“Self-Discovery in the Wilderness (Part Five): Shame, Self-compassion, Perfection”
Psalm 51 & Romans 7:14-21 ~ Northwood UC ~ April 3, 2022 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook
This morning’s reflection comes with a disclaimer: ‘Rough Road Ahead’ For, in the same way that we are warned about a bumpy, pot-hole laden road ahead, in a similar way we have ahead of us a grouping of profoundly difficult emotions this morning. So warning…’rough road ahead’.
It is so painful to watch! I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the ongoing war in Ukraine, that is now into its 5th week. So many conversations with the same confession “it is so painful, I cannot bear to watch.” We look on at the ongoing conflict and we lament how things could ever have come to this, in this day in age. And we are filled with so many emotions as we look at two countries at war. So, we pray; we post our thoughts on social media; we host our fundraisers; we do what we can. We offer our prayers, our money, our hopes for peace, yet our hearts break when people wage war against another. And, this morning, we consider the emotions that lie in the hearts of people during this broken time of war.
On a more personal level, our hearts break when people’s emotions turn against themselves, and their lives spiral out of control. Over the past years, we have seen a drastic rise in suicidal ideation, in other forms of self-harm, and in the harm of another. And when we read about the vulnerable life of a person whose path has taken a horrible direction, our hearts lament for what has gone so wrong. We consider what emotions lie in their hearts that could cause such destructive behaviour.
Today, we deal with what Dr. Brenee Brown identifies as some of the most dangerous of emotions. We look at the very complex emotion that many naively ‘poo-poo’ and do not heed with caution. This emotion that a growing number of psychologists are now actively warning us about is the emotion of shame. Under shame’s insidious umbrella are found many of its equally dangerous family members: guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. And, this morning, we will consider the casualties of these emotions, when left unchecked, as we work towards living that deep faith-filled life that God dreams of for each of us…God’s beloved children.
This morning’s text from the letter to the Roman church is evidence of Paul’s deep insight into the human condition and the challenges we face in living the life that we know we are born to live.. Reading Paul this morning, one might argue that he inspired what later unfolds into modern psychology. Paul speaks of this challenge we all can relate to: “I do not understand my actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do want is what I do.” And in this section of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he articulates the challenge we each face, of living faithfully, of acting amidst temptation, of living the life that we know we were created for. Paul was no saint himself. Paul, you will recall, knew firsthand of this challenge to living as God calls. Originally a persecutor of those who followed Jesus’ way, his original name was “Saul.” And then, an epiphany occurred, and the scales fell from his eyes, and he could see who he was destined to be. Paul, the one who would be supporter of the early emerging churches as he, essentially became the first Bishop. And Paul, the persecutor of the past, the one who dealt with the temptations to do good or evil, became the architect for the early church.
Paul, so helpfully articulates this inner struggle that goes on inside each one of us. Now, you might take issue. You may not have been a persecutor of others; you may not have convicted criminal offences; you may be a ‘pretty good’ person. But, what Paul speaks to in this letter, and what the emotions we deal with this morning lift up is the spiritual issue of separation from oneself. Paul is speaking to the very real challenge people encounter of living the life God dreams from them because they are separated from the source of life. For example, when your electronic device is missing its batteries, it will not work; when your car is out of gas, it will not drive; when your body has no food and water, it will not perform. And when your being becomes separated from God, you become unable to live the wonderful life that God created you for.
I wanted to hold off on using a specific word until now because this word is so steeped in church dogma. The word that we use for this disconnection with God in the church is ‘sin.’ Paul uses the concept of sin as that central separation from God that allows our behaviour to go awry. He writes: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” For Paul, the central quest of the human is to deepen that connection with God, to establish the bond that is there waiting for us with the Holy, to move further into the human-divine relationship with God. And this happens through our relationship with God through Christ. There is a long list of ‘small s sins’ named in scripture, but they all originate from that one central sin of not having a deeply established connection and relationship with God. That relationship is offered, in our understanding, through Jesus Christ. And when we have this central compass established, a deep relationship with God through Christ, we are empowered to live the richness and depth of life that God offers for us.
The parallel for this broken relationship is seen in the emotions that we explore this morning: shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment are all emotions that indicate our separation from who we are, and who we were created to be. Research is now revealing how truly dangerous these emotions can be. One study (Dr. Susan Harter What We Have Learned from Columbine” in The Journal of School Violence 2003) looked at 10 prominent high school shootings between 1996 and 1999. They found that the social media profiles of the shooters who perpetrated these horrible crimes all had very similar characteristics. They had been systematically ridiculed, taunted, teased, harassed and bullied by peers, romantic interests, teachers and school administrators. In short, they had deep feelings of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Another study (Jeff Ellison “Humiliation: Causes, Correlates and Consequences”) found that the combination of humiliation alongside bullying consistently led to suicidal and homicidal ideation. And finally, a study (Linda Hartling “Humiliation: A Nuclear Bomb of Emotions”) revealed a frightening model showing how humiliation leads to a series of reactions: social pain, decreased self-awareness, decreased self-regulation, and ultimately to violence. Dr. Brenee Brown argues that these emotions before us are among the most toxic of our age and the most underappreciated force in international relations. As we began considering the emotions that underpin a war in a distant land or the wars inside individuals who harm themselves or others, we realize that these emotions are very present. Ghanian diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kofi Annan is remembered as saying “all the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, start with the humiliation of one individual.”
What to do when such separation occurs inside the person that allows them to commit such painful action upon themselves and others? What psychologists are teaching us is what Paul spoke of all along. The less we talk about it, the more control these emotions will have over us. They hate being exposed to the light of awareness; they hate being talked about; they hate having others help. Empathy, in its various forms, is an antidote to these powerful emotions. One of the reasons that I introduced our congregation to Mindfulness Meditation is because it is such a powerful part of the solution to these powerful emotions. Kristen Neff, in her research from the Center for Mindful Self Compassion proposes that we should consistently adopt self-compassion, lest these emotions will increasingly grow. She speaks about self-compassion from three perspectives. Firstly, self-kindness is that of being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. Secondly, she encourages us not to be alone, but rather to acknowledge the shared humanity we have with others. Do not let yourself be alone in your struggle. Finally, and those of you who have practiced mindfulness meditation with me will know, mindfulness is about being non-judgmental not overidentifying. We must find a receptive mind state to observe our thoughts and feelings as they are. Not what others judge them to be.
I suspect that you have also been watching the Indigenous delegation meeting with the Pope in Rome this week. In it’s purest sense we are witnessing the true strength and resilience of a people. After such unthinkable crimes have been committed, the generations of Indigenous people who followed could be filled with these complex emotions of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Yet, the strength of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their spirit for life and healing and justice caused them to look to the light of healing and reconciliation. And so, they travelled ~ as representatives of the many, many others ~ to Rome and they shared the pains, struggles and afflictions. And the Pope finally listened. And one further step was taken away from these emotions of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. One step further towards the full life of each person living in the light of God’s grace.
I often wonder if that is what we do when we choose to come forward to the table for Holy Communion. I’m sorry, that amidst the pandemic, we can’t get up from our chairs and make that physical trek ~ on foot, with our walker, with our wheelchair ~ coming forward and choosing to take that physical step forward. And with that choice, to acknowledge the light that is in our soul waiting to light up our being. Yet, as we receive communion, in our own way we can think about the ways in which the Holy further knits us together in those places of brokenness; the ways that the light of the divine shines into those areas of darkness; the way that God’s desire that all which is broken may be mended and we may be One.