Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.
A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins: Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.
“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.
“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?
“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?
The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?
“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”
~ St. Catherine of Siena