Archive for the ‘shame’ Tag

The Lies that Bind   1 comment

When I was struggling with a deep sense of inadequacy and shame as a pastor in Arlington, a friend recommended a counseling couple.  As I sat with them in their living room, they explained that my poor self-worth came from believing lies, especially lies about God.  That may have been true, but it only made my sense of humiliation worse.  Not only did I feel shame, but I was wrong for feeling shame.  It is hard to hear, “You are deceived,” and feel positive about yourself, and “The God you worship is a false god,” is not particularly comforting either.

If this couple had identified with and shown empathy for my struggles, it would have made a huge difference.  They could have said, “We have all been tricked into believing lies foisted on us by family, church, and culture.  We are the victims of these deceptions.”  This may have really been their thought, but I could not get past the shame of living a lie.  When I asked Kimberly, “Doesn’t my anger or sadness or fear point to something that should not be in my heart, some skewed perspective for which I am guilty?” the question itself seems to invite a shaming answer.

“Well, did you know these beliefs were false?” she asked.  “Did you deliberately avoid the truth?  When you were at last shown the way did you run from it?”

“No,” I said, “I set my feet to it, not perfectly, but as best I could in spite of the fear and pain.”

“Yes, something is in your heart that should not be there, just like Somali pirates should not be on oil tankers, but you are no more guilty of it than the ship’s captain.  You did not create this darkness, but are rather victimized by it.  Don’t shame yourself for these lies which deceived you, but have compassion on yourself for the harm you still suffer because of them.”

Such soothing words of grace!  If I keep shaming myself for my struggles, it will push me away from God’s grace.  I’m afraid that if I openly admit what a mess I am, God will agree and put me on the bench till I get my act together.  Instead he embraces me and says, “I’ve been waiting for you to discover your wounds and show them to me so that I can begin to heal them.”

Emotions often reveal the unhealthiness of my heart.  If I rebuke and punish myself for this junk, I become more lost in the mazes of my shame and more afraid of the truth.  I’ve discovered that when I show myself compassion, like a child who is sick, the truth loses its monster mask and I am much more able to open my heart to it.  The truth comes to me as a companion and help rather than a testy and impatient headmaster.


Posted August 6, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

Tagged with , , , ,

Good and Bad Emotions?   21 comments

After dozens of conversations I started to understand that Kimberly believed feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are.  “Excuse me, but haven’t you read in the Scriptures all the evil that comes from anger?”  I respond.

“Well,” she says, “if God himself gets angry, it can’t be all bad.”

“Ah, yes, but everyone knows there is ‘righteous’ anger and ‘unrighteous’ anger.  If you start feeling the bad kind, you are sinning, and must stop feeling that way.  You can get angry for the wrong reasons or for the right reasons, and you should not get angry for the wrong reasons, so if you do, you have to repent.”  She clearly did not believe the childhood morality I was taught.

“So,” she responded, “if emotions can be immoral, it means you choose them or refuse them.  Is that how your emotions work?  Because my feelings come without thinking, often without warning.”

“No,” I reply, “you can’t control your initial emotional reactions, but you can choose to hold onto them or to let them go.”

“And how do you let them go?”

“You tell yourself they are wrong and think of all the reasons why you shouldn’t feel that way, and you can talk yourself out of those feelings.”

“So, Jani, basically you should all over your feelings… you beat down your emotions with the law?”

Long pause as I think about this.  I decided long ago that motivating myself with shame is a bad idea.  Is that what I was doing?  Wasn’t I just listening to my conscience, examining myself, and repenting?  Should I not feel guilty for wrong feelings and stop myself from having them?  I knew I didn’t have total control over my emotions, but I had enough control to force out the bad ones. I had done it many times.

“I guess I agree with you that my motivation should not be legalistic.  So maybe I should work from the motivation of wanting good relationships, and everyone knows anger pushes people apart.”

She responded, “In my family, politeness was a much greater threat to true connection than anger.  I have often seen anger bring people closer together because it forces honest communication and each person ends up telling the other person how they really feel.  What do you think makes anger bad?”

“Well, you don’t like me getting angry at you!”

“It is not your anger that is a problem for me, but your blaming me.”  Okay this REALLY does not make sense.  If she was not to blame, why would I get angry?  Getting angry over an innocent behavior is just wrong.  How can you possibly separate anger from blame?  If there is anger, someone is to blame!  How could she say that all feelings are legitimate?

