Let’s begin with a big fat sigh. I need to focus. Focus on good things, positive things, important things. There is a lot in my life that I am competent at. I have accomplishments and achievements worthy of satisfaction. Some I even feel good about. In terms of Maitri however, (lovingkindness for oneself) I am a big fat failure, a disaster, a serious hot mess. And that one deficiency, somehow blots out any and all of the scant successes I can conjure up to mind. As I hesitantly, tentatively, timidly reach for self love and acceptance, I am slapped away by the long-fingered hand of shame. I don’t even feel overly bad for myself, if truth be told, because I know well enough that I am not alone by any means. I have honestly come to think of this as a human proclivity, this inability to shake shame easily. Well, at least for most of us (politicians not included).
I used to be on a list of guest ministers for local Unitarian churches. I made the rounds of churches in my area, filling in for their vacationing pastors. I met so many wonderful, spiritual, socially aware and emotionally sound individuals. Very often my sermons focused on questions like: “why can’t we give ourselves a break”, “why is shame so much easier to access than pride”, “why is loving yourself so hard”. I didn’t ask these questions because I had any idea what the answers were. I asked because I genuinely wanted to know. I felt if anyone was going to know the answers, it would be one of these lovely, loving people sitting raptly attentive in the pews before me. And if anyone out there had answers, I needed them to share with me! But every time I met folks after the services at the meet and greet, I was regaled with story after story of painful shame that burned as hotly in the telling as it had in the sometimes decades since the original incident took place. People shared in vivid technicolor clarity stories of embarrassment, humiliation, shame. From tiny little blips on the video screen of life to bigger-picture accidents, the stories just kept coming. Groups would gather and individuals would try to outdo one another with shame-stories.
As the hilarity(sic) of the shame stories died down, and we’d get to more serious life stuff, some of these same people would share that they had recently been promoted, received an award, participated in successful endeavors. Why weren’t those the first stories they shared? Why is pride so fleeting and shame so enduring? Why can the swell of triumph and exultation be so quickly and thoroughly expunged by searing shame, guilt, remorse and humiliation?
I recently participated in a whopper of a shame-inducing experience that continues to pound me with wave after wave of paralyzing, stupefying shame. Or, as I like to call shame, the gift that keeps on giving. This incident in question came at the end of a day in which I had been lauded and thanked and praised by summer chaplaincy students who couldn’t gush about the wonders of me enough. I brought home cards and letters extolling my virtues and thanking me for my mentoring. At the end of that glorious day I took Joita out on errands to purchase items she needed for camp. As we pulled in front of the house, having spent some excellent quality time together, Joita mentioned that she had her learner’s permit with her. In a very short span of time, something like nano-seconds, my mind took in and considered a thousand thoughts as minds are wont to do: I’d left work early in order to do these errands with Jo, so no one was around in our quiet neighborhood; the street was empty; we had just been having a wonderful, relaxed time together; she had already completed the classroom portion of driver’s education; the adaptive driving school (despite 2 emails and 3 phone calls from me) had not gotten back to me; she drove the go-carts last year without a problem; what were the chances she didn’t need adaptive equipment on the car; she was going away to camp and I wasn’t going to see her for close to a month; imagine having a normal milestone experience with my kid, what would that be like?! And on and on. And in that split second I put the car in neutral and told her to get in the driver’s side. Her excitement and sheer joy quashed any niggling concerns I had. She put the car in gear with my passenger seat guidance and we began to roll ahead. She steered toward the middle of the road and I calmly told her to bring us back to the right. She stopped at the end of the road. Her pride was contagious. She couldn’t believe she was driving! And neither could I. She turned the corner wide and again, I calmly directed her to the right side of the road. But then a car was coming the other way. She panicked. And swerved hard right. Up onto the curb and into a tree. CRASH!
