A Quick Review: “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson M.D.

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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.

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Falling Through the Cracks of Same-Sex & Traditional Marriage

“Loneliness is the greatest plague of our generation. The fight for gay-marriage is simply a response to it. Church, we are doing something wrong in our approach. Until we can be a nest of intimate friendships and a holistic community for the lonely, estranged, and non-married, a traditional sexual ethic will never be attractive.”

I wrote that last week in a bit of frustration over the responses I’d been reading about the recent SCOTUS ruling, and I wanted to follow-up on explicitly what I meant by those words. Hopefully this post will explain a bit of my frustration from both sides’ responses, and maybe this post will offer a little hope of something better.

If you haven’t been able to notice by now, if you know me or read this blog, I talk about loneliness and isolation a lot. Not just because I deal with both, but because I’m beginning to recognize like Henri Nouwen did that “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today,” and I’d like to see a way forward for me, for my friends, for my community, for my church, and for my culture.

I was visiting a church service this morning by myself in my hometown looking through the church bulletin which was covered in pictures of beautiful families, and as the pastor ran through his pastoral prayer for the congregation, I felt a tinge of isolation. His prayer hit on all the families in the church, the kids, those adopting, the grandparents, and those married without children – all wonderful things to pray for – but I felt like an oddball by its conclusion. Very rarely do I hear of single or celibate people being prayed for within churches. I hear many sermons on marriage and parenthood, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a sermon in person on singleness or the goodness of celibacy, despite what I see in scripture as a commending of those who are single. Add to this the little phrases littered throughout Christian culture like “family first” and “focus on the family”, and hopefully you can begin to see just some of my frustrations with being a celibate man in the church.

It often feels like there isn’t room within the church for those outside the context of biological families. I’m not saying this is always the case as I (and many others) have been blessed by a beautiful church home which has loved me incredibly well, and I only hope to love them a fraction as much as they’ve loved me, but I feel as though this is a rare treat. There’s definitely a pressure present in the mainstream of Christian culture in America of feeling as though I have two options: get married or be alone.

This is what has me sympathizing (but not agreeing) with the Left over the recent SCOTUS ruling. Although I don’t believe in a sexual ethic of anything but a man and woman engaging sexually in the context of marriage, I do understand the dark corner in which those with a homosexual orientation or who are experiencing same-sex attraction have been cast.

There’s a tension in our culture that if you don’t fit into the mold of a traditional family that you will forever exist in isolation and loneliness. For many who’ve considered themselves “gay” or “same-sex attracted” within the church, there’s this seeming, unwritten dichotomy in most places:

1) go away… and don’t get married despite not being in the church.

2) stay… but magically shift your entire orientation, and get married.

Is it any wonder there has been such a push for gay marriage? There’s an assumption in place that only in marriage can we escape loneliness. So why wouldn’t the LGBT community long for the same thing? We’ve offered what we’ve considered to be the “antidote” to isolation, and we’re now angry that others are seeking the same antidote.

I want you to consider living the rest of your life with no promise of a spouse, no promise of kids, no promise of grandchildren, no promise of people to take care of you when your old, no promise of people to love you if you fall seriously ill, and no promise of ever experiencing lasting intimacy with another. These are just a few of my thoughts that circulate when I imagine a life without marriage in this culture. Does this not sound even just slightly despairing? It makes sense that gay-marriage would be inevitable does it not?

As I scanned my newsfeed last week through the outrage and celebration over the results of the ruling, I again felt overwhelmingly overlooked. As someone who identifies with a traditional sexual ethic yet also experiences exclusive same-sex attraction, both sides left me frustrated. I don’t agree with the impossible dichotomy imposed by some of those in favor of traditional marriage, but, besides not morally agreeing with same-sex marriage, I also don’t agree with the conclusion that by marrying members of the same sex that we have found an answer to the problem of loneliness.

Between the traditional family and (now) the progressive family, I feel like someone caught in no-man’s land, and I know plenty of others who feel the same. Consider the single women who long to be married but can’t, the men and women who’ve chosen to live celibate lives despite their sexual orientations, the socially impaired, the mentally handicapped, the widows, and all the others that Jesus alludes to in Matthew 19:12. Consider this in the church where the traditional family reigns supreme, but consider this with the progressive family as well. Loneliness still exists, and (gay or straight) marriage can’t solve that.

