Shame Resiliency

(by Greg)

Shame.  It is something we all experience.  It is something I have experienced in every significant relationship I have.  It is something I have experienced in every phase of my life, from childhood, to college and medical school, during our time raising support to return to Burundi and in every phase in between.

Last year I read (or rather, listened on audio) to a book called Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown.  Ms. Brown is a sociologist who spent years interviewing people and researching the subject of vulnerability and shame.  The results of her research are as follows:  We all experience shame.  It is unescapable in this life.  However, it is those people equipped with what she terms “shame resiliency” who are most successful in life, whether that be in their work, in their family or in any other domain of life.  It is those people who can experience shame and not become paralyzed by it, who are most likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable again and again and who will ultimately live the richest, fullest lives.  The title of the book is based on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I found her ideas compelling, and it has been during our year of language learning that I have seen these ideas play out in a fresh and surprising way.  When learning a new language, you are constantly confronted with opportunities to feel shame.  In the US, I like to think I can have a reasonably intelligent conversation with most people.  On the other hand, in France, every time I open my mouth, inevitably something comes out that I did not intend.  I make mistakes.  Many many mistakes.  And I often walk away from these conversations with the idea that I came across sounding like a moron.  I walk away feeling shame.  Among those who are studying a new language, I don’t think I am alone.  And so, I am confronted with a challenge.  Will I get out of bed today, and enter into the ring once more, allowing myself to experience shame again, or will I shrink back?  Will I keep my mouth shut, and will I avoid these situations.  In my head I know that the only way to progress, is to be vulnerable, to engage French speakers and to accept the fact that I am occasionally (or often) going to sound less than intelligent.  

What has intrigued me most about this subject, is watching the same ideas play out in the lives of our children.  Our daughters, who are 11 and 12, also experience this shame.  And as a result, they have done everything in their power to avoid speaking French to French people.  I believe that sadly, this has hindered their language learning.  They have made great progress with their French, but I know they could have made even more had they allowed themselves to better engage their French classmates.  However, there is one family member, who as far as I can tell, has been significantly less affected by shame.  This is our 8 year old son Biniyam.  Biniyam will happily launch himself into a conversation with anyone without appearing at all embarrassed or ashamed.  I have heard him talk to French kids in his class, stringing together what few French words he knows, and despite his errors, he usually gets his point across.  I don’t know how much of this is due to his younger age, and how much of it is due to his personality, but it seems to me that BIniyam is incredibly “shame resilient”.  And because of this, he takes risks, he is vulnerable and he is making incredible progress in French.  He is also forming great friendships with the kids at his school.  It is truly a beautiful thing to watch.  

As I process these thoughts it occurs to me that the most powerful response that we have to the challenge of shame is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was the one who bore our shame, bearing it gladly, out of love for us.  He was the one who made Himself vulnerable and humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  And He did all of this for our sake, that we might be reconciled to the Father.  I truly believe that the more we see our identity in this light, and the more real our relationship with Christ becomes, the less we will experience shame, and the more we will allow ourselves to be vulnerable, out of love for our wives, our children, our friends and those who are hurting and suffering far away.  As we meditate on what Christ has done for us, the opinions of others fades into the background.  And we are finally free.  We are finally free to climb into the ring and to “dare greatly”.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. - Hebrews 12:1-2


Rebekah said...

This book sounds fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

Sandy said...

I have been thinking about this idea since you posted this. I am noticing the different ways people around me experience (or don't experience) shame. And how our identity in Christ can help make us more shame resilient.