Shame


Late last week I was driving through a busy intersection during rush hour.  A group had planted themselves on all four corners of the intersection with placards graphically depicting the fate of the aborted unborn.  There was no screaming or shouting, just these sickening signs with the words ABORTION IS MURDER! in big letters.

The intended goals I suspect were to try to dissuade those who were considering abortion, to try and sway public opinion by overwhelming the senses with violence, and in some way to “shame” proponents of, practitioners of, and participants in abortion.  I’m sure that these goals were all achieved in some manner or degree.

However, I don’t think that their primary goal – that of saving the unborn – is served well by this strategy.  I don’t know how many women changed their minds by viewing this spectacle, instead I think that it galvanized folks more in their own opinions.

First of all, it affirmed to those who were pro-life that abortion is a grisly evil that should be stopped.  Second, it affirmed to those who were pro-choice that the pro-life side is made of folks who care so much for unborn babies that they will traumatize everyone else, including the children driving by, to get their point across, thus proving how uncaring they are.  Third, it affirmed to everyone who ever had an abortion that they are a despicable, shameful murderer.  “Shame on you!” the signs proclaim, and lo they are ashamed.

That third point struck me.  I’ve thought a lot this past week about shame and self-judgement.  Christians deal a lot in shame.  That shame can be focused outward on sinful society in order to bring it back in line.  Just another tool in the evangelist’s arsenal.  After all, one might say when looking at our culture’s daily diet of Jerry Springer and TMZ, it looks like we could use a heaping helping of shame.

However I also find that many Christians, myself included, overdose on shame.  We’re loaded down with how we should be living our lives, raising our children, studying the Bible, praying, tithing, witnessing, disciplining ourselves, reading, singing and joyful.  And more often than not we are not.  The answer unfortunately comes in the form of harsh and hard self-judgment.  We lash ourselves with our own thoughts and wear our hairshirts on the inside, and lo we are ashamed.

During my CPE classes my personal reflections were usually rebutted to my surprise with a “don’t be judgmental”.  These reflections, I thought, were objective.  I had done a bad job with something and felt bad and wanted to try and do better.  “Don’t be judgmental.”  “Huh?” was my first thought.  I thought I was only reporting reality as it was.  I started to see though that my observations were not simple record of fact but almost always included a therefore I should…

I thought to myself that it wasn’t wrong to do so, to think that I should be trying to improve, to be better, to have done something else.  If I am judgmental, is it wrong to judge myself?  I was confused.

I asked a social worker colleague what she thought the difference was between being objective and being judgmental.  She replied, “objectivity is just the facts.  Being judgmental means putting a value on those facts.”  To say that stealing is taking things that aren’t yours is objective.  To say that stealing is wrong is a judgement.   To say I am a wrong person for stealing is to be judgmental.  “But”, I thought to myself, “stealing is wrong, therefore I should be judged and be judgmental of myself, shouldn’t I?”

I asked, “do you think I’m a judgmental person?”

“Oh no – not at all.  But you totally judge yourself.  Harshly.”

I felt like I had known that the sky was blue, and then one day looked up and actually realized that the sky was blue.

I had felt for a long time that I was hard on myself, but I also felt that I needed to be hard on myself.  The verdict was just and fair, I thought.  But when I turned the lens outward, would I be as harsh on someone else as I am on myself?  The tyranny of the should was finally exposed.  I refuse to extend to myself the grace that I so freely give others.

We’ll see if a healthy should comes out of this anywhere.

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2 thoughts on “Shame

  1. It seems to me that there should be a healthy tension or, perhaps, “balance” is a better word, in striving to do the best we are able to do and self-reflection. Realizing we live in a fallen world reality, but knowing that we are called to be perfect is a struggle to understand. In our culture, I don’t think many folks do much self-reflection. It could be a healthy habit, if it is not used to inflict self-abuse.

    Grace is a wonderful thing to extend to others as well as yourself.

    Yeah, I’m confused, I guess.

    • Healthy tension is probably more accurate and realistic. I’m finding “balance” to be easy to say but impossible to achieve and maintain. Balance always involves dynamic tension and constant adjustment. Learned that from yoga!

      Still in process…

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