Something got me thinking again about shame.
There’s an important link between shame and mental health. Also shame is experienced by a wide range of ordinary people.
In some cultures shame is the reverse of honour. In other cultures, in particular the main culture I’ve lived within, it is the reverse of success.
I got to understand this most poignantly as a minister in farming communities. The unholy trinity of weather, markets, and government makes farming a very vulnerable occupation. It takes a lot of trust to keep going in what is more a way of life than a job, living with so many variables. (It does mean that farmers overall have a good idea what faith is about even if they are not part of organised religion.)
It’s also a line of work that requires almost constant adapting to the circumstances and, in recent decades that has needed to include innovation and thinking outside the box. Once upon a time (it seems) it was simple: supply the primary produce (meat, wool, milk) and the world will buy it. The world changed.
Central to this culture that has shame as the reverse of success is the idea of blame. Whose fault is it when something goes wrong? Whose fault when the potato crop fails? Whose fault when the price of kiwi fruit crashes? Whose fault when drought carries on longer than usual, at the same time as a drop in world markets, and a high exchange rate? Whose fault when the company you work for goes into receivership?
And another one: whose fault when health fails? Am I poor at looking after myself? Am I now a useless person.
Strangely, the habit is to see any kind of failure that we are part of our own fault. Or, in the language of shame, to be ashamed of being part of something that fails. Shouldn’t we have seen it coming? Shouldn’t we have made different choices?
We should have got it right. We didn’t and as a result we withdraw into ourselves. We can’t face other people: they’ll be talking about us; they’ll rate us as failures, which can have an impact on attitudes to anything one tries in the future.
So shame leads to losing connection with others and, as a result, losing perspective on one’s situation. There’s no chance to talk about what’s going on, to discover there are others in the same boat, or to do something different – have some fun, relax and enjoy company. No wonder depression, and suicide, are such big issues in this culture.
Interestingly the book of Joel addressed exactly this kind of situation. What had hit the land was drought, locusts, and an invasion: in our time, weather problems, disease (e.g M. Bovis), and external pressures, financial or political. “Their joy is put to shame,” says Joel. That’s how it is.
The remedy? “Turn to God and lament.” That is, get out, get together, speak about what’s happening. Don’t hold it to yourself, but put it out there in the shared space we call God. Find community again, that is find the spiritual in our midst, a safe place in which to be ourselves and know we have nothing to be ashamed of.
Apparently social connections are a significant factor in alleviating post-traumatic stress and ensuring resilience to the uncontrollables of living.
Church is this social connection, with a really strong foundation.
Rangimarie Peace Shalom, Robyn