26 June 2008

Once More To The Couch

I’m confused.

That’s not unusual of course, more normal than not. My moments of clarity are rare.

A friend and colleague delivered a very telling essay yesterday, strong in both insight and challenge.

The insight was that many people in churches, especially the kind I serve, are hobbled by a deep sense of shame. She, my colleague, deftly distinguished guilt I (the usual thing we associate with religion) from shame as saying that guilt comes from what you do and shame comes from what you are.

Shame is the deeper and more destructive of the two. I know this from experience.

She then went on to observe that shame ironically produces more shame, in that those who carry it then go on to give it, in which those who feel ashamed do not overcome it so much as try to bring everyone else in on it. Shamed people feel worthless, as it were, and so should everyone else. It’s a kind of existential nihilism that religious liberals see in the sometimes aggressive hostility to religiosity some of our folks display. They say they are only being honest, but in fact they are also relishing their power to shame others for their foolish beliefs.

I am not speculating here. Years ago I learned about Erik Erikson, and his revised Freudian scheme that said each stage in life was a series challenges. One was what he called “autonomy versus shame and doubt.” It emerges when we are toddlers and trying to master our bodies, especially our bowels. The admission price to belong to society as an autonomous individual is the ability to control our bowels.

Notice, though, the word “doubt.” Shame and doubt go together. To feel ashamed is to be in severe doubt of your own powers and autonomy. Those who live in a state of constant self doubt cannot but come to doubt everything else.

Lest you think those reared within liberal religion are spared all this I can assure you the shame and self doubt are equal opportunity afflictions. My sense of self doubt is profound, and as much as I have plumbed its depth and breadth (which includes therapy and study and recollections all the way back to my toddler days) it is now woven through my entire identity.

That’s why I am confused. She seemed to say we need to overcome our shame to thrive and I am not sure it can be done. As I told a colleague and counselor I consulted a few years back, I am not sure I even want to do it now. Much as a someone disabled from birth creates an identity that includes that disability, so my identity includes my shame and doubt. I have labored long and hard to accept my flawed and strugglesome self. To give that up would be a second shame and second rejection.

I suspect that we are all disabled spirits, some more and some less and a rare few with no scars. No question I feel an infantile resentment for those who are more at home in their skins and feel genuine schadenfreude when they trip a bit. But in my larger moments, when I know we are all walking wounded and that the real miracle is that we continue to hope and wish and wonder despite all the scoldings and contempts we have borne, then I take heart.

Would that I had more of those moments. They are too rare. As the unnamed man of scripture said so long ago, “Lord I believe! Help thou my unbelief.”


Anonymous said...


You have outdone yourself. The amount of self-revelation in this one blog has "helped my unbelief".
I am so glad that I know you and that I am a member of FSC, your church. I feel proud and honored that I belong.

Michael Crawford

WFW said...

Thanks friend. Just stumbling and fumbling through life, and over the years it has dawned on me that I am better off not trying to hide it or justify it. Glad I guessed right.