Re-Wiring Shame

When discussing what draws us towards healing, growth and renewal and what holds us back, shame claims a place in the conversation.  For some, it’s not original sin thinking (“all people are inherently bad”) but shame (“I in particular am inherently bad”) that holds them back.   My study group is blessed with a woman who has deep insights into how shame’s tentacles reach into seemingly unrelated parts of one’s life.   “Childhood tapes” are what she calls the messages, for better or worse, deeply ingrained from one’s upbringing.  Sometimes the tapes say that you’re not good enough, that you have to earn love, or that you will never do or be enough.  The feeling of being bad—the person not the behavior—is shame. 

There’s a difference between shame and remorse.  When we look back on past choices, we will feel proud of some of them.  We will also change our mind about some of the choices we made.  That’s what it is to repent—to rethink our choices and to change our minds about some of them.  Once we see the moral weakness in our choices, it is natural to feel regret for them.  We might feel a separation from God.  We might even feel a separation from ourselves, or the self we desire to be.  Remorse is a sign of hope because it signals a change of heart.  It’s the very seed of life change, and God plants it. 

Healthy remorse says, “I made a bad choice,” rather than, “I am bad.”  The latter inhibits healing in several ways.  First, it implies my condition is static, and that is inaccurate.  Popular Buddhist activist, author and monk Thich Nhat Han repeatedly expresses the idea that anything is possible as long as one is alive.  When I say, “I made a bad choice,” I open myself to the other possibilities that were present.  When I say, “I am bad,” I close myself off to them, both in the past and in the future.  Second, when I tell the person I offended, “I am bad,” perhaps hoping for some form of protest, I am warning her to expect a repeat performance.  “I made a bad choice,” accompanied by genuine remorse, gives the person I offended reason to hope for better in the future.  Finally, whereas “I made a bad choice,” can lead to feelings of guilt and healthy remorse, “I am bad,” leads to feelings of shame.

When we grow into a pattern of shame from childhood, the impulse that triggers shame may be wired to a deeply rooted survival impulse.  Perhaps bowing down to “I am bad” statements was the only way to survive a parent’s wrath.  Or maybe accepting blame was the path of least resistance.  In either case, a child might develop a reflex—an unthinking habit rather than a thoughtful response—of shouldering wrongs that belong to another.  When we realize shame is connected to a primal survival impulse, we can understand how it has the ability to reach into all aspects of life.   Despite the deep hold shame can have on a psyche, it can be disconnected.  It requires a thoughtful inventory of the impulses that trigger shame and mindfulness to replace unconscious habits with intentional responses.  It will take effort.   Ask for God’s help, and let him do the miracle of making it enough.

Join the conversation.  How do you re-wire childhood tapes from your past so that they no longer connect to your present?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Taking Aim at Original Sin

Pondering what motivates people to do the work of introspection prompts a related question:  what holds people back from introspection?  I wonder if part of the problem, for Christians at least, is the uniquely Christian concept of “Original Sin.”  

Christianity represents a great diversity of belief.  With more than 30,000 denominations worldwide, Christian beliefs diverge on literal versus allegorical interpretations of creation, the parables, the virgin birth, and physical resurrection.  Even within denominations, beliefs diverge vehemently on what kind of love is considered sinful and who is fit to serve the body of believers.  Original sin is another area where Christian beliefs diverge. 

The doctrine as we know it today was formulated by Saint Augustine and confirmed by several Catholic councils and the pope in the 4th century CE.  Original sin doctrine focuses on the Fall of Man as the central theme shaping human nature.  Some Christians today share Augustine’s belief in ancestral sin or inherited guilt and his belief that unbaptized infants go to hell as part of the doctrine of original sin.  It is worth noting that these ideas stirred controversy among Christians in the 4th century. 

If original sin is a 4th century Christian idea, you might ask, what was the earlier prevailing view—in Jesus’ time and prior to that?  Early Christians, and indeed the earliest worshipers of the God of Abraham in 9th century BCE, focused on the blessing of creation in the image of God as the central theme shaping human nature.  Jews call it b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, but Christians lack a universal name for this concept.  Matthew Fox coined the term “original blessing” in his 1983 book of that title.  

