Shame is a legacy. It lives in our present and goes with us into our future, yet it’s caused by things that happened in the past. Shame is the price we exact from ourselves for things we did, or things that were done to us. Bad things. Stupid things. Painful things. Embarrassing things. As I wrote in my previous post, shame is the embarrassed indignation of the soul. Shame is our conscience waiting anxiously for justice. Justice to be exacted on our behalf. Justice to be exacted upon us.
Sometimes, we don’t wait for someone else’s justice. Sometimes, we feel it’s better, safer, more seemly, more fitting to exact that justice upon ourselves rather than wait for others to do it. We can spend our whole lives making ourselves pay the price for something that happened when we were small, when we didn’t know better, when we were powerless, or perhaps just thought it seemed like a good idea. Sometimes the thing was something we did. Sometimes not. Nevertheless, shame will go on making us pay whether or not it’s fair, logical, or even just in the first place.
How many people do you know believe one small thing that happened years and years ago, a thing that perhaps happened through no fault of their own, is the very thing that defines who they are their whole lives? How many people do you know who are bearing the wages of sin, and believe it is fitting that they do?
We’ve come to believe so strongly that shame is the fitting punishment for stupid, illegal, socially unacceptable and what we consider immoral behaviour, that when we see someone who we judge to be acting outside of these guidelines, we label both them and their behaviour “shameless”.
But shame is not enough to make a person straighten up and fly right. And nor should it be. Shame is never a good enough reason to stop being fully who we are. Shame is a disease, and we infect one another with it. I believe much of the healing Christ did when he walked around on the earth was actually the elimination of shame. The people who were transformed out of blindness, demon-possession and disease were pariahs in their community because of what had happened to them. Think of that woman in the Bible with the issue of blood. Now, she should have been living outside of the community in isolation because of her condition, and not creeping around amongst crowds, according to the mosaic law. It was her faith, or perhaps her audacity, that made her well, Jesus himself said so. That faith was actually her refusal to accept a) the shame of her condition b) the penalty she was under decreed by law because of it, and c) the fact that nobody would advocate on her behalf. She acted on her courage and her imagination – the belief that her life could and would be changed if only I can touch Him – and not by her memory, which told her that according to the Law she was an outcast, diseased and doomed to die alone.
The fact is that shame requires one essential thing in order to exist. Without this one thing, shame cannot survive. That thing is memory. I call it the tapes. The tapes is the video footage I play over and over in my head to remind me what I’ve done, and what exactly I deserve because of it. The tapes provide proof people think I am stupid, that I have no talent and am a pretender, and support my fear that one day everyone will find this out. The tapes are evidence of all my fears and insecurities and provide ample justification for all the crappy things people have ever done to me, as well as evidence of all the crappy things I’ve done. I am evil and must be punished, and the tapes help me remember this, providing instant and sometimes unwanted recall at a moments notice.
The problem is that I don’t want to live my life based on what’s in the tapes. Like the woman with the issue of blood, I have this dogged and stubborn belief that my life can transcend what I know I deserve, and even what I know has been decided is my “lot” in life. I have imagined an amazing life, far away from what’s happened in the past. Call me crazy, call me shameless, but I don’t want to be defined by the memories that tell me I can’t actually sing very well and my writing is crap, my God doesn’t exist therefore I am insane, that I’m too stupid to study, that I’m slutty and ugly and fat and my house is full of dust, that I organise pathetic holidays, that I am a bad friend, that I’m combative and scary and reactive and provocative. That I’m a wicked, wicked little girl.
I have a lot of tapes.
I am working my way through the tapes. I imagine that when the woman was healed by Jesus, she had some changes to make afterwards. She would have had to find ways to fill her time, now that she was no longer occupied washing dirty rags all day. I see the seeds of her healing already present in the behaviour she demonstrated in her audacity to touch Jesus in the crowd. Her imagination of a shame-free life was the key to her healing. It was a demonstration of faith. Afterwards, she got to go home and not just wash those dirty rags, she got to burn them.
Burning the tapes of shameful memories is only way we can ever live from imagination and not memory, and be free from shame. Christ, on the cross, scorned shame, not just the shame of his own criminals death, but shame for all, for all time. I pray you in Him find a flame, perhaps the flame that will set a great bonfire of all your painful memories.