Last fall Isaiah went to his first swimming lesson. He had been excited for months. He learned to swim last summer and quickly became quite a swimmer. I’ll take a moment to brag: Isaiah’s first swim lesson was actually in the advanced class for his age group. This kid already knew how to swim at age four and he can float on his back longer than I can. (My arms and legs sink.) So when Laura and I signed Isaiah up for this lesson we had no doubt that he was going to do well. He was more than ready for this class.
But moments before leaving with Laura and Emily to go to the Y, Isaiah stopped at the door and said, “Daddy, can you pray for me.” I was doing homework at our kitchen table but when I heard his sweet voice ask me that I immediately looked up. He had his windbreaker zipper in his mouth and a look of nervous excitement on his face. I came over to him, got down on my knees in front of him and as I did he said something profound that gave words to what he was feeling inside. With a slight waver in his voice he said, “Daddy, I just hope that the teacher doesn’t ask me to do the hard things that I don’t know how to do yet.”
I could have cried right there. Not just because my son (who is rarely interested in prayer) was asking me to pray for him, but because my own heart resonated with Isaiah’s fears. As Isaiah gave language to the feelings churning inside his little heart, he gave language to feelings I have felt thousands of times. “I hope I’m not forced to do something that’s way too hard for me. I hope I don’t fail. I hope I don’t look stupid. I hope everyone else isn’t better than me. I hope I don’t get laughed at. I hope no one finds out that I’m not as good as my press. I’m afraid that I’m not enough…and I’m afraid that others will find out.”
I remember standing at the plate as little leaguer, the bat tightly gripped in sweaty palms. I remember standing at the free-throw line in Jr. High basketball, already 6’1’’ and painfully uncoordinated in my lanky frame. I remember standing in the goalmouth as a goalkeeper at Finger Lakes Community College, fighting to earn my place as the starting goalkeeper. In each instance and in many others like it I had thoughts like these: What if I can’t do it? What if I can’t perform well enough? What will failure say about me?
“I just hope that the teacher doesn’t ask me to do the hard things that I don’t know how to do yet.”
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you too have stories of striving to perform while fearing that your best, all that you are, all that you can muster will be less than what is required. Maybe you’ve felt that the very essence of who you are is not enough. Maybe you do not measure up to the standard set by the world (or your family) for success and accolade. Maybe you identify immediately with what I’m talking about. But even if you don’t, what I’m describing is to some extent a universal human experience. And this universal experience just came to visit my four year old son.
Isaiah’s story, my stories, and your stories like them contain the thoughts and feelings associated with shame. Brene Brown, leading shame researcher and author of numerous books on the subject says
“Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection…Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brown 2012, 68).
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Have you made a mistake intentional or unintentional and then withdrawn into a solitary activity, feeling disconnected from yourself and others? Have you been in a group of high achievers or beauty queens and felt yourself withdraw inwardly suddenly unsure of yourself in their presence? That is shame. “Maybe I’m not enough. Maybe I don’t measure up. Maybe I’m not pretty enough, or smart enough, or funny enough, or holy enough… and because of that maybe I don’t belong."
Shame should be distinguished from guilt. Guilt is that healthy feeling of regret that helps us acknowledge when something we have done is not what we should have done. It is internal sorrow attached to a behavior we can take responsibility for. The difference between guilt and shame is the difference between, “I made a mistake” and “I am a mistake.” It’s the difference between, “I failed today’s quiz” and “I am a failure.”
The lesson is certainly not that our actions, behaviors, and performance are of no importance. We want to learn and grow. We want to be held accountable for our actions and know that people care about us enough to help us develop. But when we fail and then feel shame, shame takes failure and makes it an identity statement. “I failed therefore I am a failure.” “I made a stupid mistake therefore I am stupid.” “I was made fun of and rejected, therefore I am unlovable.” Shame attaches performance and behavior to personal identity and intrinsic worth. The one who performs better is worth more, the one who is without fault is more deserving of love and connection.
I am afraid that this message is engrained deeply within most of us. We admire the successful and put together. We have believed that our intrinsic value is attached to our behavior, performance, or physical qualities. From an early age we learn the sometimes spoken and sometimes unspoken lesson that in order to feel loved and to belong we have to do the right things, act the right way, look the part, perform well enough to get praised, avoid breaking social norms, and stand out (but not too much). If we come up short in doing these things we are left on the outside. And being left on the outside, separated from love, belonging and connection is a powerfully painful experience. Humans do not do well in isolation.
Which is exactly why I believe Jesus came in the manner he came. I bet you didn’t see that transition coming! Stick with me though. The product of shame is isolation and fear of separation, and erasing separation is exactly why the New Testament Scriptures tell us that Jesus came.
In 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 the Apostle Paul writes that through Jesus, God was reconciling humans to himself, not counting people’s sins, wrongdoing, or shortcomings against them. Through Jesus, God was working to eradicate shame—the fear of being disconnected from love and belonging—he was working to secure us in his arms of love and bring us back into a place of family, a place of belonging.
The invitation of Jesus Christ is an invitation to take a rest from trying to proving our worth through our good or successful works. The invitation of Jesus Christ is an invitation to take a break from fearful striving to measure up and be "enough." It is an invitation to experience a Heavenly Father declare over us what many earthly Father’s never did: “You are mine and I’m crazy about you. Its not because you jump the highest or get the best grades, this love and belonging is not something you can earn through your striving. This love is a gift given to those who can receive it. Enter into belonging and begin to live like a son or daughter.”
Disconnection is the very problem that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, came to remedy. In his very body, Jesus united God and man, and paved a way for a union with God that can erase all fear of being ever separated again. If shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging, then the Son of God coming to earth and embracing a deeply flawed humanity is exactly what we need to beat back shame in our own lives.
There is much more that could be said about the human experience of shame and about God’s ability to meet us in that pain, but for now let me simply finish Isaiah’s story. You know what I did with him there at the door before sending him off to his first lesson? I prayed for him of course, a simple prayer asking Jesus to fill him with courage and excitement—but then I took his shoulders gently in my hands and told him the truth. I said, “Isaiah you’re going to do so well today. You’re such a good swimmer and you have what it takes. But you know what buddy? No matter what happens at this swim lesson, you’re my son and I’m so proud of you. I love you because you’re my son, and nothing can change that.”
And that is the way it is. I love Isaiah because he is mine. May he always find a safe place of unconditional belonging in my arms. Now, as one who is still on my own journey to understand what it means to belong to my heavenly Father, I invite you to come along with me. May we find that Jesus has made a place of belonging for us that allows us to let go of shame and striving, and to live confidently as a beloved child united with our Father.
By the way, Isaiah’s swim lesson went great. He came home and said, “Daddy! It was even better than I thought it would be! I had the most fun!”
Here is Isaiah showing off his swimming skills last summer in a mountain lake in the Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London: Penguin Life, 2015.