“So you think there is nothing wrong with being angry as hell at an innocent person?” I ask.

“Well, what do you mean by ‘wrong’?” she responds.  “If you mean ‘are some emotions immoral,’ then I would say no.  If you mean ‘are my emotions accurate or correct,’ I would say it depends on what you are measuring.  Feelings are unreliable interpreters of someone else’s behavior (your rage does not prove that I’ve done something wrong).  But feelings are great interpreters of your heart if you listen to them carefully.  Emotions always tell you something about yourself rather than about the other person.”

Wow, that’s really a revelation to me.  She is delinking my negative feelings from her culpability, a bond I thought inseparable.  I could only imagine my anger being justified if she were truly at fault, but she is insisting that my feelings of anger are legitimate in themselves, even if she has done nothing wrong, nothing “deserving” of anger.  They are legitimate for the very reason that they do not measure her misconduct… they simply alert me to what is going on in my heart, and do so quite accurately.  If I merely shove my anger away or talk it down without considering what it is telling me, I can gain nothing from it.

After mulling this over for awhile I ask, “Okay, so maybe emotions are not evil in themselves and are just a gauge of my heart, but aren’t some of them a gauge of my bad heart?  Doesn’t my anger or sadness or fear point to something that should not be in my heart, something for which I am guilty?  And isn’t it possible to hold on to or nurse these negative feelings and so keep myself under their power?  And doesn’t it matter how I express my feelings?”  I was determined to prove my “negative” feelings were bad in some way!

Posted August 5, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , , , ,

When Being Late is Good   Leave a comment

I am in the D.C. metropolis right now (Arlington, actually) to get a passport and visa to India.  As you may have read in an earlier post, India was my spiritual Titanic, and preparing to return there has opened up some very deep gashes that I have tried hard to ignore for the last decade.  I was already scheduled for an appointment at the DC office a month ago because I thought my passport was over 15 years old.  The morning I was to leave for Washington, I discovered a newer passport in my “legal id” folder and cancelled my appointment, only to realize some time later that my unmarried name was in my current passport and had to be updated.

While I was still trying to deal with the stormy emotions rising out of my impending trip to Calcutta, I banged up our car and was handed a warrant of arrest for hit-and-run.  For the last two weeks I’ve been trying to settle my quaking mind and heart.  It really was a huge hit to my sense of vulnerability to a completely unpredictable world.

I left at 6:10 a.m. this morning to come here to the District for my noon appointment at the passport agency.  I’ve barely left enough time to get the passport, Indian visa, and plane ticket and complete the trip to Kolkata before my library work starts in late August.  As I drove this morning I thought about my stupidity in not realizing I had to change my name on the passport.  I was tempted to berate myself for waiting so long to take the necessary steps in preparing.  I know it will be hard for my Indian brothers if I can’t go until the winter school break.  I was stupid, I was late, it was my fault, others might suffer… it was a prime circumstance for shaming myself, something that would, in the past, have consumed my whole trip to D.C.  That practice of self-shaming often made me more careful and conscientious in the future, but in the process damaged my soul, pushing me away from grace into legalism.

But this time I discovered with some pleasure and relief that I was not castigating myself for my stupidity and lateness, I was purposely seeing myself with as much compassion as I would feel for another in that situation.  Yes, I am more scatterbrained than most.  I easily miss or forget or misconstrue some pretty obvious things that most others would probably notice.  That is who I am.  I take steps to compensate, but when I fail anyway, it is not from malice or negligence.  Being “stupid” in that way is one of my weaknesses, and it is going to trip me up more often than it will most others.  My friends will need to exercise more patience towards me in this regard as I must exercise more patience for them in other regards.

Allowing myself the human right to work through my high-decibel emotions over the criminal charge was an important healthy direction for me.  In the past I would have denied my own needs in favor of others, told my emotions to shut up, and marched forward with grit and determination.  In my experience, peace and good do not spring from such a mindset.  I gave myself the time I needed to settle down before facing another emotionally charged task here in D.C.  My coming late here was a very positive step in my learning to rest in God’s grace for my weaknesses.  Instead of shame, it is a joy to see myself moving further into the ocean of grace, and I trust God to care for what outcomes may follow.

