Shame is something we all experience at some level, more consciously for some than for others. Of course there are the obvious examples that come to mind: times we have felt everything from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation. The tabloids are rife with cover stories of the latest follies of celebrities or politicians who have behaved badly. But many of us carry shame less publicly, often outside the easy view of even some of our closest friends. Unemployment. Having a family member whose alcoholism is displayed in front of your friends. Losing a major account at work. The breakup of a marriage. Our child's seeming disinterest in school. A boss whose motivational tactic is to regularly compare your work to that of someone else who is outperforming you. Any of these more common scenarios carry the burden of shame in ways that we work hard to cover up. And our coping strategies have become so automatic that we may be completely unaware of its presence and activity.
Shame can vary in its range from the most relationally subtle ways—the condescending glance or tone of voice from one spouse to another—to wholesale cultural movements that involve groups, communities and eventually nations that war against nations—the biblical story of Dinah in Genesis 34, racial bigotry and suppression, or the murder of a woman for having publicly shamed her family, known commonly in some cultures as an honor killing. It is therefore not merely a function of the things I think or say about myself or others, nor is it limited to what happens between two individuals. It can move stealthily from the bedroom or kitchen to the playing field to the boardroom to the Situation Room, where decisions are made on a global scale. In this way, even the slightest shaming interactions between individuals can eventually grow into conflagrations that involve multiple parties. Longstanding conflicts such as those in the Middle East or East Los Angeles are evidence that when individuals do not address the shame they experience at a personal level, the potential kindling effect can eventually engulf whole regions of humanity. One of the purposes of this book is to emphasize that what we do with shame on an individual level has potentially geometric consequences for any of the social systems we occupy, be that our family, place of employment, church or larger community.
It is also important at the outset of this book to note that I do not consider this infestation to be neutral or benign. This is not merely a felt emotion that eventually morphs into words such as "I'm bad." As I will suggest, this phenomenon is the primary tool that evil leverages, out of which emerges everything that we would call sin. As such, it is actively, intentionally, at work both within and between individuals. Its goal is to disintegrate any and every system it targets, be that one's personal story, a family, marriage, friendship, church, school, community, business or political system. Its power lies in its subtlety and its silence, and it will not be satisfied until all hell breaks loose. Literally.
Over the last ten years I have been privileged to walk with people as they have been courageously engaging their stories, moving to places of greater depth and connection with God and others while applying new insights that have emerged from the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which I explore in Anatomy of the Soul. They have learned about various domains of the mind and what it means to love God and others with all of it. They have realized what it means to pay attention to what they pay attention to; the overarching role of emotion in human activity; how memory is as much about predicting the future as it is about recalling the past; how their patterns of attachments with their primary caregivers and current intimate relationships shape their experiences of God; that our awareness of God's deep, joyful pleasure with us at all times everywhere changes everything about how we interpret what we sense, image, feel, think and do; that life is not about not being messy but about being creative with the messes we have; that ruptures will occur but resilience and life is to be found in how we repair them; and that Jesus has come not only to show us how to do all of the aforementioned but to empower us to do so on the way to God's kingdom coming in its fullness.
All this has been very good news for many. However, invariably, on the way to greater freedom they must pass, as we all do, through a common place of suffering: shame. It may be cloaked in the minute details of one's narrative or on public display. It may be obscured in the language of other emotions we are more familiar with such as sadness, anger, disappointment or even guilt. Or it may be a deeply, consciously felt presence in many of our waking hours. We may have different events, images, words or explicit feelings that represent it. It may be consumptive or we may barely notice its activity in our day-to-day comings and goings. Eventually, however, we all come face to face with this specter, the (virtually) unspoken, primal obstacle to our growth and flourishing, and it seems there is no getting around it.