Shame Can Be Crippling

I wrote in the last post that I spent my October long weekend at a conference called CV. It sounds crazy. Why would anyone give up their long weekend, those treasured days of down time, to coach young adults through the process of thinking about gospel ministry as a vocation? But over those three to four days, doing life together, we get to ask questions that would not ordinarily be asked and begin raising issues that delegates need to wrestle with if they are to consider the possibility of working in church ministry. Such is the cost and weightiness of gospel work. One theme that kept reappearing throughout the weekend was the need to deal with issues in the past that cause us shame; as one speaker said, ‘shame can be crippling’. He was talking about how shame, caused by events in our past, can stop us from taking our part in gospel work now and in the future. He put it this way, ‘The past can hinder us from fishing for men and women by the gospel.’ He is absolutely right. Past shame can destroy ministries; that shame needs to be harnessed and sorted through for the sake of our effectiveness for the gospel. We can’t afford to let shame associated with our past hinder our fruitfulness for the gospel. Yet it’s so easy to try hiding that shame when it is so entrenched internally, but eventually that shame will play out in relationships. It is only a matter of time.

I was sitting at the back of the conference when this speaker was digging into the issue of how shame can be crippling, and my mind went on a tangent. I wandered back to the beginning of this story. How shame did stop me engaging publicly at first. The courage needed to be visible when what was causing me shame could not be hidden. I’m thankful that I’ve lived this story because I have gained a deeper appreciation for those who live with disability publicly in our communities. I’ve gained a taste of a life where taking a deep breath to step out of the house is required for each day. In the past, I have sat beside beds in neurosurgery and trauma wards of a Melbourne-based hospital, as a chaplain-in-training, and listened to stories of shame caused by trauma. I’ve offered words that now seem so empty to me. But now I know. I know what it is like living life in public with the shame of no longer being whole physically. And there have been consequences of my spinal cord injury that are not visible and cause just as much shame. The temptation at the beginning was to keep what cannot be seen hidden, even from my specialists. Such was the shame and humiliation that could have stopped me from receiving the help I needed to get on with life each day. As a result of my experience over the past five months, a thread of thought that is woven throughout this story is that shame can hinder those with disabilities from engaging with life; shame can be a barrier that stops us from truly living. And I don’t believe this is true just for those of us who have disabilities that are visible to the eye. This is just as true for those who have invisible illnesses.

As I have wrestled with the shame I experience in public, the challenge has been to harness the power shame has over me. This doesn’t mean that the shame has disappeared, but that I am learning to not let the shame control me, my choices and my priorities. This journey has taught me the necessity of standing up even when I don’t want to because of the shame that threatens to overwhelm me internally. The turning point was when I realised that the shame begins with me. This shame is not caused by other people or their reactions to my situation. It is purely me. The dissonance I feel too deeply between what I know I was, active and super-mobile, and what my appearance is now, slow and walking with help. Realising that this shame starts with me, I am learning how to be real about it, not burying it beneath a self-assured appearance.

So the speaker’s challenge caused me to step back. I needed to do some sorting, again. This time not sorting through the trauma, but sorting through the shame, not just for the sake of my vocation, but for the sake of living. I’ve said this before, and I will continue to say it. This takes audacity and courage. So just as the speaker at this conference had the temerity to confront eighty young adults about shame in their lives that could stop them from moving forward in the future, here is my challenge to you, my reader. Deal with shame from the past or in the present, whether it be small or seemingly insurmountable, because a great tragedy of this age is when shame hinders us from truly living.