Is it possible for humans to create or invite in the possibility of a shameless society? Or, is shame an integral part of group building and maintenance, without which there would be more chaos than we currently witness?
One of the most difficult things about engaging with groups is the tendency of collectives to try to shame people into conformity. I learned this lesson early in life due to some elements of my “outsider-ness”. In the beginning I took it personally. “Mommy, why don’t the other kids like me?” But, over time I started to observe that most of the people who were trying to shame me were only doing what they had been taught to do by those who influenced them. Once I noticed this pattern, I saw it everywhere. Shame. Shame. Shame. Even when I didn’t know that particular label for what I was observing, I could recognize the behavior and there didn’t seem to be one person who was not doing it on some level. But why?
I think about this a lot as a parent because I do not like the idea of people shaming my children into group conformity. To the highest degree that I can, I want my daughters to know that they are amazing gifts of presence in this world and that bringing their full selves to a situation is the greatest gift they can offer. I desire for them to look at themselves in the mirror and see that they are of infinite value and to never be ashamed for anyone.
My mindset is if the group doesn’t accept you, then you are better off without them–even if the group is family. I want them to not need me or my approval to know their worth. If I can give them that gift I will be grateful. First and foremost, I believe that they are created according to God’s design. That is where their value comes from and not by being included in a group that wants them to believe that they are nothing without their acceptance. My job is to offer them that guidance and to trust that it will be there for them when they need it.
Recently life tested me to see how I was doing at my job. As we were waiting for the school doors to open the other day, I noticed that my oldest was holding a New Testament my mother had given her. I asked her if she meant to bring it on purpose. She said she did. My first thought was to tell her to give it to me or put it in her backpack and not to show it to anyone. It was because I wanted to protect her from people who might get offended by it or make assumptions about her being a PK and possibly shame her. I also checked myself to see if I wanted to protect myself from the assumptions that I put her up to carrying it. In those brief moments as we waited for the school doors to open, I weighed all the options and decided not to protect her or myself based on the fear of being shamed. Instead I just hugged her, kissed her forehead, and said, “You’re awesome, shine your light, and be Calista.”
Tame the Shame
If you have ever been in a relationship of any kind, chances are you have been shamed. Often it is the people who are supposed to love you the most that shame you most often and most devastatingly. The saddest thing about shame that I have observed is that often people who have been shamed the most will be the ones most likely to internalize it and shame others. Many of them will also become the very ones to serve as the surrogate shamers of their abusers or oppressors. How horrible is that?
Determined to not be a part of this cycle, I meditated deeply on shame and its possible sources for years and I came up with this hypothesis that helps me put shame into perspective. It goes like this:
Originally shame was a useful tool meant to save people’s lives by making sure that they knew to stay with the group. At a time when it was extremely difficult to survive in the world alone, people thought that they were doing others a favor by trying to keep them in the group–to keep them safe. Shame began where the boundaries of social safety ended. And, I bet it worked well for a time too. That’s probably why it so pervasive across cultures. For me it even makes sense why religions tend to use it so much. Shame can essentially be seen as a cohesion device. At least that is what I told myself and continue to tell myself when I am working on forgiving people who resort to shame in order to keep me in the place they are most comfortable seeing me in or if I catch someone shaming someone I love. I tell myself, “They are afraid and are simply trying to establish boundaries. If they knew I was not a threat, they would change.” Still, this doesn’t mean I’m going to conform if to do so means functioning in a capacity that is less than what God is inviting me into.