So where do we go for the answer?

That’s the million dollar question isn’t it?

I have a few thoughts, but I’d be foolish to claim to have a definitive answer to such a question.

I think my own church has been a really beautiful reflection of what it may look like to move forward, so much of what I’m about to say has been sparked by the hospitality I’ve already so received and have been allowed to personally give to others.

So hopefully without sounding too idealistic, the church needs to begin to be a nest for those inside & outside the framework of the nuclear family. We need it to be a place that if you were to no longer be married or have kids, for whatever reason, that you’d still have enough meaningful or intimate relationships to sustain you. Single people need a place they can expect lasting, intimate friendships and not be looked down upon or suspiciously questioned for it. Families need a place they can be cared for by other families and single people – others who enter into their dysfunction, help cook meals, help look after kids, and take part of their load and place it upon their own backs. The church should look like an integrated community of single people, married people, families, widows, the elderly, college students, those of racial and sexual minorities, and all those I’m too naive to name.

Or as Wesley Hill quoted J. Louis Martyn in his recent article, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.”

We need a way forward that proves that a life without sexual intimacy can still be a life full of intimacy in the context of friendship, community, and a “water thicker than blood” family. And perhaps by cultivating a community which includes those who’ve fallen through the cracks, we can begin to close the cracks themselves.

The Dignity in Our Loneliness

Do you ever feel lonely?

I have, and I do.

For the better part of my sophmore year of college, I spent my time cramped up in my bedroom and frustrated by a lack of meaningful connection. During that time, I had to seriously wrestle with a stark and nagging loneliness that had been creeping around and was just beginning to show its terrifying face. I remember one-time sitting in a meeting with some others from my campus ministry’s leadership team, and we had begun to go around and share our high points and low points for the week. It was my turn, and I recall needing to confess that I had felt deeply alone. It was mortifying and not because of how people responded (which was actually incredibly well). I felt shame bubbling up in me to even release the words, “I feel really alone.” I don’t feel like I did it out of a desire for a pity party or just because I wanted the attention. I just feel like I had to. It had built up, and it felt as if without reprieve I’d surely just sink deeper and deeper into the mire.

It felt humiliating though to admit that to people. Though I remember a few approaching me afterwards and declaring to me those same words, “I feel lonely too.”

When people profess that they are lonely, we often pity them. Don’t we? There’s this underlying assumption that I often think about that goes sort of like this, “that poor soul must have no friends. Maybe they should join a church or a crossfit. Maybe they should get married. Maybe they should branch out a little more,” or something along those lines. Yet I still feel myself thinking those thoughts without often recognizing how much I feel their words myself.

I’m going to make a bold claim, and it’s going to sound unpleasant, but I believe it’s true:

we are all lonely.

We’re all on an even playing field. Happily married, mournfully married, unwillingly single, happily single, divorced, it doesn’t matter. Our estate is a lonely one.

At this point, you’re probably confused, maybe a little pissed off that I would make such a remark about you. You have your brunch friends and your date nights. You don’t wake up in a bed alone. You have at least a thousand Facebook friends, but yes, you’re still alone.

But hear me out, I only say that we are all alone, so that we might begin to recognize something beautiful.

I want to argue that although we all feel alone that that feeling of loneliness is actually a God-given, God-reflecting, and good desire.

Ultimately, I believe there’s a point to the loneliness, and that despite the most intimate of relationships we still feel different degrees of loneliness but still feel lonely nonetheless. The most poignant definition of loneliness I’ve ever come across is simply this: “the want of [or longing for] intimacy“. It’s the state Adam was in in perfect vertical relationship with God, but still lacking closeness, horizontally, with another person even before there was the entrance of sin into the world. If loneliness is as previously defined, then can any of us truly claim to be in perfect intimacy with another? Do we ever cease longing for more closeness with another person?  There always a want for more closeness, for a friendship to be cultivated, for another to know us just a little bit more – this is to feel a little bit of loneliness.

