The Shame Spiral
January 10, 2016
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words ―from Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
My friend reminded me about the five rules of the world as arrived at by a theologian. First rule, you must not have anything wrong or different about you. If you do, you must get over it as soon as possible. If you can’t, you must pretend that you have. If you can’t even pretend that you have, you shouldn’t show up. You should stay home, because it’s hard for everyone else to have you around. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on showing up, you should at least have the decency to feel ashamed.
So I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed.”
Reading adapted from Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
This novel is about a family that has emigrated from India to New York City, and the narrator’s older brother, a star high school student, has had a swimming accident and is in a vegetative state. Their mother has become unpredictable.
In the mornings I prayed, and at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping but couldn’t, I spoke with God. One rainy night, the room was gray with light from the street and my mother was lying nearby, her breath whistling. I was on my strip of foam and I asked God whether he minded being prayed to only in need.
“You think of your toe only when you stub it.”
“Still, it’s better to pray just to pray.”
“It’s human nature. I don’t mind it.”
God looked like Clark Kent. He was wearing a gray cardigan and slacks. He sat cross-legged at the foot of the mat. Originally, right after the accident when I had first started talking to him, God looked like Krishna. But it had felt foolish to discuss brain damage with someone who was blue and was holding a flute and had a peacock feather in his hair.
“You’re not angry with me for touching the tree?”
“No, I’m flexible.”
There was as large oak tree on the way to school. It stood half on the sidewalk and half off. Because the tree looked very old, I thought it might know God from when there were fewer things in the world. Usually as I passed it, I would touch the tree and bring my hand to my forehead the way I did when I had touched my grandfather’s feet.“I respect you. The tree is just a way of showing respect to my elders.”
God laughed. “I am not too caught up in formalities.”
I became quiet. I was convinced that I had been marked as special by Birju’s accident. To me it appeared obvious that the beginnings of all heroes contained misfortune. Both Krishna and Superman had been separated from their parents at birth. Batman, too, had been orphaned. Ram had to spend fourteen years in the forest… “I want Birju’s accident to lead to something.” Saying this felt noble.
“He won’t be forgotten.”
“I can’t just be famous though. I need money too. I need to take care of Mommy and Daddy.”
“First you grab the finger, then you grab the wrist.”
“I am just being practical.”
“Don’t worry. You can hardly imagine the life ahead.”
This last statement made me happy.
“Are things getting worse?” God was silent.“I am ashamed.”
“After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child.”
“Everybody thinks strange thoughts. It doesn’t matter if you think something.”
“Why don’t you make Birju like he was?”
As soon as I asked that question, God stopped feeling real. I knew then that I was alone, lying under my blanket, my face exposed to the dark…. The idea of a future in which Birju was still sick made fame seem pointless….. God and I were silent for a while.
And I knew, things were getting worse.
Long ago, on a rocky hill outside the city of Athens, in a temple built for Athena, there was a loyal priestess. She happened to be beautiful, with hair that curled past her shoulders and skin that was soft and warm, but what really defined her was the choice she made to serve Athena. She was truly devoted to the Goddess of wisdom, and willingly took on the obligations. The priestesses were expected to commit themselves to expanding their own minds, spiritually and intellectually. They had to remain chaste, and could never marry, and if they went forth into the world, it was as if the Temple of Athena had moved with them. To approach a priestess required reverence; it was like entering the temple, and could not be done without respect, and honor.
Yet one day Poseidon, the god of the sea, arrived at the temple, saw this faithful priestess, and took her as his own. Because of this desecration, the priestess was cursed. Each curl on her head was transformed into a venomous snake; her beautiful skin became scaly and tinged with green, and her eyes bulged out and turned blood red, filling anyone who saw them with disgust and fear. And the fear was appropriate, because if your eyes met hers, you would turn instantly to stone. She was cast out, sent to a remote island, where nothing ever grows. Shamed, she was removed from the world.
I have never heard the story of Medusa told as anything but one of punishment. The priestess broke her vow; infuriated Athena, and this was the result – even though there is some acknowledgement that the girl had no choice; was in fact assaulted by a god. Because of her, the temple was defiled, and so she was transformed into a death-giving monster. Sometimes the story changes a little bit, and the rape is removed, and Medusa is described as bragging about her beauty; but either way, the punishment is because of her looks: Her appearance was pleasing and tempted Poseidon, so she is cursed. Medusa didn’t actually do anything, but the shame of a culture that allows innocent people to be hurt has been transferred to her.