Posted July 20, 2011 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

I Am Handicapped   5 comments

This is the internationally recognized symbol ...Our accident brought some of my handicaps into the spotlight.  First of all, I am not a multitasker in any sense of the word.  I do very well concentrating on one task, but if a second is added, one of them will get seriously neglected.  Furthermore, I get trapped in the mazes of my own brain.  If I am reflecting deeply (which is mostly the only kind I do), I better be engaged in a physical task that can be accomplished on auto-pilot.  My problem is not drinking and driving, but  thinking and driving.  I’m being quite serious.

I can’t turn off my brain unless the activity I am involved in requires my complete mental attention (such as taking a test).  I have often come close to stuttering to the roadside on empty because I can only force myself to think, “Stop for gas!” for about 30 seconds before I am off in some other world.  On the way to the lake last week, my wife suddenly asked me if I had taken the right exit… I couldn’t remember.

I guess this has been a problem for some time, since Kimberly tells me that when we first met, I drove straight through a red light without realizing it… I don’t remember.  The one area where it has come out most prominently in my driving is failing to notice things ahead that require me to slow down or stop.  I do fairly well on my own, though it regularly calls for an uncomfortably quick stop, but when I get further engrossed by conversing with Kimberly, I am downright dangerous.  Many times Kimberly has had to warn me of things up ahead which I am approaching too quickly.

The accident forced me to realize that it is not enough for me to try harder to concentrate on driving, but I really have to take a serious action step.  I haven’t talked to Kimberly about it yet, but I think when we are driving in traffic together, she needs to be behind the wheel.  I usually drive because she prefers not to.  Also, as I told her on the way back from our accident, “I’m only 50, but I’m going to have to start driving like a geezer.”

A second serious handicap of mine is that I don’t notice the need for a change (in practical matters) unless I am forced to see it.  I will be semi-conscious of a problem, but will keep performing the same old routines without ever consciously making a decision to do so.  It niggles somewhere on the outskirts of my mind, and may take a very long time, sometimes too long, to burrow up to the level of conscious deliberation.  I “should” have realized this driving issue as a real problem and looked for a solution long ago.  We knew it was a problem, but it never occurred to me to make a significant change… I just kept trying to do better using the failing system.

I’m not beating up on myself.  I put “should” in quotation marks because I don’t really think it was negligence on my part; it is part of who I am.  We all have handicaps, and we do well to recognize them.  God not only gave us all strengths, but he deliberately created us with weaknesses as well.  I think this was his way of making us interdependent, of tying us together in community.  Our weaknesses are not “bad” things, they are just part of who we are and who we will always be.  I may be able to improve or compensate for my weaknesses, but if I try to quash them or force them into conformity, I am being false to the way God created me.  I have believed this very late in life and have suffered a great deal for not recognizing it earlier, but that must wait for another post.  As L’Arche says, the world is not divided into those with handicaps and those without; we are all disabled and badly in need of the gifts of others.

Posted July 13, 2011 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

Anguish   18 comments

It does not cost me much to report on my experiences and feelings after the fact.  It is more difficult for me to share in the moment, to invite others into my journey when I am still in the quagmire.  I am more vulnerable in such times, so I ask those who leave comments to this post to be especially gracious in what they say.

I have been in a great deal of turmoil the last few days over my expected visit to Calcutta.  India was my emotional Waterloo, an inescapable, pervasive black hole.  I’m pretty sure these current feelings stem from very deep, unresolved issues while I was a missionary that tapped into an ocean of inadequacy.  I did not learn Bengali well… I was so ethnocentric, seeing their culture as inadequate… I failed to make any significant impact even though I nearly died trying… I was arrogant… I was stupid… I was closed to input….   “I’m a failure, a failure, a failure” was the heavy drumbeat that struck against my soul throughout each day.

