Sunday, June 2, 2013

Hiding, Shame and Inherent Worth

--by Mike Adams

Delivered June 2, 2013 in Santa Fe, NM

When my son was four years old, he came home one day from Grandma's house with a sad face. I asked him what was wrong and he said that Chloe cat was missing and she had probably been eaten by a coyote.

I hugged him and I felt a little sad. I really liked Chloe; my sister had rescued her from an abusive situation more than twelve years earlier and she was both sweet and ancient. In fact, I sometimes amused myself by imagining Chloe as witness to the 1680 Pueblo revolt or alternatively, the introduction to horses on this continent. She had lived with my parents for many years and her disappearance wasn't a surprise to anyone. I remember thinking how her body was riddled with arthritis and her eyesight had decayed to near blindness. I figured it was good that she didn't suffer.

Several years later, it occurred to me that perhaps Chloe had never become a coyote snack. That maybe she had been hiding, when my little bug-a-boo came home with a sad face. Animals have a tendency to isolate and hide when they are injured or sick. It is an instinct that originates in the lizard brain, which helps a vulnerable animal to avoid predation or conflict. Maybe Chloe was hiding that day, following an instinct that probably originated with the dawn of complex life on this planet.

The thing is that if she was hiding, Chloe would have been better off coming home and allowing herself to be cared for and comforted. In fact, pets would generally fare better if they went home when sick or injured, rather than hiding. But that simply runs contrary to behavior that has been an evolutionary advantage for millions of years.

The tendency to hide seems universal. Humans do it with what seems like a comparable frequency to any other species. However, like our pets, we often hide when it isn't necessary, and when it causes trouble. In fact, we often mis-perceive threats and react, with anger, fear and even violence, when we should have shown kindness. We protect ourselves from predators when there is no actual threat; the result being we hurt our friends and loved ones, our children and parents in a misguided effort to stay safe from a danger that isn't actually present.

When I was seven years old, I stood in a mortuary and gingerly extended my hand to touch my Dad's cheek. He was lying in a coffin and his cold skin felt like a mild shock to me. Grief swelled  inside me and burst forth with violent disdain for my desire to maintain control. I collapsed and sobbed into my hands with every fiber of my being. A few days later, at his funeral, I had decided that I would suppress any urge to cry for the duration of the service. I wanted to be strong and in control, to display no weakness. I wanted to act like, “a man.” Already my instinct to hide was interfering with my ability to get the help I needed in a crowd of people who loved me and who wanted to provide comfort and support.

In the thirty four years since that day, I have seen every single person I know add layers of complexity to their tough facade. I too have added layers, and they have caused me to sneer when I should have apologized. I've hurled insults when I needed to be kind, and I've been callous, when the appropriate reaction would have been to show empathy. I remember in eighth grade, a school-mate of mine, who was brilliant, but who also had a host of physical challenges. He went home one day, took a gun and shot himself in the chest.

When I heard about his death, I wanted to cry, but he and I didn't get along, so I hardened myself to the tragedy, telling myself that it was good, that he had been mean to people and had humiliated several of us in front of others. When I did that, a little bit of me died, and I made the world a little less kind. I had just added a thick layer to my own facade of toughness and indifference.

I work hard to justify my own poor behavior in light of someone else's actions. I think this is normal and that you probably do it too. My first memory of really working at making excuses is in seventh and eight grade. I endured daily bullying and I regularly fantasized about giving someone a Chuck Norris type of beat down, or at least delivering a well timed and devastating verbal response. But I never could do either, and when the fantasy dissolved in the face of real life, I often found myself wishing for the courage to take control of my suffering a swing from the end of a rope.

That doesn't make me unique, in fact, suicide is the second leading cause of death for our young people between the ages of 10 and 24. It is a final desperate act, aimed at asserting some kind of control in the face of overwhelming emotional pain. Our kids take charge of the only thing they feel they can influence and they leave us for ever.

They are the victims of an acute conflict between people's evolutionary need to be members of society, and our overwhelming tendency to avoid being emotionally vulnerable. This conflict between survival instincts leaves many feeling hopeless and abandoned, even while in the midst of people we love and who love us. We desperately need to experience love and acceptance, but rather than sharing ourselves, we isolate. We're threatened by the prospect of authentically sharing who we are, what we're afraid of and how we're vulnerable—we are ruled by shame.

The introductory line to Dr. Brene Brown's TED talk on shame reads, “Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior.” Brown has studied shame in our society for nearly a decade, and she has developed the following definition of shame. “An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Is that what my school-mate experienced as he pulled the trigger nearly thirty years ago? Though decades have passed since I walked the halls of Los Alamos Middle School, I vividly remember being ruled by fear, being filled with anxiety, afraid of what was going to happen next—terrified that my classmates would humiliate me yet again. My daily life was a trial of fear, anger, worry, and embarrassment. This nurtured the seeds of shame, which blossomed in the fertile soil of an insecure, overweight, pimple faced kid, who hated life. Even today, I find myself paralyzed when I need to take actions that could make a difference in my life. I'm terrified of failure and ridicule. I'm afraid to be exposed, because I truly believe that I'm unworthy of being your peer and enjoying your companionship.

