Last Friday, I “went” to a meeting of the Transforming Shame group. This is a collection of researchers, pastors, missionaries and others with an interest in the interface between shame and the Christian faith. One of the things we talked about was how the current lockdown in the UK had affected us or people we knew in terms of shame. And there are so many aspects…
Shame can be generated in many ways, and one of them is feeling like you’ve failed to live up to who you ought to be. So there’s a strong link between shame and our image of ourselves, our perceived identity. For many of us we get our identity from our jobs and our production – there’s a reason that one of the first questions we ask a new person is “What do you do?” Lockdown has taken a hatchet to our production identities – for some because of loss of employment or furloughing means we’re just not doing anything any more. (and financial insecurity might lead to the shame of not being able to provide for family.) But almost all of us are having our productivity disrupted, and that can be source of feelings of shame and failure as well.
For others, our identity is determined by our relationships, the people we connect with. An identity based on relationships does seem healthier than one built on production – if you look carefully at the order in Genesis, we were created first to be in relationship, then to be at rest, and only then to be productive. But again, lockdown has taken all that away, and people can be suffering a loss of identity when they don’t have those relationships around any more. I don’t know if this is shame so much as grief, but it was something we all identified with.
Both of these things reminded me again how important it is to help people root their identity in the image God has of them.
We’re meant to get our identity by looking up to God, not from those around us, or even by looking inside ourselves. Calvin’s Institutes begins by saying that “man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” As we look upwards to God, and hear His voice speaking out His evaluation of us – “created in our image, in our likeness”, “very good” – we get our true identity from Him.Chapter 5, You are not your Facebook profile
We talked about more direct sources of shame too. Shame can be associated with pollution, and we talked about nurses and other front-line workers who feel like people are treating them as “unclean”, and the same for people in isolation. Many of those also have to deal with their feelings of having to rely on others and receive help from them. Those struggling with work and the demands of home-schooling are fighting feelings of inadequacy when they see friends posting on social media about wonderful days baking and making crafts with their children. The surge in domestic abuse reporting suggests a surfacing of hidden shame.
Lockdown shaming is a real thing, too, as we continue to use public pressure to shame others into compliance; the police have received nearly 200,000 reports from neighbours about people allegedly violating lockdown conditions. I know someone who posted a picture from their daily walk on Facebook, only to have friends ask if that was near their house or if they had to drive there…
Schooling and churches have moved online, but this too can be a source of shame – it relies on the assumption that everyone both has access to a computer and Internet connection, and that they know how to navigate it, and people feel ashamed and excluded if they don’t. Sometimes we make allowances for older members of our communities while assuming that younger people can transition easily to Zoom meetings – causing them shame if they are not able to.
Those of us pastors, missionaries and ministers felt additional pressures too – pressure to volunteer, help, and to make a difference, and feelings of frustration and failure if we can’t do as much as we would like, or as much as we feel people expect of us – especially if we see others around us doing more. At the same time, there is the balance of helping others and protecting our families – leaving them feeling like people might judge them if they do too much and if they do too little! (Personally I found Martin Luther’s letter to another pastor about whether to stay and help or withdraw during an epidemic very helpful – at least to know that pastors have been dealing with this insecurity for centuries!)
For leaders, there is the pressure to bring positive messages of hope to their congregation or to come up with fantastic theological musings and innovations for church and mission post-coronavirus – and feelings of failure if they can’t do that.
At the same time, I do see a couple of positive things coming out of all of this which may well change society for the better longer term. For one thing, we are seeing a blurring of the lines between the personal and the professional – we get to see everyone’s home lives during work meetings, evaluate their bookshelves, and witness their children wandering in needing attention; TV weather forecasts are overshadowed by overly-friendly dogs; and even our Transforming Shame meeting was interrupted by one person’s dog barking which scared another participant’s cat! I hope we can keep this, because I don’t think the enforced separation between personal life and professional life was ever particularly healthy. Any time we divide our identity into two and compartmentalise ourselves we are generating our own shame. Shame will be reduced if we can relate to one another as whole persons, not just the public and the private fronts.
Finally, although this lockdown is tough on our mental health (another potential source of shame), I do believe it’s also making us more aware of the need for mental wellbeing. I’m hearing more people talking about self-care and about the fact that they need to be kind on themselves at this time. I really hope we keep that, because it’s something that we’re going to need.
As usual, very few of these deep thoughts are actually my own; thanks to the members of the Transforming Shame group for a very stimulating, and personally freeing, discussion.