Back in June I went to that ancient faith writing conference held at the Antiochian Village in Bolivar, Pennsylvania. One of the most important talks I attended was a discussion about how shame affects us personally and how it is handled within the Orthodox Church. Shame is something that we have all felt. The oxford english dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Usually it’s a sullen attitude. Your eyes don’t make contact as they fall to the floor. Your face flushes red with embarrassment and you feel like absolute garbage. It’s as if a hole could open up right underneath your feet and swallow you up, and you wouldn’t mind because then you wouldn’t be in that situation. We all need to admit that shame (and all of it’s corresponding emotions) exist, and as a society we gotta have a confrontation within ourselves about how we would rather avoid any form of shame, whether public or not, than face the music and accept the consequences.
Time to get personal. This talk was very hard for me to hear. With every explanation Father Stephen Freeman gave regarding shame, and how it impacts the human condition, I felt more of my own personal shame and sadness bubble up to the surface. I have been dealing with a good deal of shame over a decision I made last fall. It wasn’t an easy choice, but I put my foot down and was trying to stay the course. Even it it meant causing some pain and saying no. So what choice did I have to make that caused this much shame? I ended my relationship with my mom and dad. I cut my parents out of my life and ended all contact, two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Before I go any further, let me say simply that my parents are wonderful people and were great parents for me growing up. They loved me with all they could give and did all they could to ensure I had a happy and well rounded childhood. However there were issues that I wish would have been dealt with earlier, and issues that didn’t arise until I met my wife. The words we use and the actions we take have consequences, similar to throwing stones into a pond. The initial splash settles quickly, however pretty soon ripples in the water begin to form and spread. Those ripples impact not only the pond surface, but also anyone else who may be in the water.
Words matter, but even more important is how you say those words. For some people, a shout and a scream gets the message across, but for others it acts as a paralytic. The body tenses up, while the heart rate increases. Shame is filling your insides as you stand there, trapped and unable to escape the verbal onslaught. The only thing you want to do is run! I was between eight and nine at the time, and was still having problems leaving brown marks in my underwear. My father was getting frustrated by it, and it was embarrassing. More shame, and I wanted to hide it. I wanted to avoid the shame of coming home with dirty underwear, and avoid the shame of facing my upset father. So I avoided the problem all together, by stashing the offending garments under my bed in a blue plastic crayon box. This plan worked for maybe a week, that is until they found the box. I came home from school one day and waiting for me in the living room were my mom and dad. I remember the yelling and the loud angry words flying past my ears. The paralyzing fear as my legs refused to work. My brain went into reboot mode and I couldn’t formulate words to express the emotions and reasoning regarding why I would do such a thing and my lack of communication only made the situation worse. I hid my shameful underwear, because I wanted to avoid this kind of parental shame and embarrassment, but could I say that? No. The blue plastic box tumbled through the air and flew past my head. Six or seven dirty tighty whities flew into the air as the box opened in mid flight. My father was so upset and as he walked away I heard him wish out loud that he wasn’t a part of the family. I was scared and hurt. I picked up the underwear and went to my room.
After the chaos settled down, my father and I took the time to wash the underwear out in the sink together. We had a conversation about the things that he had said and how my actions had impacted them. However it would be another 20 years before we had a conversation talking about how his words and actions impacted me.
I want to say this was a one time occurrence, however my father didn’t settle down from his harsher tendencies until much later in life. There was once a situation where he came to my elementary school and berated me while I stood in line with my other classmates. I would have done anything in order to avoid this kind of public shaming. However, all I could do was stand there and get yelled at while everybody else watched. A week later one of my friends walked up to me and asked “hey Ian, do you still have that really mean Dad?” How was I supposed to respond?
I don’t want to throw my father under the bus completely. He wasn’t a bad father. After all, he and my mom really tried their best with me. The three of us created many happy memories. The problem with my mother however, was her enabling of my father’s stricter form of parenting. Dad would yell at me, I would complain to Mom and in turn she would talk to my dad about it. But nothing would actually change. In the end it would be time itself which would soften my Dad.
As we both got older, my father and I were able to have some discussions regarding the use of language, verbal tones and the emotional and shameful impacts caused by yelling and verbal abuse. The conversations really allowed he and I to form a better relationship as adults and he became someone that I truly looked up to and admired. It felt like finally he was understanding what it felt like to be on the receiving end of shameful confrontation, and at the same time I could understand his mental process and why he felt he needed to use those tones and words with me.