Those seeds of shame have profoundly influenced my life, my sense of worth and my ability to follow through on important commitments. Even today, when I look in the mirror, what I see is an unattractive, obese slob. I often see a person who disgusts me, who is neither worthy of a good life nor of your respect. I am ashamed of my body and my weight. I am ashamed of my finances and the fact that I never finished college. I'm ashamed of how I've parented my kids, particularly the one, with whom I've had ongoing and difficult conflicts. I'm ashamed of the husband I've been and my lack of empathy and compassion when my wife needs it most. I'm ashamed to have burdened my parents with ongoing requests for financial help and support and I'm ashamed of all the money that has been spent on college tuition, which never resulted in my earning a degree. When I think of my life, I often think of someone who had great potential and myriad opportunities, but who squandered all of it. I live with deep shame, which impacts every area of my life.

Gosh, what a downer...right?! How many people came here to church this morning to hear someone talk hopelessness? Raise your hands.

Well, you can consider it a gift! I don't know how much you appreciate it and I have to apologize for failing to wrap it nicely, but trust me it is a gift. Every single one of you, knows me better now than friends, whom I've been acquainted with for decades. You've heard me share the things that I never wanted to admit to anyone, not even myself. You have heard me confess my deepest fears and insecurities and I thank you for listening.

I did it for a reason. You see, we've all inherited this society's tendency to use shame as a means of controlling people. As a society, we shame our children and hope they'll do well in school. We shame our prisoners and hope they'll become law abiding citizens. We shame our girls and hope they'll control their weight, and we shame our boys, because they are too distractible at home and in the classroom. We shame people who cross gender lines, or who disagree with our politics. I think our society is addicted to shame, and somehow we don't know that all the while, shame is feeding on us. It is like a fungal infection, rotting our skin, it thrives in dark and hidden places, where it drops spores and spreads. It consumes our sense of worth and destroys our chances for happiness

Shame can't bring about good behavior. It isn't like guilt, which is an uncomfortable feeling we get when we made a mistake and took actions that conflict with our values. Shame tells us that we are a mistake and that we will never be able to live consistent with our values. Shame carries a direct correlation with violence, aggression, addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying and suicide. It erects high walls, forcing people into isolation and subjugating them to fear. Shame is a monster at our gates, which causes us to tremble and hide. We've forgotten that we are its authors and we have the power to mitigate its damage.

We hide unaware that shame's existence requires secrecy. We're unaware that shame, when exposed to the light of day, once removed from the shadows, whithers and begins to decay. Shame can't survive open and honest expression or empathetic feedback, so it makes people feel threatened and hopeless. But when we're open, when we're honest, when we share ourselves, then we develop resilience against shame and we gain hope for the future. When we're courageous and authentic, we allow others to give us empathy and compassion. We are able to experience love and acceptance, despite having exposed our flaws. We're able to begin removing the terrible manacle from our neck, which shame placed there, and which has prevented us from pursuing our dreams.

There is no substitute for being open either. I went to Mexico over spring break with my son and built houses for impoverished people. It was an incredible experience. In fact, my hands have done all kinds of good work. They have tutored literacy in the county jail, written sermons, prepared RE curricula, held the hand of friends dying from cancer, and comforted distraught children. None of that has compensated for my shame. I've earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I've worked hard at my job, I've made people laugh, and I've studied history, science, and math. None of that has made me feel worthy of love and acceptance. Finally at forty one years of age, my quest has taken me inward to confront my own sense of uselessness. And if what I've read is true, my job now is to share my insecurities and place my broken self on the exam table for others to see. This is frightening and it requires that I practice courage and faith.

That second word, faith is a tough one. Faith and I have an awkward relationship, owing to the fact that I am an atheist. Practicing faith often feels to me like playing roulette with my mortgage check. It occurs like magical thinking and it never really seems like a good idea. But recently, I stumbled upon a great definition, which has made faith available. According to the CharacterFirst website, “Faith is having confidence that action rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how.” So Today, here in church, I place my faith in the notion that shame can be overcome by authentic self-expression. I place my faith in the idea that when we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, we actually mean that I too have inherent worth and dignity. As do all of you, even those of you who live with deep shame, like I do. Today, I place my faith in the possibility that my words might touch someone, who is hiding and afraid, who desperately needs the love and acceptance of a community. I place my faith in the possibility that they might find the courage to authentically share their true selves and their deep insecurities, that they might find a path to experiencing the love this community has to offer. I place my faith in you, to be empathetic and compassionate.

