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Father Knows Best: How do I get over shame?

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev! 

I did something I’m ashamed of. The feeling of shame might just be the worst feeling there is. How can I shed it?


House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Lesley:

Let’s go to two well-known experts for advice. CS Lewis and CS Lewis.

Here is Lewis writing in “The Great Divorce:”

Don’t you remember on earth there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will attempt it – if you will drink the cup to the bottom – you will find it very nourishing; but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.

And here is Lewis in “A Grief Observed:”

I sometimes think that shame, mere awkward, senseless shame, does as much towards preventing good acts and straightforward happiness as any of our vices can do.

Which Lewis is right about shame?

Well, they both are. And each of them offers a clue, Lesley, for how you will go about shedding your shame.

The majority of shame falls into Lewis’ second category. It is plain old awkward and senseless. Here are the thousand and one embarrassments of having a body: that time in math class when the thunderoud fart caught you off guard and everyone turned around to look; that afternoon when your period came early and stained your trousers; that excruciating day when your mom saw you masturbating. While the shame around these memories can be intense, there is a secret weapon that will send that shame fleeing faster than the sun will scatter vampires, faster than Enya will clear out a disco.

That kind of shame can’t survive when you laugh at it.

If your shame flows out of the uncomfortable and goofy and ultimately harmless misadventures of being alive, then fight through your embarrassment, tell your friends about them, and laugh. Laugh until the tears roll down your cheeks. Once you decide that these awful experiences are actually great stories, you may be surprised at how fast your laughter makes your shame into something small.

Similarly awkward and senseless — but harder to shed — is shame that was deliberately given to you by a community or by an individual. Down in the Father Knows Best mailroom, the staff has a whole inbox filled with letters from folks who are carrying around big pain and self-doubt and self-loathing about being gay. Almost all of these folks (and I’m not sure how to say this gently, Lesley, so I won’t even try) are or were part of oppressive religious communities that have taught them to be ashamed for simply being the way that God made them.

That kind of shame — the experience of being shamed by a broken community – can only be cured by finding your way into another community, a community that has a bigger and more generous idea of what love looks like. A community that, in the celebrated and powerful and simple words of Mr. Rogers, will slowly cast away your shame by letting you know that they like you just the way that you are.

Let’s move on now, Lesley, to the other CS Lewis and to the kind of shame that is nourishing when you drink it down, to shame that can actually lead you into wholeness and joy and reconciliation. This is the sort of shame that, like the pain of a fractured arm, exists to let you know that something is broken, to let you know that there are things that you have done and left undone for which you are called to confess and repent, to let you know that there is healing to be done. This the sort of shame that, if you permit it to do so, will become your teacher.

There are any number of practices designed to help you respond to, learn from, and shed such shame – for many of us, the Sunday morning liturgy is chief among them. Among those many practices, I wonder if the 12-Step tradition might provide a helpful place for you to begin. Step 4, for instance, in which you make a “searching a fearless moral inventory” of yourself, sounds a lot like what Lewis is getting at when he speaks of drinking the cup to the bottom. And Step 9 gives us the vital reminder that, while we are called to make amends, we must do so in a way that injures no one.

While your shame may be just about the worst feeling that there is, Lesley, your work now is to look directly upon it, to struggle directly with it. Whether you laugh it into something small, whether you wrestle it into submission with the help of community, whether you permit it to become your teacher, or some combination of the three, you will survive confronting it. You will shed your shame.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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