My mother had the opposite experience however. Growing up she was ferociously supportive of me. She would defend me to the end and bend over backwards in order to make sure that I was taken care of. When the school bullies tried to keep me locked in the bike rack, she jumped out of the nearby bushes with a camcorder in hand and dragged the bullies up to the principal’s office. She was a force to be reckoned with; like a hurricane approaching landfall, or a dragon swooping down upon Westeros.
I don’t know if it was simply because I was no longer her baby boy, or perhaps she had different opinions about how I should live my life, all I know is that she changed.
My wonderful mother had to contend with another strong woman starting in the fall of 2008. These two women initially got along quite well. My soon to be wife loved my family, and called my mom “Mama J”. However each time my wife and I would try to make plans, my mother would provide unnecessary feedback and or advice that simply didn’t help, and in a manner that was quite demeaning sometimes. If we had chosen to accept her offer of help and failed to thank her as graciously as she had wanted, she would make up false explanations regarding my own masculinity or compare my own personal self worth to that of my brother and my sister. It felt very much like I would receive love and support in one hand but would be slapped with the other. Soon we were having a fight that would recur on a circular basis every six months.
The last thing I wanted was to lose this relationship. Every time this fight reared its ugly head, I was always on the side of reconciliation. Even if it meant that I would be thrown under the wheels of the bus in the very near future, I would try to heal my family and bring everyone together. My wife and I tried to communicate our frustrations in a respectful manner while offering up ownership of our own faults and sins towards them. We were aware of what we had done to shame them in the past and tried several times to peacefully reconcile. We had more than our fair share of shouting and arguments with them, and at one point we almost seriously jeopardized their business. However what we wanted in return was for them to acknowledge and understand what my wife and I were saying. We needed my parents to comprehend fully how their actions and their words caused us to feel shame and pain. We wanted our boundaries to respected. In their business, we had worked with them staff members and indirect therapeutic counselors. We helped instruct teenage boys on shame. We worked with and helped them process their negative emotions regarding depression, anxiety and guilt in a therapeutic safe setting. We helped these young men understand how boundaries work and how to be respectful I thought the people’s boundaries. Much of the therapeutic curriculum we participated in had roots in Orthodoxy, as well as clinical resources. Boundaries therefore were something we thought my parents would understand.
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for, gives me freedom. Taking responsibility for my life opens up many different options. Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. And you are the one who may be keeping yourself from making the choices you could be happy with. We must own our own thoughts and clarify distorted thinking.”Henry Cloud, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life
Understanding is not what we received. Instead our message was sent back to us with an accompanying message stating that everything was our fault and that we were not being true forgiving loving Orthodox Christians. Attached to this message was a detailed list containing every single thing that either my wife or myself had ever done wrong over the last 10 years. Some of these personal details were truths told in private. Confidential words that I told them in order to clear the air before my baptism were used against me as arrows of judgement. Not only was this memo of accusations a betrayal of trust, it was not only sent to us. My wife’s parents had also received this attack and soon similar messages were spread to other members of our families via Facebook. Our trust was shattered and our hearts were broken. This was not a relationship we wanted to be in any longer.
We finally had the straw that broke the camel’s back in 2018. My wife and I had survived a pretty serious attempt at divorce and were working extremely hard on reconciliation and rebuilding our marriage. At the same time we were trying to complete a home purchase. We may have been stressed but we were working together to really give ourselves a home, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. My brother who happens to be a real estate agent offered up a piece of advice for us. He informed me of a loophole regarding home loan credit applications in Washington State, a communal property state. We did not want to run my wife’s credit because at the time it wasn’t as good as mine, and he had offered up a solution. It was a specific program that allowed for a married person to file a credit application but have it be processed as a sole and separate property.
During this process my mother and I spoke on the phone. She had some questions regarding this program that my brother had suggested and wanted to know whether or not my wife would still be entitled to half of my possessions in the event we ever finished the divorce.
This was not a question that I expected. It really hurt. Here we were trying to overcome and heal the rifts that developed in our marriage, and she is asking about possessions in the event that we fail. At first I didn’t say anything because I tried to not let it bother me but after talking to my wife about it we were both frustrated and upset by her words. When we confronted her with her statement, she did everything she could to distance herself from the actual statement that she had said and instead turned the discussion back towards our own faults. She then later denied ever asking about the program and when I explained further, she got defensive. This was like a never ending merry-go-round. Just when you feel like you no longer going to be sick, it starts spinning faster and you try to hold on tighter and not lose your lunch. I was tired of the Merry-Go-Round and I wanted to get off.
