Father Greg Boyle, in his delightful book Tattoos on the Heart, quotes John Bradshaw by writing, “shame is at the root of every addiction” (p. 43). Fr. Boyle works with mostly Latino gangs in Los Angeles and makes many astute observations about human nature, including the quote on shame. He has experienced first hand the results of gang members wearing a heavy cloak of shame.
“I’m no good,” “I am worthless,” are tapes that play over and over in the heads of the shamed, and in the case of the Latino gang members, being with each other is the most love they have ever experienced. However, the addictions that they acquire necessitate posturing and defending territory, propelling them into a cycle of crime and violence, acting out on their shame.
Every culture in which I have lived or with which I have had significant contact, uses shame as a means to make people conform to societal expectations. Some cultures are more shame-based than others, but all function by shaming what is considered aberrant behavior.
In my own background, my mother would frequently say to us, “What will the neighbors think?” Apparently it wasn’t so much whether the behavior was good or bad, but rather how the behavior would be seen by the eyes of the culture. We constantly felt the gaze of one particularly scowling neighbor, and felt the shame of her frowns whether we were aware of what we were doing or not.
Religious systems are particularly adept at producing shame. They prescribe many more “thou shalt nots” than “thou shalts;” how not to behave, rather than how to behave. Impossible rules are set up to follow and falling short of these ideals produces shame. These rules mainly focus on the negative aspects of the sacred texts to which their religion ascribes, and forget the positive ones.
If we are made in the “image and likeness of God,” and that God pronounced creation “good,” why are we so intent on tearing down this goodness with shaming each other? Why can’t we recognize the goodness in each other rather creating rules to shame each other?
I know that in the classroom students respond much better to affirmation than shaming. In one particular case, I had a student who was faltering in many areas, both in her personal life and her academic life. She presented quite an attitude in class, posturing much like I imagine the gang members in LA do. In spite of her meager academic achievement in my class, I noticed something special about her. She could reproduce the sounds of the Spanish language better than anyone else in the class.
One day after class I called her aside and told her that she had a “sweet Spanish accent,” and that she had “potential to become fluent in Spanish.” She probably thought I was going to shame her. Instead, I gave her an affirmation. The compliment took her off guard, but her face lit up in one of the brightest smiles I have ever seen. Her attitude and grades in the class improved exponentially. I could tell many similar stories. Yet our system is intent on shaming and putting down rather than building up and recognizing the God-given image and likeness within each of us.
What will the neighbors think? Is not the question to ask. That is the shame game. The question to ask is, How will you reflect the image of God to your neighbor?