I had no weapon with which to challenge these beliefs, no argument great enough to disprove my self-condemnation.  I thought my self accusations were a mark of true and deep repentance.  Here is an example from the journal I kept in India, castigating myself for sleeping till 5 a.m. instead of rising at 4 o’clock to pray:

Oh, Lord, break me.  Break this wicked pride so steeped in deceit. Break the great evil of my indiscipline – great because it keeps me from knowing you and seeking you and loving you with my whole heart.  Lord, how can you possibly use me in this city, or in the lowest ministry, if I am not wholly given over to the infilling, anointing and outpouring of your Spirit?  Oh, Lord have mercy on this foolish and hopeless child of yours. I have no strength of my own, Lord.  I know I am completely bankrupt.  I know how many times over and over I have failed you in the same things.  It is a wonder that you still love me Lord.  What an amazing love is yours!  How much you deserve a better child than I.  Make me fit to bear your name in this world or take me out of it, Lord.

When I returned from Asia, I was so broken that my only hope of functioning was to push all thoughts of that time aside, not deal with them, ignore them as best I could.  I quarantined that huge section of my heart because I was too soul sick to deal with it in any kind of healthy way.  Of course those self-condemning thoughts did not simply disappear, but festered in the dark, chewing like termites on my spirit.  The less aware I was of them, the more easily they could undermine my sense of worth.

And as I open that Pandora’s box again, I find my life energy draining away and a settled anguish taking it’s place.  I feel I am picking up a burden too great to bear.  I thought I was emotionally ready (barely) to visit Calcutta again.  I wonder.  Perhaps this is God’s divine timing to draw me into facing this great vortex of shame.  I would ask for your prayers as I wade into the river Styx

Posted June 30, 2011 by janathangrace in Personal

Tagged with , , ,

Lost   Leave a comment

I have driven some roads so often that they become like grooves or ruts in my subconscious, and if my mind is working on a tricky problem, I may end up on my home street with an empty tank instead of at the gas station where I was headed.  At the other end of the spectrum are those places I have been once or twice a long time back.  The first turn off the main road seems right… I think I remember that red mailbox… was the street named Malcolm or Mercury or… Whitmore?… wait, this is not right, I’ll try the other street.  If I am in the countryside, low on gas, and out of cellphone range, anxiety starts pricking my stomach… and rural routes are often unmarked, on signs as well as maps.

That contrast reflects my history.  I lived most of my life following the clear, unambiguous way, The Plan, until it ran me smack into the wall.  But once I realized the way ahead was not obvious, certain, simple, or predictable, I couldn’t figure out what to do.  I have a general sense of direction and a rough idea of how to proceed, but am thoroughly befuddled about how to make daily choices.  I don’t do well with ambiguity.  It makes me feel insecure, confused, and tired.  In the past, my certainty protected me, but I can no longer trust that crutch.  Some folks might advise to “just let it go,” allow myself to muddle through and make mistakes, but I don’t have enough emotional capital to freely make mistakes.  Every time I make a wrong turn, I run out of gas and clunk to a halt or avoid running out of gas by dropping to a crawl.

One of the serious handicaps I work with is a history of denying, ignoring, shaming, and attacking my own needs and desires.  By the time I reached adulthood, I no longer knew what was or was not good for my soul, or rather I strongly believed that the poison I constantly fed myself was the best of vitamins.  After 40 years of feeding myself a smorgasbord of shame, I am tone deaf to my own needs, and every choice seems to be lined with pitfalls.  If I push myself to do some unwanted task, will I be stoking the lie that the task is more important than I am… or conversely, if I resist doing the task will I be setting myself up for self-judgment about irresponsibility.  Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. 

The healthy third way is for me to dig down into the reason I feel reluctant to do the deed, feel compassion for my personal wants, needs, fears, confusion (i.e. receive the grace of God for who I am and what I am in right now), and out of that settled security, choose one way or the other.  Unfortunately my grasp of God’s grace is never “settled,” but is tangled up with a lifetime of skewed perspectives, twisted dynamics, and profoundly ingrained feelings.  The best faith I can muster is usually a mixed affair, and in such a situation, neither decision is going to work out well.  That is to say, down either path I will find myself fighting against a new pressure to feel shame.  Even if I come out on top of that fight, I will be exhausted, and have little strength for the next round.  In the main, I am growing in grace, but so slowly and with such toll that I usually feel I am barely holding on.

I do have eddies of peace or splashes of joy along the way, but that is not the flow of my life, and no amount of positive thinking will make it so.  My hope is that grace will one day make a deep and strong enough current in my heart to buoy me through the rapids.

It helps to talk about it.  Thanks for listening.

Posted February 16, 2011 by janathangrace in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,