The divergence of these two views on human nature—essentially fallen and sinful versus blessed and made in the image of God—have dramatic implications for how we approach introspection in a religious context.  Original sin suggests we are unacceptable and must confess in order to become acceptable.  When we embrace b’tzelem Elohim, or original blessing to use Fox’s term, the reasons to look inward and to turn back to God become inviting, healing, and hopeful rather than punitive.  

Original blessing teaches we are radically and inconceivably loved and accepted as we are, mired in moral failure though we may be.  That knowledge of being not just accepted but fervently desired draws us closer, essentially creating the place that makes introspection safe and renewal desired.  When I embrace original blessing thinking, my motive for turning back to God is not forgiveness or a one-way ticket to life after death.  My motive is the promise of joy–God’s joy upon my returning and my joy from life change and renewal here and now.  When I was teaching a reconciliation workshop recently, a participant asked me why original sin dominates Christian thinking.  I wonder how dominant it actually is.  

Join the conversation.  What do you hear in the still small voice—original sin or original blessing? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Embracing Introspection

A former colleague recently did me the great favor of reading my book manuscript.  We had lunch last week, and he brought with him one paragraph had copied from the book:

 

“The particular issue that afflicts us repeatedly through many life stages might have emerged out of a family pattern rather than a wound.  For example, a home where appearances are prized over the truth suggests, subtly but inescapably, that the truth is not good enough.  Children from this kind of environment might acquire a habit of embellishing on the truth, a habit that could lead to a pattern of lying.  Underlying the deceit is a feeling of inadequacy–what I really am is not good enough.  It might lead to a life pattern of overachieving, exaggerating achievements that are impressive without magnification, and still feeling inadequate.” 

My friend has seen extraordinarily success by any measure.  He has several family members with remarkable accomplishments as well.  He enjoyed a loving and supportive upbringing, and yet this idea of inadequacy resonated with him.  In his early twenties he had felt drawn to exaggeration, a tendency he decided didn’t serve him well as he matured into his thirties, but he realized when reading this paragraph that that the feeling of inadequacy had stayed with him through his many accomplishments. 

Everyone has something to overcome from childhood—a wound, a family pattern, or a bad habit.  Overcoming those things is a part of growing up.  Although we all face the challenge, it should not be trivialized.  Personal growth takes commitment and work, and the job is not done when adolescence ends.  Honest introspection is not as easy as finding answers in external sources.  It’s not a lotion we smooth on to erase wrinkles 30 days.  It’s not a powder we sprinkle on our food that makes us lose weight effortlessly.  It’s not a quick fix and it’s not skin deep.  Indeed, introspection can cut to the core of our being.

Especially when we are comfortably situated in mid-life or later, we may resist doing the work of introspection.  I might resist it because I fear losing part of myself if I discover something need to change.  If I’m guarding secrets, I might fear confronting openly that which I have an old habit of hiding.  I might prefer keeping a painful past in storage rather than unpacking the lingering aftereffects.    If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with myself, I might fear that I won’t be able to live with the person I find if I’m honest.  Above all of these, if I feel pretty good, I might not realize how much bigger and fuller my life could be.

When facing these fears, the experience of my friend can give us hope.  It’s when we make time for introspection that we discover opportunities for healing and renewal.  He framed it perfectly: “Even though it doesn’t weigh me down, how much more joyful would life be if I were free of this feeling of inadequacy?”

Join the conversation.  What has been your experience of introspection and life change?  What motivated you to do the work?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

The Problem of Suffering

The problem of suffering in the world confounds many who seek an understanding of God.   Addiction recovery seekers who have survived childhood trauma struggle to understand a God who is all-powerful and all-good yet permits children to be victimized.  Religious missionaries and hospital chaplains of all faiths minister amid immense suffering and few answers.  The problem of suffering is a central theme in Buddhism.  The existence of suffering is a feature of the human experience that transcends all faiths and traditions.  How do we reconcile the ideas that God is all-powerful, God is all-good, and evil exists?  

One way to approach the problem is to assume God is all-powerful, and in his desire for relationship, God cedes power to beings in the gift of free will.  A free choice is actually a false choice if the outcome is controlled.  Free will choices have consequences that, in the spirit of true freedom, God may decline to control.  Certainly much of the world’s suffering can be attributed to human choices.  That doesn’t answer questions about the physical world, though, such as why an all-powerful God allows the earth to evolve in a way that includes earthquakes and tsunami’s and birth defects.  Certainly those aren’t the product of human choice.  Even acquiescing to the idea that some humans might have some limited ability to choose to avoid those realities does not answer the question of why destructive forces exist.  This reality leads us to question God’s goodness.  

