My friend and colleague, Sam Jolman, recently shared this reflection with our church. It speaks to some of the deepest places in our hearts, the places that paradoxically long to be seen and be hidden. Sam is an excellent counselor and wonderful man of God. To follow his blog or learn more about him, you can visit his website here.
I try to force myself but I can’t.” James Frey
“Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” Psalm 34:5
I actually had one of those dreams once – the “being naked in front of people” dreams. The setting was my old place of employment, the Christmas party no less. Everyone mingled about, in holiday attire, snug in their sweaters, sipping eggnog. And there I stood, in the midst of all my coworkers, in my birthday suit naked as the day I was born, desperately trying to find my way out of sight. Everything they say about these dreams is true – it feels absolutely horrible. Embarrassing doesn’t touch it. Sheer terror would be a more fitting description. Like a heart attack of fear. Or facing a firing squad of eyes. I remember thinking I could never, ever see my coworkers again. I woke to reality, thank God, but the feelings lingered long after my morning coffee.
That dream has a story to it: I got that job when I was very young and it was a leadership position, leading folks almost entirely older than me. More than just feeling under qualified, I felt totally inadequate for it. Any day it seemed the higher ups would discover I was actually getting paid, shriek in horror on their way to my office, throw open the door and cry, “Get out!” Let’s just say my door was shut a lot. Is my dream making more sense now? My greatest fear was being found out. It was being seen. And in my dream, being caught naked played out all that fear. It was the eyes of the others that made it so terrible. They saw my nakedness and saw my shame.
“Who told you that you were naked?” is the most fascinating question I think God asks in the Bible (Genesis 3:11). Nakedness was not a new thing. A chapter earlier at the end of Genesis 2, Adam and Eve stood in the buck “…and they felt no shame.” They were comfortable in their own skin, in only their skin. Watch any two year old who has the chance to disrobe and you’ll get a sense of what this must have been like. Squealing delightful, unencumbered freedom! But when Adam and Eve sinned, they did introduce an awareness of nakedness. That is to say, they introduced shame. And their instant impulse was to cover up and hide, with fig leaves and then literally to go hideout from God.
Nakedness can be such a symbol of shame. When we say we “feel naked”, what we mean is we feel ashamed and exposed. Caught with our pants down, as the saying goes. Dan Allender writes, “Shame is a phenomenon of the eyes. More than anything in the world, the shamed person wants to be invisible or small so the focus can be removed, the hemorrhage of the soul stopped. Somehow the eyes of the one who sees him must be deflected or destroyed.”
In other words, shame is a relational experience, something we feel in relationships. We carry it unnoticed until we are seen, until we are in the presence of another. And then it rears its ugly head. You pick your nose just fine in the car, until that other driver pulls up next to you. Take those times you are “people watching” (a.k.a. staring at) someone else. When they turn and catch your eyes, don’t you blush and smile or, even worse, try and look away?
The worst, most destructive, absolutely deadly part about shame is how it tempts us to withdraw, cover up, run and hide. We do exactly what Adam and Eve did. And this kills connection. It kills relationship -kills it dead in that moment. Oh, the agony of this reality! We can do it a thousand ways – avoiding people, changing the subject in a conversation, getting angry with someone, laughing at something difficult, even smiling. Do this long enough and your personality becomes an elaborate way to hide. We end up living out “…all the other selves we are constantly putting on like coats and hats against the world’s weather,” as Frederick Buechner says so poetically.
Here’s the wild thing about shame: it takes relationships to heal it! The very connection it seeks to destroy is the very connection that set us free. You can’t work on your shame in a closet. As Sue Johnson says, “We define ourselves in the context of our most intimate relationships.” And if that’s true, then you can only heal from your shame by working it out with those most intimate with you, those that love you.
At our church, we take communion every week. We all file forward in big long lines to receive the bread and wine directly from the hands of another. And in this way it is a very intimate experience. My heart beats fast every time I get near to the front of the line. Why? Because of the eyes of the person that’s about to hand me the bread and wine. They stare right at you. And what can they see inside me? What must I look like to them? And right about the time I am thinking all this, I am next in line. I step forward and I am looked straight in the eye. I am seen. I am absolutely seen. And I am told, “The body of Jesus broken for you…” And then again I am looked in the eye. Again I am seen. And I am told, “The blood of Jesus shed for you.” I am seen. And I am loved. It does not get much deeper than that. Like fog rolling back against the sunlight, my shame is chased away. I walk back to my seat warmed and with tears.
Want to deal with your shame? Look people in the eyes. Let them look at you. Let people love you.