It often feels like to be human is to live with the ever-present, often insidious disease known as shame. According to Curt Thompson in his newest book, The Soul of Shame, shame has been at work within the whole of humanity’s collective and individual stories extending back as far as Adam & Eve’s.
Shame, Thompson says, is at its fundamental level a spiritual & biological plague with consequences as dire as increasing isolation & disconnection, chaotic states of mind and behavior, and diminished vocational and interpersonal creativity (among a multitude of other symptoms). These of course are all assumed to be relating to only individual persons, but Thompson, in the latter half of his book, commits to discussing how shame when left unchecked can bring about disastrous results in our churches, communities, and homes.
This discussion I found to be particularly helpful as much of what Thompson assumes in talking about shame is that it exists to rupture our God-bearing reflection as relational beings. To put it another way: shame would not exist if we were not relational. It is not to say that shame does not start personally, it certainly does, but it always involves another(s): “humans tend to experience no greater distress than when in relationships of intentional, unqualified abandonment- abandoned physically and left out of the mind of the other. With shame, I not only sense that something is deeply wrong with me, but accompanying this is the naturally extended consequence that because of this profound flaw, you will eventually want nothing to do with me…”
Thompson makes the case that shame was present and utilized by the serpent to help bring about the disruption between humans and God and humans with themselves. When we doubt our connection with others, or doubt that God really, actually, likes us, shame is often at work. Shame was secretly at work during the temptation to eat the fruit, and it was noticeably present when Adam and Eve realized that they were vulnerable and needed to be covered. And in the act of covering themselves, a wall was erected between them, a wall that exists with each of us. Adam and Eve started in the garden perfectly vulnerable, perfectly without shame, and in perfect intimacy with God and themselves. With the presence of shame, their eyes were opened, they saw their naked selves as inadequate, their failures were magnified, and they resulted to hiding from each other by covering themselves and hiding from God in a literal sense.
Shame destroys our connectedness with others. Just as Adam and Eve sought each other or another to accuse after the Fall, Thompson reminds us that “shamed people shame people.” And here we have shame’s arrival into the world through friendships, families, and communities in a self-destructive and rampant progression.
Obviously this book is much more than just a diagnosis, but certainly the diagnosis is critical. One of the reasons I initially found this book unique is because of Thompson’s psychiatric expertise and insight into the neurological effects of shame on the brain. What most can only talk about abstractly, Thompson can talk about scientifically. Yet since I am not a scientist or a doctor, I can not verify what he says is true nor speak into it very well, but he certainly backs himself.
And like any good doctor, Thompson provides a treatment option to such a malady. The almost paradoxical nature of shame is that in an attempt to not be abandoned, we cover ourselves and hide, thus resulting in our own isolation and self-abandonment. We long for intimacy but are frightened by what others may really see when we begin discarding the fig leaves of our own social status, career achievements, perfect family, theological correctness, and the myriad of ways we try to cover up our utter nakedness.
Like a returning to Eden, vulnerability is the only means by which we can taste the intimacy we once had. However, it often feels like death. It leaves us open to hurt, to rejection, to betrayal, to pain, and, yes in an extreme sense, death. Often vulnerability is spoken of as an act, but Thompson rightly reminds us, “it is something we are.” It is how we were created. Thompson even says, “It begins in the beginning where we are introduced to a vulnerable God. Vulnerable in the sense that he is open to wounding. Open to pain. Open to rejection. Open to death.”
Shame wants nothing more than our own isolation and eventual self-destruction. In light of many recent studies on the lethality of loneliness, I do not find shame’s goals so far-fetched. If shame seeks our isolation then its greatest nemesis is intimacy – to be fully known & exposed and fully loved. And Thompson goes to explain that, “We can love God, love ourselves, or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.” He does not simplify this as just positive thinking either as some often do. As a psychiatrist, he recognizes that this work of being known requires immense difficulty and risk. It requires honest confrontation and soul excavation with God and friends and often therapists. But it also requires knowing the vulnerable God naked and crucified.
Without an incarnate Jesus stripped naked on a cross, we would have no assurance of being loved in our nakedness:
“Jesus’ literal naked vulnerability is a testimony to us that he knows exactly what it is like to be us. To truly be with us Jesus not only knows what it means to be vulnerable, he knows how painfully, frighteningly hard it is to live into it, given shame’s threat… To this God, whom we meet in Jesus, we must direct our attention if we are to know the healing of our shame. We must literally look to Jesus in embodied ways in order to know how being loved in community brings shame to its knees and lifts us up and into acts of goodness and beauty.”
Thompson with this theological framework leads into numerous practical applications of living lives of intimate connectedness with others and explains that when shame begins to lose its grip on us that we may find the energy we once used for hiding for creative purposes in our vocations, hobbies, and relationships. Like a falling back into Eden, once the head of shame is crushed (although not entirely vanquished in this life), we will again be able to create and live as we once did in intimacy with our God and our friends.