The question of God’s goodness reminds me of a needlepoint canvas.  My grandmother was a prodigious master of needlepoint.  Sitting at her knee, I gazed up at the underside of her canvases.  They had loose threads and frayed ends.  The colors did not form tidy shapes.  Sometimes a pattern could be made out roughly, and sometimes it was indecipherable.  Yarns stretched illogically across the back of the canvas.  Invariably, though, she produced gorgeous works of art, always balanced in color and theme.   

Our suffering might be like that.  We may see knots and frayed ends.  There may be a thread woven through the fabric of life that has inflicted intense suffering or shame.  If viewed alone, that thread is not pleasing or artistic.  It might be an ugly color or trace a broken line.  It does not stand alone, however, and the canvas might not ultimately be as beautiful and balanced without it.  Sometimes from our vantage point, we cannot see how our suffering weaves into life to produce anything good at all.   

Where we cannot see goodness, however, we can have faith in goodness.  No physicist who seeks a deeper understanding of the universe believes his perception is all there is.  There is reality that lies beyond human perception.  There is mystery, and that mystery is a source of hope.  When we cannot perceive the meaning in our or another’s suffering, we can have faith that God is other, not limited to seeing the underside of the canvas as humans are, and that he gathers all the loose and frayed ends and uses them for good. 

Join the conversation.  What inspires hope in the face of suffering for you?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved

A Time for Healing

No one escapes injury in life, receiving it or inflicting it.  Many experience wounding early, and their woundedness launches patterns that re-scrape old scars.  For some, the childhood injuries are so devastating we wonder how anyone could have survived.  Some not only survive, they go on to thrive and to make remarkable contributions to their professional fields and to society.  Others experience seemingly trivial wounding, yet they appear paralyzed by it, unable to move on or to be productive.  Each person’s experience of wounding is unique, as is our response to it.  How do we take back control and reclaim life when wounds seem to have control over us?

Few people had control over the wrongs they endured in childhood.  Some were innocent victims of crime.  The connection between childhood trauma and adult addiction is overwhelming and tragic.  Many Twelve Step addiction recovery seekers who survived childhood abuse report grave difficulty with the A.A. Big Book assertion that, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.” Some abuse survivors want nothing to do with the kind of God that could let a child be victimized. 

As adults, however, we do have control over our actions.  Unhealed wounds impair how we treat others.   When I have cognitive and emotional energy devoted to protecting open sores, my impulse may be to protect first.  That energy and impulse to protect first limits the field of options within my reach.  It takes some of the options off the table.  My first impulse can’t be to reach out to someone in compassion if my first impulse is to protect myself.  Only one can be first. 

This reveals a startling choice:  we must heal or we will perpetrate.  If I fail to heal, somehow, some way, I will hurt others.  If I heal only a little, I will perpetrate only a little less.  Harm suffered gets tangled with harm done.  However, confronting wrongs done against us and by us and taking responsibility for our choices can detangle this wounded-wounding pattern.  That is empowering and a great source of hope for healing.  Further, confession—speaking aloud one’s wrongs to God and another human being—can release extraordinary healing power.  Exposing secrets frees the cognitive energy needed to keep hiding them from others and from ourselves.  Once exposed, the power secrets had over us can be reclaimed for healing.

Christian seekers might recognize these as steps to the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Jews might identify them as steps to Atonement.  Twelve Step recovery seekers might recognize them as the Fourth Step and Fifth Step.  Regardless of terminology or the tradition that frames our perspective, confession points us towards healing. 

We are presently in the time between Passover, when Jews were liberated from bondage in Egypt, and Sinai, when Jews received the Ten Commandments.  It’s a time in the Jewish calendar lyrically described as “the passage from the sea of freedom to the mountain of responsibility.”  It strikes me that healing is a passage from the sea of freedom to the mountain of responsibility as well—freedom from our wounded past and responsibility for our choices.  They go hand in hand.

Join the conversation.  How has taking responsibility for what’s in your control freed you from a wounded past?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.