One hundred years ago, a French navy ship called The Medusa went down off the coast of West Africa. Built during the Napoleonic wars, and instrumental in briefly regaining Mauritius, the Medusa disrupted British trade routes, and then ferried French officials back and forth to Senegal, where they ruled over the natives. But the captain was inept, and ran the ship aground – a complete loss of the five year old vessel. The few lifeboats were nowhere near enough for the 400 people on board, so broken pieces of lumber were hastily assembled into a raft, and attached by a tow rope to one of the small launches that accompanied big ships. After placing 146 men and one woman on the makeshift float, the royal officers severed the rope, so they could sail on unimpeded. During thirteen days of drifting, dozens of people were washed into the water. Some of the weak and injured were tossed overboard when supplies ran low; others who rebelled had been killed and eaten. No one ever searched for these people, and at the time of their somewhat accidental rescue, there were fifteen survivors clinging to the boards. Five of them did not live long after being pulled from the water.
A painter who had his own reasons for being drawn to shameful and tragic scenes became friendly with three of the ten men who survived – an engineer, a carpenter, and a surgeon. Their experience of being abandoned at sea gave an emotional depth to the tale, and their professions gave incredible accuracy in multiple dimensions. In a studio across the street from a hospital, they helped the painter reconstruct everything — they built a detailed scale model of the raft, obtained body parts and severed heads from the morgue so he could study their decay, brought him to visit patients so he could sketch dying faces. The painting, called The Raft of the Medusa, is huge, — slightly larger than 16 by 24 feet — and the boards that were so low in the water are also low in the frame. The viewer is drawn uncomfortably into the scene. Some critics were repulsed by the painting and did not think it was art, and disparaged the painter. But many who saw it understood that it was a picture of the truth, and what was repulsive was the behavior of leaders who installed an incompetent political appointee as captain, and who were participating in the slave trade despite popular sentiment against it, and who never did more than save themselves.
When I picked this topic, I had no idea that on Wednesday I would read about bodies washing ashore in resort towns on islands off the Greek coast, or that on Thursday we would crash awake from the dream of a border-free Europe as sexual assaults in Germany were being used as a reason to ban immigrants. It all made me think about Medusa on her island, and the shipwrecked Medusa. Last summer, an art critic contrasted this painting and its call for compassion and human decency with today’s refugee crisis. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones wrote that in 1819 the public was able to imagine life for those people, and they were outraged and heartbroken. Now, we know the facts but we refuse to be moved by them; that we can’t stand to think about these people; are afraid of being less comfortable, and so we have become cynical, and calculating. This is our shame, says Jones: We do not feel with others. Or, in my case and most likely in yours, we do feel. But we don’t know what to do.
After the shootings in San Bernadino last month, there was a fair amount of ridicule directed at the idea of responding to gun violence with prayer. There was enough of this chatter that it got a name – “prayer shaming,” because the assumption is that praying means you aren’t doing anything – that instead of changing the laws or somehow making this trouble go away, you are just saying something that doesn’t matter – not even to you. Besides the kind of bitter sarcasm this reveals, the deeper problem is that it proves how distrustful and divided we are. We still don’t talk about how we got to this point, or why our country and our world is so violent; and we still don’t contemplate change. Instead we shift to talking about the meaning, or lack of meaning, in prayer. Pretending to be about action, it is actually a way of shunning anyone who holds the “wrong” opinion. The idea of prayer shaming ends up proving our inability to act together; to support the most basic human aspect of our common life, which is caring about each other, whether we can do anything or not.
It is painful to confront the idea of not being able to do anything. I wonder sometimes if this is a fundamental part of shame. So often it seems that the lesson imparted is about what was deserved, or explaining why we ended up in a position of pain and suffering. This individualizes shame, and makes it personal, but shame is an inherently social phenomenon. You can’t really feel humiliated or disgraced without some kind of audience, even if it is just an internalized one – the ghosts of people you have let down, disappointed, failed; or a cultural standard you have just never been able to meet. Even though we make shame about personal failure, there is something about this feeling that is tied up in our desire to save one another; and the terrific pain that comes of knowing we cannot. We are not in control. It can make us hide from each other and from ourselves, simultaneously feeling powerless and as if we misused the power we do have. It can make us disparage others, to make them feel as badly as we do; and it can make us look for ways people are to blame for their own fate; ways they are complicit in their own suffering, rather than face caring that doesn’t change the facts, or turn back the clock.
