Human Shame Revisited

     I’ve written about human shame before and how addicts and alcoholics have no monopoly on it, but I want to revisit the subject as a good friend recently sent me the following devotional by Frederick Buechner:

     “Everybody knows what everybody else looks like with no clothes on, but there are few of us who would consider going around in public without them. It is our sexuality that we’re most concerned to hide from each other, needless to say, although one sometimes wonders why. Males and females both come with more or less standard equipment, after all. There would be no major surprises.

      It started, of course, with Adam and Eve. Before they ate the apple, “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed,” Genesis tells us, and it was only afterward that “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (2:25; 3:7). In other words, part of knowing evil as well as good was to know sex as a way of making objects of each other as well as a way of making love, and we have all felt guilty about it ever since. Pudenda, deriving from the Latin for “that of which we ought to be ashamed,” is etymology at its most depressing.

     People go around dressed to the teeth, and in our minds we go around undressing them. Again one wonders why. It’s not just to see their bodies, surely. We already know what those look like. If our most abandoned fantasies came true and we were actually to have our way with the bodies that attract us most, I suspect it wouldn’t even be that either. We already know just what bodies can do and what they can’t.

      Maybe our hunger to know each other fully naked is in the last analysis simply our hunger to know each other fully. I want to know you with all your defenses down, all your pretenses set aside, all your secrets laid bare. Then maybe I will be brave enough to lay myself bare, so that at last we can be naked together and unashamed.”

     ~originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words


     Indeed, it is the epidemic of human shame that damages us spiritually and robs us of fully knowing each other, unashamed. How fascinating that we have become so ashamed of simply being human, of our human bodies, of who and what we are. I wonder if the absence of shame is even possible, given that original sin seems embedded in our DNA. Whether we like it or not, we are damaged, so perhaps if we can let go of the shame of being flawed, we can make peace with who we are, and thus, with others.

     For me, as far as naked and giving myself goes, I feel the most unashamed when I trust my wife (emotionally) and when I feel loved and admired by her, which is by no means always the case. Shame and trust are interconnected and inversely correlated. Trust, of course, is faith, as well as (healthy) love for self, others and God, so the more love and faith I have, the less shame.

     And so the pendulum swings back and forth along the spectrum of shame. Sometimes I feel bitterly self-conscious, and other times, not at all. Sometimes I respect and accept my human body with no shame, and other times I judge myself. Again, the more we trust our spouses and the healthier the love is between us, the less shame we feel. As tension and defensiveness rises while trust in God declines, so the amount of shame increases.

     Because human shame is now built-in as the human condition, we must continually let go everyday, continually renew our trust, and continually take actions that increase love. The courage to love and the humility of faith repel shame. When I neglect myself or loved ones, commit a wrong, become too self-absorbed or isolated, shame increases. And even then, we must walk through the shame and continue to act. We must bring ourselves back to a place of humility and other-centeredness.

     So the less I focus on ME and the more I rid myself of the poison of self, the less power shame has.

     Today we live in a culture of shame. Shame is in fact promoted and encouraged, especially physical shame. Mirrors are everywhere. Physical appearance and identity has become an obsession. Quite frankly, we’ve seen this script before during all ages of decadence that preceded the fall of great empires. As we decline economically and turn away from freedom and spiritual principles, culture fast becomes Godless, ashamed, confused, mentally ill, psychopathic and hyper-sexualized. Shame is tearing apart our very social fabric at its seams.

     All this is to say that we cannot seve two masters. If I worship Self, God becomes secondary, and my fall from grace is swift. For addicts, it ends in relapse. In this sense, shame can be equated with selfishness, and if both exist as who I am, if both are in my fundamental make-up, then I must work everyday to prevent them from growing into monsters. Shame and selfishness left unchecked will lead us to hurt ourselves and more importantly, others. To be sure, I am guilty of this myself, and when I feel the darkness approaching, I must turn back to God before it is too late. I must, lest I lose everything.

     This is why our recovery boils down to the simple, universal law of cause and effect. Right action = good life. Wrong action = shitty life… and shame. The choice seems so easy…

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