The Currency of Shame

Chinese Crisis

“Chinese word for crisis” by Tomchen1989 – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

There is something terrifyingly good about yielding a shame-filled life. The goodness resides in the release from a yoke. My yoke looks a lot like a self-promoted perfectionism, a paper-thin shell that was all I was willing to share with the world. When I use the word “yoke” I don’t mean that in the Hebraic sense of a rabbi’s teaching, or in the yogic sense of union. Instead I mean it in the manner of a beast of burden, of a Vietnamese water buffalo pulling a sledge through manure and muck. But the terror comes from the familiarity. I would rather stay in the manure and muck. The terror comes from the fact that it’s my operating system. Historically, I have genuinely trusted no one. I chose shame instead.

Interestingly, the Chinese symbol for crisis is the merging of two signs, one meaning ‘danger’ and the other meaning ‘opportunity’. A crisis has the potential to transform or destroy. And what is the tipping point toward transformation in the face of crisis? The choice is either to cower in fear or to step forward with courage. The tipping point is brokenness rather than control.” -Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp

A genuine crisis is a fissure in the soul. Mental health and emotional health are equally important to physical health, but most would not consider a broken bone an opportunity. It would be merely danger. Along the same lines, a broken heart is likely equated with danger rather than opportunity.

But what about the far more likely scenario? The far more likely scenario for most of us modern people is no heart at all. Think about that for just 30 seconds. Give it time. Give it pause. React to the following:

my heart is broken.

Now compare that to:

I don’t have to pay attention to my heart.

Question 1: what are the emotions you feel connected to these two phrases? Are they the same emotions? Can you name the sensation each phrase creates?

Pause longer before answering Question 2. Which one feels more like your every day, every second reality? In your 24/7 world, which one do you trust, a heart that is broken or a heart that is closed off?

When I go back and do this, “my heart is broken” now (this is only recently) forces me to stop and linger. I feel something sinking in my chest. I feel my bottom lip begin to go slack. My ridiculously shrubby eyebrows droop. I would love to be video’ed to see what else my can’t-lie face tells me. When I read “I don’t have to pay attention to my heart” I still hear words instead of feelings. Okay, one word: “yep.” Because that’s my trained default. That’s the locked door. There is a moat. There’s a brute squad outside. “Good boy. Don’t go there. Move along.”

Hope terrifies me. Shame is SO much easier. It is so accessible. It is so familiar. Shame asked me to build an impostor self I will never be.

Without his permission, I want to show you PJ’s Hammock: PJ Hammock

PJ is a spiritual freedom fighter of the highest order. He basically played this heart language trick on me one September evening last year. Enjoying beers on the patio of Bristol, eating pretzels from a dog bowl, PJ leaned back and said, “Ben, you’re really efficient.” There’s naming something and then there’s naming something. The elegance of Mr. McEnroe’s naming was that he didn’t even come in the side door, but like a serpent, he had silently pried open a window and left a time-release bomb in my bedroom. I have metabolized that bomb for the last year. My efficiency is caught up in proof. Not proof of significance. Just proof for the sake of value. It’s a wounded, plaintive cry of “I’m valuable, right?” Now here is where that’s corrupt: Worth is more important than value. You can’t prove worth. Value however is an economic transaction based on the collective currency of the masses. My efficiency is my master. My efficiency has perpetuated an understanding of myself that is a fragile object held up for conventional wisdom to judge. What I can get done in a single day trusting in no one else but myself to do, boggles my colleagues. My ability to execute a project again and again and again borders on ruthlessness. I didn’t invent multi-tasking; but I consider it my burden to perfect it. When PJ said “you’re really efficient” it was the kindest non-compliment, ever. That’s why I’m showing this man’s hammock. Because for me, it’s a place of terrifying burden to consider even laying down in it for a second. What will that rest get me? How much closer to the end of my task list will I be if I close my eyes and gently rock? I mean, it’s just a pain in the ass to even get into a hammock… Do you hear my language? Is that language familiar to you?

For me, the beauty of my 18 month long crisis of identity has been getting to the place where I can actually say, my heart is broken. The pervasiveness and depth of my agreement with shame 18 months ago put me in a place where when asked about my heart, finding my heart was like trying to find a mate to one of my socks after the wash. “Well, that always happens. Can’t find it. Better go get some more at Costco. Might as well throw this one out, or just put it in the rag bin.” Pretty easy for shame to operate in that laundry room.

Back to the terror of the crisis: the bloody awful thing about the discovery of a broken heart is that it is a lifelong condition. It’s an understanding of, “if I go there, there’s no going back. Something is going to change.” Yeah.


That’s a dangerous opportunity, indeed.

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