On having shame and being shameless

“I’m ready to be shameless about…”

I sat in the dark balcony of the church last week, listening to Nadia Bolz-Weber speak about sexuality and turning the card with those words over in my hand.

Just like there are “humble-brags,” I wonder if there are “honorable-shames” – the things it’s sexy to feel shame about (and then release shame about.) The big things. You know the ones. Things of spectacle and dark confessions and wild imaginations.

Sitting there, knowing what I was about to write, I smirked and shook my head. You can’t even get your shame right, I thought to myself. Which is… okay, not true. And yet my answers to that question aren’t sexy or really satisfying. It wasn’t my “big things” that would make it to the card, but things that were actually really pedestrian things, more intimate and vulnerable than the run of the mill tell all. And perhaps more excruciating, I don’t know.

“…hating to sleep alone.” The ballpoint imprinted the words into the paper as I wrote. I paused to look at the letters, to think.

“…wanting to be touched so much more.” Then the tears came.

“…my fear that I will never really be loved in my body, and my terror at loneliness.”

“…my anger at God for making me unconventional.”

“…my longing to be beautiful, to be romanced and wanted by a man, and my despair that all of this is impossible.”

“…my grief over my aging body, my expiring fertility, my history of infertility.”

“…my terror that if love does come along, I won’t know what to do in the bedroom, and the ways trauma and abuse have ruined me.”

I was running out of room on the card, and began to wonder if I’m just merely ashamed of every possible thing. I was also afraid the card would make it to Nadia’s hands. Being concise isn’t my strong suit.

“…my shame of being born a woman.”

I don’t know if it was cathartic. I hope it was compassionate at least, an act of kindness to myself to say on a card I would release into the hands of others the desperation at the core of me, and meet myself there in the excruciation.

Sitting in the dark, I dammed back the tears, damned them too maybe. Was this going to help me, or maybe just wreck me?

The truth is that on some days, the life I live now feels like a concession prize after everything I’d hoped and planned for went wrong. And if I am ever to receive *this life* as a gift, as providence, as God’s doing, as something interesting and worthwhile, then there’s so much to grieve first – or maybe not first, but along the way.

A few weeks back, I was sitting across the table from a wise friend, coffee in hand. She asked me a question she’s asked me more than once before. “Do you know what you want?”

The answer is no. But it’s no because the answer is yes.

The things I want are the things I wanted, which haven’t turned out as hoped for, and they are things mostly outside of my control. And I haven’t grieved the loss of those dreams, or even just come to a more pedestrian acceptance of my own daily realities for this season of life.

I haven’t grieved sleeping alone and the terror night can be for me, or the scarcity of nurturing and regular touch that comes with divorce (or being single in general or maybe even just plain being American, I don’t know), or the meanings my body does but especially doesn’t have in broader culture.

I haven’t grieved the emotional whiplash of first an upbringing that made being a wife and mother everything, the only thing to hope for as a woman, and secondly a feminism that made being a wife and mother the least important thing to hope for, with its admonitions to put away childish things and get on with being fierce and unbreakable, to let loneliness be a sign of singular success. I haven’t figured out how to hold those together somehow, to get out of idealisms about “biblical womanhood” and “progressive feminism” and to be honest about what I want, which is something approximating everything, and also for everyone to shut up about what women should and shouldn’t be.

I haven’t grieved aging and expiring fertility, and a body which will never be aesthetically different in the ways that “matter”, and the fairytale man who frankly doesn’t exist and would be entirely uninteresting if he did.

I haven’t been too honest about my anger at God, and I both haven’t let the trauma of abuse matter enough and have let it matter so much. I haven’t known how to say that having a sexual history left me more confused about sex, more unsure of myself and what to do, more lost than holding onto virginity and never marrying would have left me feeling. I am not naive to the awkwardnesses and challenges of putting two bodies together, but I might be naive to the pleasures of being wholly, fully loved for everything I am.

I haven’t yet learned to embrace the goodness of my embodied existence as a woman, or embrace the way some of my desires and hopes and ways of being in the world look less feminist at first glance and more traditional.

In all of this is a deep paralysis, a seeming inability to imagine any future that feels satisfying and worth getting excited about. In all of this is frankly a relentless broken-heartedness.

To want something, like in a forward and hopeful way – to long for something, hope for something, and not foreclose too soon on possibility… now that would really be something.

To wake up some morning and feel okay about everything the way it is – even just one morning – to have accepted it all, grieved the past, moved toward the hopeful…

I say all of this because yes, of course to be shameless is a good thing – to let go of shame where once we had much, shame over the big things and the seemingly little things which may just be bigger yet.

But in all of that, it’s abundantly clear to me that to be free of shame takes a lot of other work first.

It’s not as simple as re-narrating past events or current longings, and isn’t as simple as saying we must shift our mindset. But rather, to let go might mean moving fiercely after what is in our power to change, while grieving with compassion toward ourselves the things which are not within our power to change.

It likely means courage. It likely means new ways of moving through the world. It likely means some utter honesty with self and others. And it means asking for what we need, daring vulnerability where silence would crush us, and owning up to desires without immediately damning their very existence.

I bought lipstick last week. And this lovely rose oil for moisturizer. And I finally cut my hair to a length and shape that feels better and more like me. And I bought a dress and a pair of earrings – for sometime.

All of this was a small leap toward hope, a practice of releasing shame, and a way of trying to move out of what has felt like an abstention from femininity on academic male-dominated and shamed grounds, into something that feels like it has integrity for me even if at this moment, the floral and frills seem kind of silly and worthless.

I think that’s the fruit of living with less shame – moving into our own integrity and confidence. And perhaps we’ll know we are living shamelessly when we are able to show up to our own lives without reservation and apology, but with a deep settled and abiding sense of belovedness.



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