looking for God in Messy Places. My own sense of where I find God resonates with his writing, and now I am reading his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life. In both his blog and his book, Jake writes about traumatic events from his childhood, and I am amazed at his openness.

In a memoir I recently read, the author declares that she wishes she could write openly about the trauma of her childhood, but she is not there. Me neither.

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I want to be there—that place where I can speak openly and honestly about traumatic things that happened to me, where I have moved past shame—but I am not.

Thirty years ago, I read John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, hoping it would lead me beyond shame. It gave me insight and understanding, but I was still bound by shame.

Then there was therapy for few years and a series of other therapeutic programs (retreats, family programs, al-anon, etc.). Each moved the needle a bit, but my shame is deep seated.

Shame is the yardstick by which I measure my freedom, because shame truly does keep me bound and unfree.

Looking back, though, I can see the distance I have come. There was a time when I did not even know what had happened to me. Like many children who experience trauma, I buried it deep inside and denied anything had happened.

All I knew for certain was that when I was eight years old, God saved me, that God had somehow picked me up and held me close. I had no understanding of the circumstances from which God was saving me. But I knew this one truth: God saved me.

In my twenties I realized that there was an impact from the damage that had been done to me as a child, because I could see how it was affecting the way I was living as an adult. Bad choices only begins to describe my twenties.

Chapter One in A Resurrection Shaped Life is called “Growing Beyond Our Past.”  Jake Owensby writes, “Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity” (Page 4). He notes, “We omit the messy parts of our lives” when building a resume, but that we have to “come to terms” with our past as part of a Christian spiritual practice.

I know my past helped me be more compassionate toward people who are vulnerable, especially children and people who have developmental disabilities. It also helped me know how blessed I am to have survived childhood trauma relatively intact.

Therapy, retreats, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, daily prayer and self-help books all helped me get to a place where I could make better choices and live with greater integrity.

I am still working with God in the messy places of my life, those places where I still hold onto shame—and trusting that God is continually healing me.

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The truth will set you free

The House of Mirrors at the Michigan State Fair fascinated me as a child. I loved how the slightest movement could cause great distortion. I could go from tall and skinny to short and fat with just one step.

In a way, these distortions reflected my everyday life, which could shift from peaceful to chaotic in a moment. Except, I was not the one creating the chaos; I just had to live in it and learn to keep silent about it.

So I lived on two planes—my interior life, where I knew the truth of my life, and my outer life where I pretended not to.

Of course, holding tight to secrets caused me a great deal of anxiety and shame. I worried that someone would realize I was a fraud—that the life I projected outwardly was nothing like the life I actually lived.

I felt trapped within walls of lies and deceptions.

I have had more than one conversation with Jesus about how knowing the truth would set me free (John 8:32), because that was not my experience. I knew the truth, and I was not free.

Only recently have I come to understand that I need one more step to be free—I need to speak my truth in order to be truly free.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have been experimenting with speaking my truth through this blog, continually revealing more and more of who I am and what I have experienced. It has been very freeing and has given me the confidence to continue to reveal my story.

My hope is to get to a place past shame, where childhood secrets have no hold on me, where I can see myself as God sees me and accept myself without judgment. Step by step, story by story.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have also realized that it is not only traumatic events that I have kept secret. Recently, I shared a story of a Good Samaritan who helped me after a car accident. When I get to the part of the story where this man paid for my car to be towed, I am overcome with emotion and tears fill my eyes.

Why would I cry in recalling an act of great kindness? And why have I not talked about this incident before?

I think my sense of unworthiness prevented me from telling it. I kept it secret because I felt unworthy to be so richly blessed, as if someone would challenge me—who are you to be treated so well? I knew I was not worthy and so I kept quiet.

But, in truth, my whole life has been filled with great blessings, with incidents of God’s abundant love being poured out on me.

I have only recently begun to share openly the good things God has done for me and the amazing way God has cared for me, and in doing so, am undoing my negative self-image.

I want to know my truth, to speak it and to be set free.

 

 

On Retreat, Part Two

While on retreat, I celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessing sins from my youth and talking about the shame I have been carrying for many years.

The priest assured me of God’s forgiveness and mercy and suggested that I find a scripture passage, song or poem that would express God’s acceptance of me.

I love poetry, and I keep copies of some of my favorite poems in my Bible and prayer books, including e. c. cummings’ poem, “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).”

After the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I pulled out my copy of the poem and reread it. The poem speaks to me of an incredible closeness, a sense of unity.

Then I read it as if God was saying it to me, that God was the one carrying my heart in God’s heart. I listened to God say to me:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart) i am never without it (anywhere

i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done

by only me is your doing, my darling)

                                                      i fear

no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want

no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant

and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows

higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Accepted, loved, forgiven, reconciled.