In closing, I'll share a short story by Anthony de Mello

A woman dreamed she walked into a brand-new shop in the marketplace, a shop she had never seen before.

To her surprise, God was standing behind the counter.

She looked up and asked, “what do you sell here?”

God replied, “everything your heart desires.”

She smiled faintly, but hardly daring to believe what she heard, the woman decided to ask for the very best things a human being could wish for.

She smiled and said, “I want peace of mind, and love, and happiness. I want wisdom and I want freedom from fear.”

Then she paused, before continuing, “I don't want these things only for me, I really want them for every single person on earth.”

God smiled and with a kind voice, responded, “I think you've misunderstood slightly. We don't sell fruits in this shop. We only sell the seeds.”


  1. Oh, I fully understand the Russian Spam-Bots. :)

    Shame is a corrosive thing. I know from an early age I was told I was a mistake and burden. It took me a long time to realize there is worth in me and all humans.

    Very good sermon.

    1. Thanks Christopher! This morning, when I stood to deliver it, I suddenly wished that I had brought a backup. I was worried about the level of personal disclosure I was about to give, but it went really well. Thanks for your very warm comment.

  2. Mike! I LOVED this lesson. It really hit home with me. When I have shame, or am sick or injured, I too have a tendency to isolate, and this really helped me see that. It also helps me forgive myself for doing so. Great lesson. Loved every word.

    1. Thanks Dan, I'm always so honored that you take the time to read my posts and comment. I really appreciate it and I always enjoy your comments.

  3. Mike, thank you for sending this to me. Very powerful. -Holly

  4. Thank you for sharing this with me Mike..... Your words need to be shared in so many places. I am going to start by sharing them with friends and family. Your sermon reminded me of a quote that I try to focus on in encouraging others to speak out the shameful things ... "The unspoken becomes the unspeakable." I say speak it and that removes so much power that shame holds over you.... Thank you for sharing of yourself so vulnerably.... I send you a huge hug filled with empathy and compassion ... I too work to release all that is of shame.

    1. Thanks Heather! I really get what you are saying about the unspoken and the unspeakable. This sermon I guess was a mixed bag, many people really appreciated it and others...not so much! I did get pretty emotional during a part of it, which turned some folks off. Perhaps the venue wasn't the best choice, but I don't regret it. I've felt pretty free since then.

  5. life is definitely hard, but i find if i focus on the good, in people and in situations, the hardness softens quite a bit... thanks for stopping by my blog, and commenting.

  6. This is really an amazing piece and I commend you for it.

    I wish I had something insightful or witty to write about it. I don't have anything else to say about it right now - I actually believe that I'm going to need to think about it for a little while and maybe come back and read it again tomorrow.

    1. Thanks Katy, I've been sort of raw since delivering this, but also, I feel a little more free. It has been interesting for sure. I look forward to reading anything you have to say!

  7. Ohhh Michael!! Can I hug you? Can I cover you with love and tell you how beautiful you are?? Can I jump up and down while I'm holding your hands, with tears running down our faces...because you brought your shame to the light, because you took away its power?! HOOORAY!!! You are soaring, dear soul. Soaring. I see your wings from here:)

    Thank you so very much. I wish there was a way you could send this to Brene Brown. I know she would love it, too. Your beauty, a warm energy ready to touch anyone who comes across you.

    1. Hey Brynne,
      Thanks for your comments...made me smile.

  8. “Faith is having confidence that action rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how.”....

    The very first scripture I ever learned was Hebrews 11:1 "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen". Your definition seems similar and makes my heart glad. Your thoughts resonate in my heart and I would like to share them with my readers (with your permission) and perhaps use them as a springboard for my own thoughts. Would that be alright?

    1. Hi Tamara,
      Thanks for stopping by and for your very kind comments, which made me smile!

      Absolutely, you can share this and use it to develop your own thoughts. This is, in my opinion, how the most interesting ideas come to fruition, through the open exchange of ideas. Please let me know of anything you write, on this topic, I'd love to read it.

    2. Hey Mike! It took me a while, but I finally put my thoughts together. Here is a link:
      I hope you enjoy the read. :)

    3. Thanks Tamara, I went right over to read your blog and I appreciate your words. Thanks for coming over and linking to it! I was particularly touched by your closing statements. I think what you touched on there is a big deal...perhaps the biggest deal.

      I do a lot of work in my church (Unitarian Universalist) reaching out to people of other faiths. I think that all of the exciting things that religion can accomplish will be interfaith efforts from this point.

      This past spring, my eldest son and I went to Mexico on a partnered mission with the United church to build houses for impoverished families. It was amazing!

      I can't overstate how you touched me with your response and thanks!


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My wife says comments save fairies. I mostly just want to know that the traffic hits I get on my statistics aren't Russian Spam-Bots!