One Saturday, I stopped by my local coffee shop for an iced caramel macchiato. The girls behind the counter chatted with me, asking my name, how my day was going. They were so nice that I left the shop enthused. I walked to my white car and my waiting husband.
As I lifted the door handle and peeked in the car, body poised to hop in, I noticed a woven handbag on the seat. Lifting my eyes to the driver, I noticed it was not my husband, but a very confused lady, whose mouth was agape in shock.
I quickly murmured, “Oh! Sorry!”
I slammed the door and bolted to my car….parked two spaces over. I yelled to my husband, “Drive!” as I could sense the poor woman in the other vehicle watching me.
She probably saw my glowing red cheeks as Thomas pulled us away in our car. I sank lower in my seat, trying to make myself invisible, trying to hide the humiliation.
This was not the first time that I have made a social faux pas or generally have committed a “lack of knowledge” crime.
I have locked myself out of my house, and had to call a landlord for a key.
I have locked up my car’s steering wheel…and had to call my dad (who lived in Germany at the time) to guide me through the steps to unlocking said steering wheel.
I have stepped from a perfectly sound vehicle and fallen on my back on an icy parking lot of a church, while friendly greeters stared at me from the front steps, their faces worried while also holding in laughter.
I have attempted to ski a mountain well beyond my skill level and had to be rescued by the ski patrol, taken up the mountain rather than down it (due to proximity), and placed on the ski lift, going down, while other skiers watched on their rides upward.
Each of these events have been badges of honor, in my mind. Hysterical stories to recount over a glass of wine with girlfriends, tears running down our cheeks from my clumsiness, my inattention to detail, my ineptness.
And then there are the embarrassing moments that aren’t so comical.
The times where we can’t laugh until our sides hurt.
The moments where our stomach lurches because we know we have messed up.
When my chest constricts with the ache of life just plain gone awry.
When someone said I was fat.
When I got dressed up for a date who never showed up.
When I betrayed a confidence.
When I failed to meet deliverables for my work.
When I spoke ill-fated words to a loved one.
Enter the old nemesis of shame. These embarrassing moments are painful experiences because we know deep inside us that we messed up.
We aren’t good enough.
We aren’t smart enough.
We aren’t strong enough.
Skinny enough. Wise enough. Sauvé enough. Cool enough.
Shame propels us down the slippery slope of negativity. Didn’t go to the right school. Grew up in the wrong neighborhood. Missed out on experiences. Because we are always missing a piece to some random, unnamed puzzle, we foster a continual sense of deficiency.
No wonder anxiety is on the rise in our culture.
We can’t keep up with each other. We can’t be perfect all the time. Being human is about being flawed, yet we hold each other to overly high standards. It’s as though we have no room to fall. No space to slip up. No time for exploration of weaknesses. No opportunity for evolution.
As much as the hard moments of awkwardness have shaped me, I still want to live without the shame factor. What if, when our faces are in the dirt, seeds are planted for something new? What if these great humiliations reveal more of our true selves? What if we opened ourselves up to look past the hilarity and the red faces and find the core reason behind it all? What if I could learn to sit through discomfort without reflecting it inwardly to me?
This would change the game of shame versus grace.
Author Richard Rohr, in an interview a few years ago, stated that he prays for “one great humiliation per day.” I’ve stumbled over his words so often. Why would anyone ask for humiliation—I get it all by myself, no help required, thanks. The spotlight on my glowing cheeks isn’t an experience I enjoy repeating.
But, as I ponder what Richard meant underneath the premise of his words, I think I understand. Humiliation gives us two choices. We can either rise above it or have it crush us. We can either learn to laugh or stay in tears. As humans, we will constantly be interacting, responding, listening, absorbing, sharing. We are full of both good and evil, darkness and light, fear and courage, love and hate. Because those opposing forces exist in our world, opportunities for humiliation, by societal and familial standards, will always exist.
It’s my response to the situation that matters. It’s about who I am becoming in these moments. Not what is happening to me or what others say of me. Shame is sneaky. It makes you think that you have only one way to go, and that is away to your burrow, to hide, to recluse. It isolates us from people around us, thereby stunting communal growth and support.
But what if we chose to respond with worthiness?
Worthiness is the dignity that clothes our naked shame. It comes alongside us, calms us, and provides us the direction to move forward. We only need embrace it.
Shame says, “You always screw up relationships. You aren’t loveable.”
Worthiness says, “You are deeply loved—and so are the others in your life. Respond from a place of love to all around you.”
Shame says, “Really? How many times will you sneak Oreo’s from the pantry and stuff them into your face? You are a waste of space.”
Worthiness says, “Your body is a temple. I know you don’t want to continue feeding it poorly. Listen to your body. Treat it well because it houses you.”
Shame says, “You don’t deserve a place at the executive leadership table. Look at the mess you are making.”
Worthiness says, “You worked hard to make it to this spot, well done. You have all the skills you need to complete the work that is asked of you.”
Shame says, “You are a terrible parent. Everyone else, except you, is raising their kids right. You’re just screwing yours up.”
Worthiness says, “You love your son. You are doing your best. Keep up the great work. You were chosen to do this.”
I am tired of shame’s meanness in my head and heart. I’m sick of its loud, angry voice in my head. I’m tired of giving shame all the power.
Instead, I’m embracing worthiness.
I may not have the answer for world peace or a solution to the problems of poverty, homelessness, addiction, or nuclear weapons. But this truth in my heart will change my circle of influence, and this truth is for everyone.
We could create a different world,
if we approach our lives with boldness, confidence, and grace,
because we believe we are worthy.
That’s what the prodigal son had to learn, in the ancient parable Jesus told. The boy who left his rich father, abandoned his heritage, and trashed his reputation. He needed to understand that everything was about who he was. Not what had happened to him, or how he had screwed up. Not how many times he begged forgiveness, or showed penitence, or practiced good deeds. The truth of the story is that, when the son came home, the father welcomed him with open arms. The son was worthy. That fact never changed.
Who I am makes the difference in how I function in the world. If I wake up each day with the truth ringing in my ears that I am loved and forgiven and whole, that I am a child of God, an image bearer of Divine Love, then shame ends up cowering in the corner. Shame can’t stay when worthiness is taking up so much space.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s epic book (my opinion inserted here), Eat, Pray, Love, she frequently mentions her friend, Ketut. This wrinkly, toothless, old man tells her, no matter what is going on in her life, to make sure she “smiles with her belly” every day.
The inner smile comes from peace and joy and grace. When we smile from our belly, from our soul, we find the strength to move with dignity. So, while I’m certainly not ag-ed enough to pray for the one great humiliation per day, I am practicing engaging in joy, even when I mess up. Or when I stumble, or say the wrong words, or choose a lesser option, or yield to temptation, or just flat out fail.
Because all of it – the pain and the fumbling and the joy and the energy and the fear – all of it is a part of what it means to be human. All of it is a part of this wonderful life.
One recent Friday night, I took my son, Rafael, to dinner at Freddy’s Steakburgers with my parents. We sat on the patio under a red umbrella. The breeze was unobtrusive to our meal, the evening cool from the hot day. Music from the 1960’s played on the loudspeaker.
After dinner, I stood up and said, “Rafa, dance with me!”
The two of us swayed and pulsed to the rock and roll of many decades ago.
“Those people in the window are watching you,” my Mom commented. “They look like they are getting a good laugh.”
“Good!” I said.
I kept dancing with my son.
Joy overriding any shame.
The moment bigger than any perception.
The look on my son’s face, priceless.
Shame, be damned. True living awaits. Let’s join in, shall we?