Her screaming could probably have been heard for miles. She was crying and swatting at me, slapping the steering wheel, screaming at me, blaming me, hating me. Her humiliation was palpable and her anger was painful. She wasn’t physically hurt. We were going all of 1 mile per hour. She actually hadn’t even used the gas pedal – we were just rolling with the car being engaged in Drive. I spoke with her calmly despite my own adrenaline rush. I put the car in park and turned it off. I placed a solid hand on her shoulder and told her to simply breathe. Because of her screaming, several neighbors called 911. And quite quickly there were 3 police cruisers, two fire trucks and an ambulance racing toward us. Sirens blaring, honking, hooting. Joita got shakily out of the car, grabbed her crutches, still spewing hate at me (it was all my fault, why did I force her to drive when I knew she couldn’t, she hated me, and on and on). She walked a ways down the street away from the crash scene, shoulders heaving with each emotional sobbing step. Emily was texting me rapid-fire – what’s going on?! what was that crash?! please tell her it wasn’t us!! what was happening?! I tried to respond to her, keep an eye on Jo, answer concerned neighbors who had come out to help, trying not to look at my beautiful car with its smashed front end. I was surrounded quickly by first-responder personnel who were also firing questions at me.
Fear shot through me for a heart-stopping instant as I looked over the shoulder of the firefighter addressing me. Here were the police. And there was my brown-skinned child walking purposefully away from an accident and from them. Dumbstruck by irrational (truly irrational? did you see the video of the black girl in the bikini being thrown on the ground by police) fear that the police were going to attack (or kill) my brown child despite the fact that she didn’t appear to pose a threat (see aforementioned story of brown-skinned young woman in bikini). Neighbors were talking at me. The fire chief was asking questions. And then I saw Emily (with Ruby in a stroller and Nina), looking like nothing less than fury personified, a veritable storm-cloud of rage, focused on and heading right for me. Our eyes locked. Hers filled with anger as she looked from me to the car on the sidewalk – what were you thinking – her expression demanded. She closed her eyes and shook her head, then she turned around and walked away.
The police were actually great. They were nice and calm and understanding. The female firefighter hugged me and sent the other firetruck and ambulance away as she, too, turned her truck expertly around in the street. The police quietly cleared the bystanders. The officer standing with me realized that he and I play hockey together in the same league and with that realization he allowed space for connection, companionship and a level playing field. His partner was masterfully calming Joita down, his hand lightly resting on her shoulder in supportive encouragement. He guided her back to the car where I was standing and she let me hug her. She broke down again in sobs. My hockey-playing-friend shared stories of other first-time drivers and their accidents with her. He decided, since no one was hurt and the damage was fairly minimal, he was not going to write up a report. He patted me on the shoulder, hugged Jo and he and his associate left. I drove the car limpingly into our driveway two houses away and then walked back to retrieve my front bumper.
After I took care of necessary details (checking in with Jo and letting her know that I loved her and that accidents happen, calling insurance), with my defenses down, the shit-storm of shame engulfed me. Pretty much this is all I have thought about for the past week. It is all my mind and spirit have been able to focus on. It is all I have dreamed about (with the one-night-exception where I dreamed about singing and playing guitar with Amy Winehouse in a campground bathroom). What had I been thinking?! What on earth possessed me to let Joita drive my car?! Wasn’t it clear to me that Joita needed adaptive driving equipment?! What if children had been playing (as is so often the case in our neighborhood) on that sidewalk!? What if Joita had swerved the other way and crashed into the oncoming car?! I think you’ve got the picture.
Once Emily got over her initial anger at my profound lack of judgment, and panic over how we will pay our 500 dollar deductible, she was calm and supportive. She could let it go. I could not. Even Joita, once she was assured of my unconditional love and the fact that I was not angry at her (and that she wasn’t in trouble), was able to move on. I cannot. Words I heard as a child, “How stupid can you be?!” have echoed in my head over and over and over.
What I’ve learned about my own shame is that some of it will dissipate with time. That each time shameful thoughts pop up in my head I can close my eyes, take a deep breath and dismiss them. And like those wise teachers at the Unitarian churches, I can share my shame stories with a certain amount of hilarity and diminish shame’s power in the telling.