Living without shame

You must find your way, 
You must find your way in the dark. 
And you’re so much afraid, 
but gently you must carry on, 
you’re not to take the blame, 
as it wasn’t your fault

[words from No Blame, by Virginia Firnberg]

“You’re not to take the blame, as it wasn’t your fault.” I would be surprised if Virginia’s words did not touch something deep in each one of us. How many of us are carrying around burdens of blame and guilt – whether or not we earned them? 

A few days ago, after dining in a local restaurant, I was sipping my Turkish coffee when the waiter pointed to my cup and said “when you finish your coffee, I will tell your fortune.” He returned and instructed me to overturn the cup. After the grounds had poured into the saucer, he stared thoughtfully into the pattern remaining inside the cup. He pondered for a moment and told me with great solemnity – you have two sides: the side that everyone sees and also a dark side. 

And I thought – oh my! – this guy really knows me. My coffee cup oracle has revealed that I am not everything I want to be, that there are parts of myself I would like to be rid of. 

And then I realized, this fortune is not mine alone. 

In 1948, a psychologist called Bertram Forer had a group of people take a battery of personality tests and then he ignored the answers altogether and gave all of the participants this supposed result: 

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. 

Guess what! Every one of them agreed this was quite a good fit. 

You have a dark side that you don’t like to show to others. There are parts of your self that make you feel guilty, embarrassed, and even ashamed. 

This is not a magical mind-reading. This is the human condition. 

Why? Why is it that so many of us carry around such a burden? Why do we have guilt? 

One suggestion – coming from the field of evolutionary psychology – is that as we evolved as social creatures, our very survival came to depend more and more on the maintenance of relationships within our social groupings. 

If one of our more successful ancient ancestors offended someone, the feeling of guilt would bring them to try to make amends – to restore a relationship. Guilt would be an evolutionary advantage then – the individuals who were not moved in this way would find themselves alone and vulnerable. Those traits would soon vanish from the gene pool. 

Whether or not this theory is the best explanation for guilt, there is no question that – for most of us – guilt is here and it’s here to stay. 

And that is not altogether a bad thing. Guilt can serve as an ethical and moral prod. I decided some time ago not to eat meat. If I had a burger for lunch today, I’d feel guilty. Avoiding that feeling is part of what keeps me on my goal. I’m sure that each of you can think of a variety of ways where guilt serves a healthy purpose in your lives. 

But guilt is obviously not all good. 

e.e.cummings playfully offers that “guilt is the cause of more disorders than history's most obscene marorders” 

Once there was a woman who went to visit her friend. Her friend was a weaver and had been making a beautiful tapestry on her loom. It was woven from beautiful silk threads of many colors. When the weaver saw her friend she exclaimed; "Friend! I cannot tell you how happy I am to see you! What a joyful day. Surely a day for celebration! Please come in and make yourself comfortable, and I will get you something to drink". 

The weaver went into the kitchen to get a cup of tamarind tea. Her friend looked around and noticed the silk threads shimmering in the early afternoon light. They were so beautiful!...and she was tempted. She couldn't resist herself. Quickly, she reached over and took one of the bundles of thread and stuck it underneath her arm. 

When the weaver returned she noticed that a bundle of thread was missing, and knew that her friend had taken it. She thought for a moment, and devised a plan to get it back. Putting down the cup of tea she said; "Friend, what a joyful day it is today! Please, get up and let's dance." In a tentative voice her friend responded, "yes, let us dance". 

The weaver raised both her arms high and began to dance. She smiled as she turned in slow circular motions dancing with joy. Her friend got up, but instead danced with both her arms pressed close to her sides, holding the bundle of thread tightly underneath one of her arms. When the weaver saw this she said; " It is a day for celebration friend, how is it that you dance with your arms that way? Look, dance like me with both your arms raised!" The friend then raised one of her arms, but kept the other pressed tightly against her side. The weaver seeing this insisted and said; "It is such a joyful day, please dance with both arms raised. Look at me. Like this!" The weaver continued to dance, spinning, turning and swaying with joy. 

The friend looked down and quietly said; "but...sister, I am sorry, this is all that I know of dancing.” 

Guilt is not only that uncomfortable but helpful twinge that keeps us aiming toward our goal and aligned with our values. 

Guilt can become something worse, something corrosive, something destructive. 

This is where some draw a distinction between two related words: guilt and shame. Guilt, in this way of thinking, is about acts. I feel guilty for passing the homeless man without a word or an acknowledgement. I resolve to do differently next time. This kind of guilt can motivate and impel us in a better direction. The guilt ends with resolution to do differently and turning to right action. 

Shame, on the other hand, is not simply about the unwelcome act, it is about the self. Shame is when, having passed the homeless man, I feel that I am a bad, unworthy person. Shame takes my wholeness and shakes it. Shame – the shame that says there is a side of me that must be hidden – disconnects me from life. It tells me that I must hide who I am. It keeps me from dancing with my arms open. It keeps me from letting others look too close for fear that they will see the darkness within. 

This is where our faith speaks: we trust in and inherent worth and dignity in every person. We reject the notion of original sin, turning instead toward – as Matthew Fox puts it – original blessing. 

Yes, we are all capable of doing wrong. We are all capable of evil, but this is not who we are or must be. 

Shame keeps us apart – it keeps us separate. It makes us hide ourselves away. Loving and accepting ourselves allows us to lose the fear of being seen for who we are – and to connect with love to one another. 

I’d like to invite you to do something now. You may find this difficult or awkward and you can opt out at any time. 

Please stay right where you are, but look around the room and when you catch someone’s eye, just hold each other’s gaze. If you don’t want to participate, simply avoid making that initial eye contact. 

After a few seconds, I will ring the chime. That is the signal to cast your eyes around again and to find another person. There will be a bit more time before the chime this time. And then again, a bit longer, and so on. 

Let’s join in singing How could anyone?, the song in your order of service by Libby Roderick. Please remain seated as we sing. We’ll sing it through a few times. You may want to return your gaze to some of your connections as we sing. 

Our past actions are not who we are. Our histories - everything that has happened to us has shaped us, but they are not who we are or who we must be. 

Today is a new day – a day like every day when each of us can choose how we will be in the world. Each of us, no matter what we have done or what has been done to us, is possessed of a deep worth and dignity. We are children of a creative universe – made of star stuff – the hands and minds and hearts of creation. 

Strive to let go of the shame that keeps you from dancing with both arms open – the shame that keeps us separate – the shame that makes us feel unworthy of receiving love and unable to offer it to others. 

Live into the goodness that is yours and then we will not cease from dancing.