I just read an article by James Bowler, S.J., entitled Shame: A Primary Root of Resistance to Movement in Direction. There were a few things that I really appreciated, one being his description of laying on layers of internal messages to cover up the heart of the shame. So often, this is the case that we have multiple tapes that get played in our heads, most often negative ones, that keep us in bondage from our liberated, free, and fresh self. As I looked at our little baby this morning, I see his eyes, which though only 6 weeks old, look timeless and eternal. He is so free from all these layers. Just watching. And I think about my eyes, and my ears, and what I have witnessed. Not to mention what gets played in my head about all of those experiences as well. This is where shame starts playing out.
The other thing that was very helpful was his mention of the Enneagram. This has been such a major tool in my own movement into moving past, or at least being aware of, my own coping strategies. As a 9, my tendency is to numb out in avoidance of all stress or anxiety. And there really are endless ways that I do this… mostly leading me to a place of nearly always being unable to focus on the moment at hand. In this, I find my own shame. So many of us have these coping strategies, that get us away from the stress or the dis-harmony that comes from our shame.
Bowler also makes a distinction between guilt, unhealthy shame, and healthy shame, which he calls “discretionary” shame. In my own reflection and in my listening with others, I don’t know that I would spend much time on guilt, as it is an indicator and nothing more. Guilt is like the feeling I get from burning myself or stubbing my toe. I might do this over and over again, which is bound to happen, but it is what I tell myself as a result that leads to unhealthy shame. Pain does not have to be a constant feeling, just as guilt does not have to be a constant feeling. Accept it and move on, learning from the situation.
Negative shame is when I beat myself up for, or continue to dwell on and recall, the moments of guilt. Discretionary shame, as Bowler writes about it, is an existential awareness and recognition of our place before God and our commonality with other humans. It is like a state of humility, a remembrance that we are “not yet.” But it is far from beating ourselves up and it is far from guilt. I would probably not call it shame, however the idea is the same. We do need a deep awareness and humility that we are not yet… we are still becoming. This give us compassion for each other and a deep longing for union with the God that invites us into himself.