To feel lonely isn’t to be inhuman. If anything, to feel lonely is to feel the desire for friendship that God has ingrained us with in which is nothing but a glorious reflection of Himself. Our desire for companionship isn’t bad, it’s beautiful. I am not saying the state of loneliness is good, but that the underlying desire within loneliness is. Tim Keller would agree:

“Do you feel like a wimpy, weak little people because you’re always lonely and you’re always needing people and you don’t feel like you don’t have enough friends. If you feel like that it’s because you’re like God. It’s not a sign of your imperfection. It’s a sign of your perfection.”

The problem is not that we feel lonely. The problem is how we have adapted to respond to those feelings of loneliness.

It’s no surprise to me that alongside our age of distraction which includes the rampant use of pornography, social media, shopping, and netflix there is also a rise in feelings of isolation. Even with hundreds of friends available to us in a moment’s notice, we’re still aching for depth yet still settling for distraction. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says this:

“…how often have men cried woe upon the solitary person or portrayed the pain and misery of loneliness, how often have men, weary of the corrupting, noisy, confusing life in society, let their thoughts wander out to a solitary place—only to learn again to long for community! …In the busy, teeming crowd, which as community is both too much and too little… the cure is precisely to learn all over again the most important thing, to understand oneself in one’s longing for community.”

When we feel lonely, running from it may be just prolonging the inevitable. If we’re afraid to feel lonely, we may be doomed to it. To a certain degree, it may mean that a good place to start is becoming a tiny bit more conscious of our desire for community, intimacy, and friendship rather than consistently running to an outlet to keep our minds away from those fears.

Imagine a broken world like this without this desire for intimacy, or to put it more simply, imagine a world where no one ever felt lonely. I’d imagine everyone would be content to themselves. There would be no community, no coffee dates, no netflix-binging with roommates, no marriage, no family unit, no friendship, no vulnerable conversations, no long walks together, and no Trinity. An unredeemed* world without the feelings of loneliness would be a world of ironic isolation.

Feelings of loneliness are similar to feelings of physical pain. We need something like those feelings of pain to indicate to us that we are in an unhealthy or harmful place and need to move to something better – a place of isolation to a place of friendship. The pain itself is not bad. What causes it may be, but the pain is actually helpful if only we can find a way to respond to it properly. Numbing a dislocated shoulder won’t fix it but a painful relocation will. Like Kierkegaard said, “the cure is precisely to understand oneself in one’s longing for community,” but the cure often feels like it’s killing us.

To feel your loneliness is painful. There’s no denying that. We were created for intimacy with God and others. Vertically and horizontally, and it’s no surprise that after that intimacy was shattered with the Fall of man that Adam & Eve hid themselves from God and hid their nakedness from one another with their fig-leaf loincloths. We’re all terrified of exposing ourselves, and we’re all terrified of a life of isolation. In exposing ourselves, we risk rejection, we risk shame, and we risk our own comfort. In isolation, we lack the sort of companionship that encourages us to take risks, to journey, and to ultimately live.

But thankfully the story doesn’t end in isolation. Thankfully we have a God who knows our loneliness and won’t leave us in it. Thankfully there’s a redeemer who redeems by uniting all things in himself, in perfect intimacy. One who has known loneliness far better than we ever have and is with us in it. He who became lonely for the lonely came to draw us into His embrace.

This is the same Jesus who cried aloud to His Father in whom he was one with, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

From intimacy to isolation, He came to rescue us from our lonely position.

We won’t always feel lonely. Right now we often do, but this won’t always be the case. As assuredly as the Trinitarian God exists as a community, we can be sure there will be a day, we too, will exist in perfect communion with God and one another. A day that our dignified desires for intimacy will meet complete satiety, and until then, perhaps we may discover, as Henri Nouwen once did, that “what seemed primarily painful may then become a feeling that, though painful, opens for you the way to an ever deeper knowledge of God’s love.”


* I say “unredeemed world” because I believe in the new heavens and new earth we will be living in perfect relation to God and one another – perfect intimacy and thus no desire for something we have already attained.