It alIt alsoI’m writing this on Memorial Day. This day isn’t just about honoring those who died serving our country. It isn’t just about bbq and camping. It’s about shame. I know that is a leap, so let me explain. Since I wrote last week about my illegal abortion, I’ve been filled with thoughts and feelings. The main feeling has been of grief. It hasn’t been grief only for what happened to me. It is grief for my country. For the state we find ourselves in.
I’ve also thought a lot about shame. About my own shame and about how I live in a country filled with shame. It would be easy to write about our shameful past and present in the United States: about a country founded in slavery; about all the ‘compromises’ various presidents have made that have kept Afro Americans and people of color second class citizens. Yet, since I know that my inner state is reflected in my outer world, I choose to turn inward first.
I didn’t actually ask myself where shame exists in my life. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. This morning i was meditating using the mantra “I Am” on the inbreath and “that I Am” on the outbreath. At some point in the meditation i realized I’d changed the words to “I Am what I Am.” With that i realized that I’d made poor choices several times in my life that impacted both me and others that i love. By poor choices, I mean choices that were made from a place of fear or from a place of believing I didn’t have enough or I wasn’t good enough. I also recognized that until I fully own those choices without rationalizations or explanations, I am not able to make new ones.
I chose to date the man who abused me. I chose to let him make the decision about whether our baby would be born or not. I chose to run away from the responsibility of being a mother. I chose to leave my marriage and my son to become a lesbian. I chose to spend most of my retirement savings on programs that promised to teach me how to make lots of money when I first came back to the United States. Every single one of those decisions was made in order to avoid feeling shame, to avoid feeling fear and that something was fundamentally wrong with me.
That is what shame is. Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something wrong. Shame is the feeling that we are wrong. Let’s face it. Shame isn’t fun to feel. It lives in my body as a heaviness in my limbs, in a feeling that the top will blow off my head, and in the center of my heart. It As I write this, I notice that I stop and put my hand over my heart chakra, massaging it ever so slightly.
Over my seventy plus years, I’ve become very skilled at rationalizing myself out of feeling. As a young feminist, I could blame men. I didn’t have to confront my belief that I wasn’t worthy of being loved, that I didn’t think I deserved to be loved. I turned my back on myself instead. Over the years, I developed other ways is thinking to keep myself from feeling. I had lots of support for doing so from people, organizations and systems that also do the same.
Yet , in spite of all the poor decisions I’ve make, life continues to support me. Each one of those decisions led me on a path of growth and change. I call that life force, that energy that exists in all of us by many names: Divine Mother, God, Life. When I’m feeling shame, I forget about how that energy fills me, is alive in everything and everyone around me. I forget my true self.
To move through shame, I need to hold two paradoxical things simultaneously: First, be present to and aware of when shame is rearing its head. The ‘habit’ of not feeling is so deeply ingrained that I have to be very present or I’ll miss the feeling. Second, be present to and aware that Life is always for me. This belief is so new to my conscious self that I still have to remind myself daily.
It’s easy to spiral downward into shame and blame and forget that I’m not alone. It’s also easy to embrace ‘Life is for me’ as a way of skipping around my emotions like Pollyanna. That is what makes holding both of them simultaneously difficult.
How does this relate to Memorial Day and sham? Sadly, when I looked up the history, even Memorial Days has racial overtones. The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves first started in Virginia to honor the men who died fighting to uphold the Confederacy. It was after President Lincoln’s assassination that it became a practice in the North. Now it is a national day of honoring those who died while in the United States Armed Forces.
The shame has nothing to do with women and men who died serving in the Armed Forces, the ones we remember today. It has to do with our collective consciousness. Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness says, “when the culture of any organization says it is more important to protect its reputation than it is to protect the basic human dignity of the individuals in the system, you can be certain that shame is endemic.”
Since our beginnings as a country, we’ve had a belief that we are exceptional. From the American Revolution came “Americanism“, the belief that we are based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and laissez-faire economics. Second is the idea that the US has a unique mission to transform the world. As Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address of 1863, Americans have a duty to ensure, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Third is the sense that the United States’ history and mission give it a superiority over other nations. (From Wikipedia, American exceptionalism)
It is this belief in exceptionalism that creates a culture of shame. I lived for 35 years in Canada, a country that does not hold that belief. While Canada has other beliefs that promote shame, I experienced what it was like to live without the weight of exceptionalism. It is kinder. It is more humane. It offers more possibilities for egalitarianism.
Memorial Day is one of many national holidays when we glorify our exceptionalism by honoring the men and women who were killed protecting that belief. This belief we hold is a burden. It stops us from realizing our true strength as a country. I can get overwhelmed thinking about the magnitude of changing such an entrenched belief. So on this Memorial Day I choose to acknowledge my poor choices and to forgive myself so I can be free from shame. I choose to honor all the women and men who have recognized and changed this belief in themselves, and had the courage to speak the truth. A few of the many people I honor are: Maya Angelou; Martin Luther King; Brene Brown who has brought the discourse on shame to the forefront; and myself. Who do you honor today? What beliefs do you honor?