Early 1980s. Seventh grade. There was this girl, her name was Lily. She played violin, sang in the chorus, and I was in love.
The only trouble was, she didn’t even know who I was.
I was that kid who watched from afar, as she sang the lead part in the school play. And I can tell you that I can still see her in my mind now. Dark brown, almost black hair. Pale skin. Beautiful.
I was in a supporting role as the Dormouse. She was Alice.
I was in the back row of the tenor section, and she was in the front row of the sopranos.
I had one friend. She was one of the most popular girls in the school.
I didn’t exist.
All the same, there was a day late that spring when the seventh grade class went to Six Flags. All day long I saw her around the park, laughing with her friends (both boys and girls), white teeth flashing. I wandered the park with my best friend, and by the end of the day, I finally, finally worked up some courage. After the school buses got us back to Sandy Springs and we offloaded at the school, I approached her.
Thirty-years later, this is still vivid. It was a sunny day, hardly a cloud in the sky. It was loud, the seventh grade class milling around, teachers trying to get us organized. She stood there under an awning with two friends, both of them blonde. I walked up and opened my mouth. And froze. And froze for a minute more. As those excruciating seconds went by, one of the girls started to titter, then the other. Lily’s eyes grew larger and larger, and finally I spit out the words.
“Will you go with me?” (I had no specific destination in mind.)
The three of them burst into laughter.
To this day I remember the feeling of humiliation. The burning in my cheeks, the heat in my skull, the thumping of my heart, the sweat on my palms.
The sound of her laughter.
I backed up and ran away, and never spoke with her again. It was devastating.
If you want to read more about shame and its devastating impact on life, it’s worth checking out the books and videos by Brené Brown, a vulnerability researcher at the University of Texas. Here’s a link to her TED talk: Listening to Shame
The thing is, when we put ourselves out there, we make ourselves vulnerable. It happens when we say “I love you” for the first time. When we ask someone on a date. When we tell a friend a secret. Every time we make ourselves vulnerable, we risk getting hurt.
Sometimes we risk getting hurt very badly.
Now, the experience of making that walk of shame away from the girl who blew you off—that’s hardly unusual. In fact, it’s almost cliché. What makes it interesting to me today is not that it happened, it’s how I internalized it. You see, I was already shaky in terms of self-image. For a variety of reasons, I was already damaged. Depressed. One of my most enduring mental images of my childhood was hiding underneath the wet-bar downstairs during a particularly traumatic incident. There were some very ugly years in my family in that time frame.
My parents knew I was in trouble, and put me in therapy. They did everything they could. But enduring shame? It results in secrets. And secrets result in more shame. It’s a vicious cycle. I didn’t talk to my therapist at that time about my shame. I didn’t do it when I went to the vet centers in the early nineties after the war, and I didn’t when I went through therapy for PTSD at the end of the nineties.
Those were middle school things, but they were indicative of more, weren’t they? They were indicative of an internal brokenness and lack of confidence. I couldn’t shrug it off. I couldn’t let it go. I can still feel those moments with deep shame.
I want to be clear, when I talk about shame I’m not talking about guilt. Here’s how I look at the difference between the two:
- Guilt is about the uncomfortable feeling when our actions clash with our values. It’s a good and necessary thing. If I steal something, I should feel guilty. If I break something that doesn’t belong to me, then guilt is appropriate
- Shame is when you identify as that failure. Instead of “I made a mistake,” it’s “I’m a terrible person.” Instead of “Man, that girl shot me down when I asked her out,” it’s “I’m worthless.”
Sometimes we all have shame. It’s hard to put yourself out there, be it asking a woman out or talking to your priest. Because the risk is always there. If they reject me, it proves I’m worthless. If they reject me, I’ll be alone forever.
What I’ve just described is classic shame. It’s what feeds addiction and isolation and destruction. It’s what fed my life. And it still effects my life today, in profound ways. The smallest slights will cause my brain to circle and circle and circle. If something happens that feels like genuine rejection? Impossible to let it go. Impossible to move on.
I’ve got secrets. Things I’m deeply ashamed of. Some of them go back as far as seventh and eighth grade. Almost all of them, in one way or another, come down to sex. Warped ideas about sex. Shame about sex. As a teenager, my sophomore year in high school, I got involved with someone much older than I was then. As in, nearly thirty years older. Back then I just felt shame. Massive shame. Unending shame. I kept it secret from my friends and my family. I kept it secret from everyone. It was only in the last year or so that I’ve come to really understand that I was molested. That the person who had gotten involved with me at my weakest, most vulnerable moment, had taken advantage of me in a way that is criminal.
I want to talk about shame. Because of what it is, what it drives, where it ends up. Because it destroys lives. It steals from us. It takes away our openness to ourselves, to the people we love, to God. It takes everything.
For me, it’s meant – emotional isolation. From my friends. From my family. I wouldn’t put myself out there emotionally because of the terrible risk of rejection. I couldn’t share who I was inside because I didn’t want to be alone. So I didn’t talk about the things that really hurt inside. I didn’t talk about my fears. I didn’t make myself vulnerable, because vulnerability means pain.
Vulnerability is when you say “I love you” before the other person does. That is courage.
Vulnerability is when you admit your failures and weaknesses. That is courage.
Vulnerability is when you can show the chaotic, messy and emotional inner life that most of us hide out of fear.
In 1 John 4:18, we read, Perfect love casts out fear. That phrase has been rolling around in my head for months (if you’ve read Girl of Vengeance, you’ll recognize how I sometimes put my own fears and worries and shames into the mouths of my characters). Because shame, for me, resulted in fear, and fear ruled my life. Fear kept me from revealing who I was. Fear kept me from telling the truth. Fear kept me from my friends and family.
I refuse to live my life in fear any more.