Shame's Destruction of a Nation & the Way We Begin to Fix It

I was sitting outdoors (50 ft from the closest person and in a mask) when a man who was dressed arguably like a ninja walked by. I say ninja because in all sincerity he was donning a Gi, a hiking backpack and a staff of some sort. He was affable and I greeted him with a ‘good morning’. We had a pleasant interaction about the glorious weather, the start of a new day, and before he left he said,

“Have a blessed day. By the way, it’s good to see you again...2000 years is a long time.”

As a social worker, my initial frame of reference when this man approached in non-traditional garb and appearing nomadic was that he possibly had severe and persistent mental illness, or SPMI, in short. I wondered about potential perceptual disturbances, delusions, and his overall thought content.

It was judgmental, but I was reflexively recalling a foundational part of my training in conducting brief mental status exams when working with patients. A brief mental status exam takes into account the presentation of an individual and includes such things as appropriateness of clothing, grooming, hygiene, thought content, perception etc.

The man left me to ponder his last statement, “It’s good to see you again, 2000 years is a long time...”

That statement, and the genuine warmth with which it was said left me with an unexpected sense of connectedness. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, the subtext of his message was recognition of the divine. Whether he implied divinity within himself or divinity within me, it was a beautiful moment that led me to ponder the ancient shared wisdom within all of us.

The connectedness we share, regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs, is irrefutable by DNA.

We live in a world that appears “more divided than ever before”. I don’t think that is the case, however. I believe the current situation is finally shedding light onto the divisions that have been there all along. None of the problems that we are facing in America are new. They have been there since our inception as settlers took away the land, lives, and rights of indigenous people and built an economy on the backs of those enslaved.

Our divisions are deeply entrenched and perhaps what is different now, and to a degree hopeful, is that these things are being brought into the light.

It’s hard to reckon with and it’s hard to look at, but the discomfort and shame we feel in our own complicity is nothing compared to pain and suffering experienced by those who have experienced oppression in its many forms.

Many of us feel ashamed for the role we play in upholding systems that are rigged in favor of cis-gendered heterosexual white people. What is the purpose of that shame? Is it moving us to action, or does it force more hiding?

As Brene Brown so eloquently puts it, “Shame is a tool of oppression and injustice.”

Shame is used to disconnect and keep us feeling separate.

It is important that we are held accountable. It is okay to feel guilt. Guilt is recognition of our failed actions (or inactions) and can move us towards corrective efforts. Shame leaves us to feel that we, as a human being, are fundamentally flawed and that these flaws keep us from being connected to others. We cover the things we feel shame over.

Shame separates. Shame destroys.

So...bringing it back to the man who wished me a blessed day. As I was typing this line, he came back up the street and we talked some more. He proceeded to tell me his belief that God is female, something I deeply appreciated, and also spoke of Dr. King’s work. We spoke some more and as he departed he said, “Have a great and long life, I’ll see you in the after-life.”

It’s funny; we get socialized and trained to conceptualize each other on the basis of labels and diagnoses. In the case of diagnoses, which are nothing more than an aggregate collection of symptoms, it can be helpful to label for the purpose of identifying the most effective and appropriate treatments. For that, there is rationale and purpose.

I think the charge we are all given, mental health professional, pastor, factory-worker, nurse, or fast-food cook, is to love and care for the individual because every person is worthy of love and belonging, no matter how flawed. That is not to give a hall-pass to those who mistreat and harm others or spew hatred. In these cases it can be helpful to remember that they, like us, are human and while they are worthy of love and belonging accountability is necessary. Accountability can look like protests, whistle-blowing, lawsuits, collective action...

In caring for others as individuals, we also must take time to consider their lived experiences. To say, “I don’t see color” fails to recognize the overt and covert acts of discrimination people of color face on a daily basis.

If we are to move forward as a nation, as a community, as an individual, we must hold each other, and ourselves, accountable. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. We are called to community; it is embedded into our DNA (seriously, that’s how we survived for millennia).

To live into that means identifying and changing the ways that we are complicit in the exploitation or marginalization of others and holding each other accountable to do the same.

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.