Who's hiding in your garden?

  • June 27, 2008

At the words of his wife, Jim shrivels inside himself and speaks thereafter in infrequent monosyllables. She thinks he is sullen.

Shawna becomes belligerent when her supervisor criticizes her and stalks out.

Lee cracks jokes in the face of his father’s reprimand, and later pummels his brother.

You may not be able to tell by observing them that they’re feeling shame, each in a different way. The people they’re with don’t recognize the charcoal-gray cloud over them. Jim’s wife shrugs at her husband’s irascibility; Shawna’s supervisor seeks to have her transferred; Lee’s parents are exasperated at his nonchalant attitude.

We all have our ways of reacting to shame. Often it comes over us unexpectedly, unrecognized, unwelcome. The cold sweat in the stomach, the frustration or despair, may be more familiar. Shame doesn’t like to be exposed but stays in the shadows, and when a light is shone in its eyes, it tries to distract or harm us so as to escape observation. So Jim, instead of thinking, “I feel ashamed,” might be saying to himself:  “it’s pointless to say anything — she’ll never understand.” We might go years without realizing the shadow following us is shame. Some call it “toxic shame,” the one that makes us want to run and hide, like Adam and Eve discovering themselves naked. Then at the approach of their Beloved — the One who called them into being and gave them a garden to play in, and liked to walk with them in the cool of the evening — they hide themselves. Questioned, they point elsewhere. Adam:  “Don’t look at me, look at Eve.” Eve:  “Don’t look at me, look at the serpent.”

Which of us hasn’t tried it? Regularly, even? Don’t look at me, look at my income. Don’t look at me, look at how much trouble I can cause. Don’t look at me, look at the ones who failed me.

Shame can keep us running and hiding for years, without even knowing it. Whatever it was that wounded us long ago, we’ve learned to protect that wound by building a thick and then thicker shell around it, and burying our real selves deep inside, until we’re barely accessible even to ourselves.

How can such shame ever be healed?

There’s an ancient Christian story about an elderly Jewish couple. He was a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. One day, another priest told him he wasn’t worthy to touch the holy things, because he had no children. The husband’s shame was touched, it seems — his wound, the wound he and his wife carried, the kind of inner pain that makes some of us want to hit someone or turn to drinking or smoking or any of the millions of addictions. This man fled. Into the wilderness. His wife, not knowing why he ran, also fled. Into her garden.

The difference between them and Adam and Eve is that Anna and Joachim fled, not away from God, but towards Him. They showed God their wound. They stood in their nakedness and shame before Him. According to the tradition, God responded. He promised them a child. He asked each of them, he alone in the wilderness, she alone in the garden, to go to the Golden Gate of the Temple. Their faith in His word is witnessed by their actions: independently of each other — the story tells — Joachim and Anna ran to the Temple and met at the gate. Their embrace is an icon for Christians, for Orthodox Christians an icon of the Holy Family:  because their child was Mary, who would be mother of Christ. So Mary, in a sense, is born of their openness to God’s healing of their inner wound, to let God into the parts of themselves where they felt the most ashamed and hopeless. And to carry this together, before one another and before God.

I know an elderly couple who were married 56 years ago on the feast day of St. Anna, July 26. They didn’t deliberately choose her day, but I’m thinking perhaps she chose them. I don’t pretend to know their inner wounds, yet they are human, and I’m sure they have them. They can be as earthy and as stubborn as anyone; but at times, they are translucent, and as their bodies weaken their spirits seem to strengthen and shine more brilliantly. Observing them, I believe they have learned much about what made Anna and Joachim holy: that healing comes in our littleness, in the vulnerability with which we turn to one another before God and say, “Here I am. Come in.” Even to the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of. And it comes in the love with which we receive one another’s littleness. 

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ ” (Revelation 3:20).