Shame is actually the first emotion recorded in the Bible – after Eve eats the apple and offers it to Adam, they immediately realize that they are naked, and so begin covering up, and hiding from God. They also immediately start looking for others to blame – Adam points the finger at Eve, she says the snake told her to do it, and for centuries we have inherited a lot of warped ideas about women and men because of it. But what if that misses the point – that shame is part of who we are, and not about what we have done? It is not about whether we deserve to feel bad or not; we just DO. It is a part of our existence, and it is rooted in the fact that we try to avoid suffering, and that we are not always in command. We are curious, tempted, unthinking…. Part of feeling shame is a result of trying to dodge the fact that we are vulnerable. It is easier to escape with drinking or drugs or runners high or tv or busy-ness; or to be angry – than it is to admit that terrible things happen and we have to learn to live despite that. We have to learn how to bear the fact that we live in a world with rules we did not make and do not even fully understand.
Maybe this is what Medusa’s story captures. So often the shame that gets passed on is the easier one; the one that lets us re-victimize an innocent person, and makes her complicit in something she had no power over. If we tell the story of a woman whose beauty made her vulnerable, we can sidestep the fact that physically, she WAS vulnerable. We all are. In the reading this morning, the narrator talks of his older brother, who had always been treated as the family’s savior, hitting his head on the bottom of a swimming pool, and we realize it isn’t just Birju that is lost. Everyone is. Ajay tries different possibilities – he will be an only child, or he will become a super hero, or he will get God to undo this mess, give him his mother and father back. He is ashamed of himself, and of his parents, but when he finally confronts that, acknowledging that things really are fractured and cannot be put back together the way they once were, we know that the real shame is not because of anything anyone did or didn’t do. It is that this tragedy happened, and he was powerless. All he can do is empty himself of the anger and frustration, so that he can keep caring; touching his hand to an old gnarly tree that was around when the world was much younger and simpler.
I loved that Ajay talks of God as Krishna and as Clark Kent; as Batman and Ram. But it made me think again about Medusa. For some reason, I was surprised that a ship was named for her. It made me think about what she stood for. It couldn’t just be the shame and banishment; the transformation from temptress to ugly and fearful – all the things that we commonly hear. No one would name a ship for that. And of course, alongside the story of how the priestess came to be the horrid Gorgon, we have also known Medusa as a figure of power. Her head is emblazoned on Athena’s shield. If Athena was punishing Medusa, why would she keep her face on her shield, as if she were still a guardian of her temple? This may be a story about shame, but it is not necessarily Medusa’s shame. It is much larger than that.
Athena put Medusa on an island. Obviously, the only way to get to an island is through the water; the element controlled by Poseidon. And Poseidon, obsessed with this woman, kept allowing ships safe passage. He was making it easy for men to get near Medusa, and they had come to look at her as if she were a prize to capture. But Poseidon was inadvertently leading these men to their doom. All around the island, the sea was filled with treacherous demi-gods – the offspring of the child Poseidon had given Medusa. These creatures constantly thwarted his mission. They would make the ships crash, go off course, or come upon Medusa face to face, so the men were literally stopped in their tracks, turned to stone. In fact, Medusa had a rock garden built entirely of the sailors who had tried to reach her.
At first glance, it looks like Medusa really was cast out, disgraced, no longer able to serve the goddess of wisdom; that a system of power was maintained. But being sent to that desolate island actually protected her from a society that had no room for her, that would have targeted her, harassed her, and left her homeless. And from her island, Medusa upended everything. Instead of being paralyzed by shame, she literally petrified those who did not respect her, and yet they could not stop trying to reach her. Without ever even confronting Poseidon, that god was constrained, and all the men who moved in his world were under Medusa’s power. She silently pointed out a collective degradation. Even when Medusa does eventually die, it is to help free a woman from that culture. Perseus brings back Medusa’s head to save his mother from being forced into a marriage she does not want. And from Medusa’s blood, the winged horse Pegasus was born, taking flight to the heavens. Maybe this is a story about the other side of shame, which to be free; to serve wisdom and truth.
Even when everything has been taken away, even when people cannot look at us straight, we are not powerless. We can still be ourselves, we can still help and care, and we can still challenge injustice. Things that happen cannot be undone, we end up in places that are harsh and inhospitable — but that doesn’t mean we are at fault. It just means we are alive in a complicated world. The shame is to pretend otherwise.
Closing Words From Henry IV, part 1, by William Shakespeare
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?
Glendower: Well, my cousin, I can teach you to command the devil.
Hotspur: And I can teach you, my cousin, to shame the devil – by telling the truth! Tell the truth and shame the devil, as the old saying goes. If you do have the power to call up the devil, then bring him here, and I will swear that I have the power to shame him into leaving. Oh, for goodness sake, while you live, tell the truth and shame the devil!