Subtle shaming

“He subtly shamed her deeply held desire for a child even as he sought to elevate the power of his love in her life. “

When I read the stories of women in Scripture, I often listen to my internal responses as a way of listening to the story.  For example, in Hannah’s story (1 Samuel 1), I would always cringe when I read Elkanah’s response to Hannah’s weeping.  So, a few years ago, I stopped and listened there for a while, trying to unpack the very complex and swirling relational dynamics as best I could or at least understand what was causing me to flinch. I  called it subtle shaming. That naming was helpful to several women at the retreat I did last weekend.  See how it strikes you.

“Subtle shaming

1:8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping?  Why don’t you eat?  Why are you downhearted?  Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”

It is hard to imagine that Elkanah did not know why she was weeping, refusing to eat, and downhearted. He saw her pain, undoubtedly felt it alongside her. He was not really seeking information about the state of her soul. So, what was he trying to say?

Imagine for a moment what it must have felt like to be on the receiving end of these words.  The logic seems sane, the reasoning sound: “Why keep torturing yourself wanting something you can never have?  Why not simply decide to be content with what you have?”  Hard reasoning to counter, especially in a moment of conversation with a man who loves you and wants your pain (and his) to stop.

Look again at Elkanah’s questions.  What else was communicated?  Hannah’s well-meaning husband was seeking to diminish or dismiss Hannah’s pain by putting it on a scale of his own creation: weighing her desire for a child against the goodness of his love for her.  He subtly shamed her deeply held desire for a child even as he sought to elevate the power of his love in her life.  He assumed his masculine perspective could resolve her feminine soul’s anguish.  He did not understand that hearts and desires have little regard for logic or for scales.

How could Hannah possibly respond?  Should she deny her pain and desire?  Or tell him his love was not enough?  In his lack of wisdom, Elkanah once again accomplished the opposite of what he intended: rather than offering true comfort to his wife, his subtle shaming let her know that her pain was no longer welcome in relationship with him.

Subtly shaming messages like these are a part of all of our lives.  Consider the overweight woman struggling to remain on a diet whose friends grow weary of her pain and struggle and say to her, “Oh, honey, why bother?  We like you chunky and no one else matters, right?”  Or the daughter who is thrilled to find a pair of fancy pink sandals just right for the prom whose mother says, “Oh, no, dear, you don’t want those. You already have those other beautiful shoes at home, remember?”  Or the woman who chooses to go back to work whose husband says, “Isn’t what I provide enough?  I’d kill to not have to go to work every day.”  All are seemingly supportive messages that subtly shame a vulnerably expressed desire.

As women, we are often uniquely susceptible to this kind of less than noble persuasion.  We too easily doubt the goodness of our feminine desires, especially in the face of seeming support and convincing logic, simply because they are connected so deeply with our hearts and emotions.  The simple fact that these kinds of painful dynamics women face are written within these ancient stories can be very healing.  God knows our pain and cares about the ways we hurt and struggle.”                    Excerpt from The Feminine Soul


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