As part of their Autism Season, the BBC are currently showing the drama ‘The A Word’, which focuses on a family trying to come to terms with their five-year-old son’s diagnosis of being on the Autism Spectrum. It is challenging viewing, but so far looks to be very well-written. The mother is not a very nice person, and I like that – parents of children with specific needs are not necessarily saints. The second episode, which aired yesterday, ended on an explosive confrontation between Joe’s parents, in which dad Paul accurately calls out his wife Alison’s actions as being to do with shame:
Paul: “…you are ashamed…”
Alison: “You think I am ashamed of my own son?”
Paul: “Of Joe. Of yourself, for not spotting it sooner. Of us, for having him. Of me. And finally, just to round things off, you’re ashamed for being ashamed in the first place.”
Alison: “Oh right, ’cos you’re so f***ing okay with it…”
Paul: “No, I’m not! Not one bit! And that’s why I can see it in you. [sighs] It’s not much fun, is it? It’s not what you want to be, is it?”
The A word of the series title is Autism; but even more so, Ashamed is the A word that must not be spoken. While we pretend to live in a shameless society, shame is rife. Whereas guilt is outward looking – that is, it has to do with a sense of failure in relation to another, whether letting people down by not doing something we ought to have done, or breaking a moral or legal code – shame turns us in on ourselves, making us feel polluted, dirty, unworthy. In the example above, Joe’s mother does not feel guilt over having done wrong, but shame over the condition in which she finds herself, powerless. And this is a very accurate observation. A parent can know that their child’s condition is not a consequence of their own actions – and therefore be guilt-free – but can nonetheless feel acute shame in the face of life. All the more so in our so very judgemental society.
I believe that the Bible addresses shame just as fully as it addresses guilt. In the Old Testament we see a pattern of sacrifices established. Sacrifices are, essentially, an expression of community: primarily a meal, shared symbolically with God and physically with others. Some sacrifices are given as an expression of thankfulness. Others are given as a way of marking the restoration of relationship after it has been impaired by sin. The sacrifice itself does not deal with sin – repentance, likely including some form of restitution, and forgiveness deals with the sin. But in eating together again the sacrifice breaks the power of guilt. Yet another category of sacrifice deals with shame. These mark restoration to community after separation through pollution, such as the stain left by menstruation or seminal fluid. The point is not that blood or semen are unclean in themselves, but that the stain they leave – so hard to wash out – symbolise the stain of shame that pollutes us when something deeply intimate and personal is exposed to the gaze of others whose response is not sympathetic, or which we anticipate will not be sympathetic.
This, by the way, is why we continue to offer our sacrifice at every Eucharist, or Communion service: not at all to secure something from God, but to enjoy what has already been restored to us through participating in a shared meal.
In this season of Eastertide, the Church proclaims that through the shameful death – a very public humiliation – and glorious resurrection of Jesus, God has dealt decisively with our shame just as much as with our guilt. The Gospel is good news for those who are weighed down with shame, for in union with Christ the stain is washed away, cleaner and brighter than we could ever achieve. This does not mean that we no longer experience shame, but rather, that we can be freed from its hold over us and restored to community, again and again.
The false consolation of shame is defiance, which further isolates us from the very community we long to reconnect with. The true consolation is acceptance, of ourselves – our real selves, in our giftedness and impairments, and not some ideal self against which we can never match up – and of others – in their real giftedness and impairment, too. We don’t yet know how Paul and Alison’s story will continue to unfold. But I hope for a hope-full outcome…