Q: Archbishop J, what is the greatest challenge to the Catholic Family?
Shame! Let me explain.
Behind the dysfunction, behind the drama, the many quarrels, and tensions we face in family, we will likely find shame.
In many ways this emotion is the driver of the dysfunction within the family. Because of shame we are unable to be vulnerable before each other. We hide and pretend, cover up, become secretive, and when our backs are against the wall, we explode.
Shame is what we feel when we have done wrong. It is the result of sin. The sentiment is directed at the self and informs us about how we feel about ourselves. There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt comes because we have done something wrong. Shame comes because of the realisation that I am the kind of person who could do such a thing. It is a focus on the self and leads the person to believe ‘I am and will never be good enough’.
Original blessing and shame
We were created in harmony with God, others, creation, and self, as the Book of Genesis makes clear. The first experience of the human was of being naked without shame. The sentiment is not part of our original experience. It comes from what we do. We lived in original blessing before we lived in original sin. This is important to contemplate.
Once the human family lived in complete harmony. The time will come when we will live that way again.
After Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the garden (Gen 3:6), they heard God coming and hid (Gen 3:8). “But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ ” He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so, I hid.’ And he said ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’” (Gen 3:9–11).
It is interesting to see how the story unfolds. First the disobedience, next the hiding. The hiding comes from the broken harmony between the human and God. This is shame. It signals a break in the relationship with self. We cannot dare to be vulnerable or to be seen entirely.
Before the fall, they were naked without shame; afterwards, they are ashamed, so they hide. But that’s not all. The story continues.
The sequence of events is not predictable. The man blames the woman: the harmony between them is broken. The woman blames the serpent—harmony again is broken and the harmony with nature is broken. Then comes pain in childbearing and the toil of planting.
Shame comes as the result of doing what is wrong. It is different from guilt, which is what we feel when we do wrong. We feel shame because we let down ourselves and became the kind of person who did what we did. Shame is a break in harmony with self, which paralyses us internally and causes us to hide from God and others.
The Caribbean family and shame
For some reason we believe it is necessary to shame people to get them to improve. When a child has done something wrong, everyone needs to know, and the child is shamed over and over again, leading him or her to feel worthless.
Our culture of teasing is about shame. It gets to the one thing the person is most ashamed about and then ridicules the individual because of it.
Our parenting style is shame based, for the most part. It exposes, it exploits the weakness, it leaves the child feeling there is something inherently wrong with him or her. I believe this is the consequence of our unredeemed past of slavery and indentureship. It is our deepest psychic wound.
This shame creates havoc in the family. It leaves the spouses and the children with many negative emotions. But, worst of all, it leads to hiding and creates a place for dark emotions where harmony is broken most often and most deeply. Hiding, defensiveness, posturing, etc., takes the place of honest conversation.
If shame causes us to hide, redemption requires that we step out of our hiding places and stand naked before the other. This is the essence of spousal love—being naked before each other and being one flesh. We have experienced shame in physical nakedness, as we have in psychological nakedness.
To rise from shame, we need first to be aware of just how much this emotion is part of our lives and our family culture. It is there in our relating, our fighting, our downtime and in our leisure.
Notice it; acknowledge it. This is the start.
Listen for the times when we make one another feel there is something wrong with “all of us”. Begin a conversation with your spouse and then your children about shame in your family.
Shame is so infectious. Listen to your conversations as a family. Look at the reactions of your spouse or children. Ask God to show you both the extent to which shame is killing your joy and the depth to which it is a challenge in your family.
Confession is about healing the divided self. It is in this Sacrament of Reconciliation that we find the balm of healing. Here the divided self is reunited and by being spiritually naked before the priest as God’s representative, it becomes possible to become naked before your significant others.
We will explore the redemption path more fully next week.
Shame is the great destructive force at work in our Church and family. We need to face it, acknowledge it, and begin the process of healing.
Become aware of your language and ways of shaming others. Also become aware of the ways you have been shamed. Begin a conversation with your spouse and/or children on the ways that shame is killing your family. Make some healthy steps.