How could anyone be okay living in this kind of toxic relationship? Where everything is wonderful until it’s not and when it’s not, it’s all your fault. Where shame and guilt trips are piled onto your psyche like extra dessert at an all-you-can-eat buffet. How would our son handle this when he gets older? Would he be forced to deal with the same level of abuse? Would he get a talking to because he wasn’t as grateful for a present as they had hoped?
It was at the end of August when I decided to cut my mother out of my life. I would no longer allow my family to be subjugated to this level of continual pain. I still wanted my father in my life. He is a good man, a Godly Man. He is now a deacon in the Orthodox Church, and while he has been forced to slow down due to Parkinson’s disease, his faith and his integrity have remained the same. When my wife and my mother were at odds because of words, I would often go to him for advice and support. It was this support that I needed when Thanksgiving rolled around.
He had sent me a message asking if they could come down and see us for Thanksgiving. I was more than happy to have him come down and see us but I explained that Mom wasn’t welcome and I was done with that Merry-Go-Round of drama. He told me he would think about it. He soon came back to me with a solution that he thought would appease all parties. He could come down and visit us at our house and my mom meanwhile could stay in one of the hotels in the next town over. Then it would be just a simple matter of he and I putting my son into the car and going to see Grandma without ever letting my wife know what was going on. Taking my child without letting my wife know would be paramount to kidnapping. I tried to politely explain that his plan was not okay and that Mom was not welcomed to see our son whether or not I was complicit in whisking him away. He later informed me that he would not if you coming down for a visit after all. That he simply could not leave his wife behind. As a husband I respected what he was saying, but as a son I was beyond hurt.
All the conversations that he and I had regarding the drama and stress that I was in the middle of, all of the times that he told me he would talk to my mother and help diffuse the situation on their end, those moments quickly evaporated like a puddle on a hot summer day. The only thing that I wanted from him was his support and for him to stand by me like he said he would, especially in regards to my mother’s behavior. My stomach had dropped as I realized how alone my wife and I were. There would be no going back, no final attempt at reconciliation. With a heavy heart I blocked them both on Facebook and removed any access either of them had to my family.
This was a decision that they we’re not happy with. I remember getting the call from my wife on my birthday saying simply “your mother is here”. My wife locked the door and hid upstairs. With me busy at work, this was simply not a confrontation she wanted to have. My mother spent the next two hours screaming at the house, demanding to be let in, declaring herself to be a safe person, and sitting on the porch reading a book. Other times she would sit kitty corner across the street in her personal vehicle patiently waiting for any sign of movement or for her dear baby boy to come home. Finally she left before I got home and my wife and I discussed the situation, and how it felt like a public shaming.
All of these events were still fresh in my mind when I boarded the plane heading towards Pennsylvania. I attended the conference with an open heart, ready to learn and ready to hear whatever God wanted to say. I sat down Friday night ready for Father Stephen Freeman’s talk on Orthodoxy and shame. Father Freeman explained how shame is the loss of communion with others. Shame in its stronger forms, cuts and isolates us from the ones we love. Shame is also how we feel about who we are, whereas guilt is about how I feel about what I did. More often than not, shame and guilt end up walking side-by-side, hand-in-hand. Using shame and or guilt in a way to teach or punish, simply isn’t practical and is a form of abuse.
About an hour later the talk was over, and everybody was getting up to leave. I started Gathering my possessions, when I felt a hand on top of mine. It belonged to the priest sitting next to me. As I turned my head to look at the priestly old man to my left he spoke. “Is everything okay my son?”
I couldn’t hold it in. Suddenly I was telling this complete stranger every single detail about my shame and how I was feeling in regards to my parents. He sat there patiently listening to me ramble on about all these details and all the emotions that I had been feeling. Finally after he let me get everything off my chest he said to me “Have you forgiven them yet?”
Yes. I have forgiven them. I love them so much and pray for them on a daily basis. I have not forgotten them nor have I cast them to the side like household garbage. I simply no longer wanted to be hurt.
“Forgive doesn’t mean forget. You can forgive somebody 70 upon 70 times like Jesus asks but you don’t have to forget the pain. This is something extremely important to remember, that it is okay to remember how you were hurt because it then allows you to make better decisions in the future.”
He closed his eyes briefly before speaking again. “All you have to do is forgive them, and let God take care of the rest.”
I was dumbfounded. However, as soon as he said those words I realized he was speaking the truth. I had forgiven them, but I was still holding on to all the shame and guilt that I was feeling. I didn’t have to do that. I had already forgiven them now all I have to do was leave the rest to God.
And so that’s what I’m doing.
Lord have mercy. Thank you for reading this very personal post. This is not something that I easily talk about but in my attempt to publish my true self, only honesty and the truth can be worthy of publishing.
Until next time my friends,