What an Empty Stomach is Full Of
I was in Beijing a few years ago with a small group of people, seeing the sites in China’s capitol and getting ready to get on a plane back to our American comforts. China, not unlike many other countries, is known for its street vendors that cook and serve all kinds of- let’s call them “unique”- foods. So, walking around the government district near our hotel, we sought out street food for dinner. There had to be something we would enjoy…or at least meats too interesting to pass up.
That’s when we found it: a part of the sheep I didn’t think it was even legal to eat. It was expensive and we double dog dared the youngest of our group to eat it. (Yep, double dog dared!) We bought it, he “chewed” it, and- after a time of trying- he then gave up on it. Threw it in the trash bin behind him with disgust as the rest of us laughed at how he was a sucker for trying that “part.”
As we turned to leave, I noticed a man and a 2 year old child walking past that same trash bin. What we threw away wasn’t even cool yet. Head down and without any hesitation, he took the chewed meat out of the trash and put it in the cart he was pushing. It was obvious that he was used to picking up what others had thrown away. His demeanor told me everything I needed to know. In the seat of power of a “worker’s paradise” where all should be equal and none should go hungry, he lived cleaning up the scraps of others so that he could feed his child.
I watched him go to the next bin and the next, taking what he could find. His shame was so great he knew nothing else and, as I watched him turn the corner, I felt my own shame in not seeing just how many people are around me that live in a world of shame like he does.
That’s the “underdeveloped” world, right? Oppressive communist policies have a part to play in that, but shame is both much more universal and subtle. Our city’s streets have people like the man I saw in Beijing. Without question he lives unnoticed in Seattle too, but most of our shame is not unnoticed, it is merely covered up.
Unlike the man in China, we have strength and resources to push the shame down and triumphantly step on it saying “This will not define me! I will not let it!” All the while, what we stand on seeps into our system as a poison, slowly weakening us from the inside outward.
Our city (and many like it) has an unofficial motto of: “You have no reason to be ashamed!” But, like we talked about before, we all not only have reason to be ashamed (the sin we enjoy and live in), but we all live with a sense of shame.
[Note here: I know that some shame is ours to own and some of our shame is due to something done to us. We need to repent of the sin we treasure that causes us to be shameful and ask for help for the shame that comes because of what was done to us.]
Yes, people are called “shameless” and some people are more sensitive to it than others, but shame is a universal emotion… an often unarticulated feeling that lies beneath the surface of our everyday thinking. It is always there, shaping the way we think, causing us to shy away when we shouldn’t and draining us of emotional energy that could be used to love other people affectionately. It’s there, whether we like it or not, notice it or not.
We may not show our shame in public by walking with a heavy head, but we betray it in public by raising our heads too high. Over compensating. Not a clear conscience, but a conflicted “confidence.”
We Mask Our Shame with Pride.
If this, at first, sounds like a condemnation of a particular community, please know that it isn’t. This is a description of every community. We all do this. We all live with shame that we don’t know what to do with. We scramble for fig leaves and hide behind trees. In western culture, the most common way to deal with shame is not to courageously look at the root of it to kill it, but to turn our back on it and defiantly say we have triumphed over it.
We celebrate what is evil and harmful in order to deny the shame. We work hard to be “good people” (or at least better than someone else) in order to tell ourselves that we are really not what we honestly believe ourselves to be. We try to exercise it away or meditate it out, but it lingers.
The “right” position at the company can try to mask the shame. The “right” way to parent can try to hide the feeling. Volunteering to help those less fortunate can be a smokescreen in our own souls, concealing shame for a time. Each of those things on their own can be a good thing, but they are also fig leaves that dry up eventually and never really cover what we want to hide. It is a lot of hard work NOT dealing with the real issue.
The Question that Haunts When We Are Honest
I woke up this morning, fearful of being ashamed. I mean, deeply fearful. Desperate to not be seen as foolish or a fraud. Even as I type these words, I know what it means to carry shame. And, I know what it means to want it all to go away.
If living with the shame is not healthy and burying it with self-righteous pride is destructive, then what can we do?!!