The Engine of Shame – Part 2

In my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.

Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.

The power of shame is the secret; its antidote, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.
 
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – Part 2”

The Engine of Shame – Part 1

A wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – Part 1”

Revenge of the Fifth

MercuryIt seemed like such a great idea at the time…

His name is Darin. Of course, that’s not his real name, but he is a casual friend of mine. A bright young man, possessed of good looks, a warm smile, and a soft-spoken demeanor. Darin is brilliant with computers–not merely competent, as many are, but a true geek, tear-’em-down-and-rebuild-’em smart, fearless in the depths of sockets and motherboards, Windows registries and Unix terminals. A true success story, you might say, bright future, make some girl very happy. But Darin was toolin’ down the freeway of goin’ nowhere fast.

You see, Darin had a little problem: a fondness for the grape and the snort which always seemed to get the best of him. Not that he didn’t try: he was in and out of AA rooms more often than a pastor’s wife at church socials, always returning beaten and remorseful, determined to do better this time. “This time” rarely lasted more than a few weeks or months.

Darin was quiet, but a man of passion. He was always in love. Intoxicated with the flush of a new romance, that rush of euphoria so real yet so maddeningly transient. Each new girl was “the one”, but nights of passionate, drug-enhanced sex soon proved impotent to overcome the waning charm of Miss Demeanor, the rumpled sheets, and the rumblings of his restless soul. Before long he was again cruising for some other codependent wench, herself seeking a sodden soul to save. Like an ugly tie wrapped up pretty under the Christmas tree, Darin’s package looked good at first glance, but he quickly proved to be a daddy’s nightmare: “no phone, no food, no rent”, as the song goes. Soon he was once again welcome only in his mother’s house, with whom he could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Darin: someone did him dirty, stiffing him out of a good deal of cash, and forgiveness was not one of his many charms. The details are murky: a computer built or repaired, promises made but not kept. There was much lighthearted chatter at the coffee houses–was it Darin’s fault, or his nemesis? No matter–like a quiet bubbling cauldron in a witch’s lair, Darin was cooking up his favorite dish: a rip-roaring resentment. Not visible on the outside, of course, but raging like a Jerry Springer slugfest in the conference rooms of his mind. It was the perfect mixed drink: a perceived injustice blended with that unique obsessiveness which addicts possess seemingly in endless measure.

It is not clear when the brainstorm struck–an idea so brilliant, so flawless, that it would right all injustices and settle all disputes: Darin would break into his detractor’s home and steal back the computer which tortured him so. No mere larceny, mind you, but the picture-perfect crime, a liberation to rival Paris in ’45. Carefully timed when the enemy was not at home, staged so not even Sherlock Holmes would presume that Darin might be the perpetrator. Sweet revenge, sweetly executed.

Like tightly-written computer code, Darin’s nimble mind set the parameters, checked the variables, and executed commands in a tight loop whose efficiency and speed wasted no cycles. The Day of Vengeance arrived, with only one small ingredient missing: courage. But Darin had that algorithm factored as well: a fifth of Vodka erased all fears, drowning all doubts. By stealth of night, with watches synchronized and bottle drained, the window glass parted to usher him to glory. The mission was underway.

No one knows whether anyone heard the shattering of glass, but despite his stealth the disruption somehow caught the notice of neighbors. When the police arrived, the cause of the disturbance became evident: there was Darin, passed out on the floor, beside the untouched computer he coveted. Fate had struck a cruel blow–his celebratory blackout had arrived on the wings of Mercury rather than with the spoils of Mars. He awakened to handcuffs and an open-ended reservation at the Gray Bar Hotel.

All good stories–even true ones–should have a moral, but Darin’s story eludes easy lessons. He was taken by that peculiar insanity which alcoholics possess in abundance, even while sober. When Darin hatched his master plan, he was not drinking, but engaged in one of his countless attempts to clean up. For the alcoholic, the danger lies not in the bottle, but in the brain. The sane among us make mistakes, to be sure: wisdom comes from experience, and experience often comes from lack of wisdom. But facing the inevitable consequences of bad choices, we generally rearrange our lives and priorities to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again. Not so the alcoholic. Obsessively repeating behavior long ago proven destructive, he nevertheless pursues the optimism of denial which says the next time will be different. This baffling disconnect from reality cascades from farce to tragedy, as the alcoholic perceives no problems other than those bastards who are out to get him.

There is much resistance to the idea that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. Much of this comes from conservatives, and those of religious conviction, whose proper emphasis on personal responsibility and moral rectitude sees in the alcoholic only reckless hedonism and wanton irresponsibility. These qualities the addict has in spades, but less obvious is the driving obsessive compulsion, the thought disorder which is their engine. The medical evidence for the disease model of alcoholism and addiction is deep and wide, as I have detailed in part elsewhere (see also this and this for more on the topic). The liberals have this one right: the alcoholic is a victim of his or her genetics, and the addition of a mind-altering drug–which one is probably moot–starts a swirling whirlpool whose vortex holds only misery, destruction and death. Not many survive its power.

Yet defining deviance from normal as disease also has its risks: the proliferation of social disorders redefined as diseases seems endless, and points to the abrogation of all responsibility for one’s actions. It can become laughable at times. Several years ago, I saw a patient, a healthy, athletic women in her 40’s, who was covered under Medicare. Medicare covers the elderly, but also those with chronic renal failure and the disabled, so I inquired as to the nature of her disability. I was informed she had “hyperactivity disorder.” Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? No, just hyperactivity disorder–she was restless. A black belt in Karate, she travelled around the country constantly, competing in tournaments and teaching seminars. She was disabled, in short, because she couldn’t sit still. No “cripple” jokes around her, no siree, unless you wanted your skull crushed by a foot you’ll never see coming.

The concern about labeling alcoholism, or any other behavioral disorder, as a disease is the tendency to tolerate and rationalize the resulting behavior, to use the “disease” label as an excuse for selfish, self-centered behavior destructive to one’s self, society, and those around you. The issue is not disease or no disease, but rather what drives the behavior and what can be done to change it.

The paradox about 12-step programs–which have the only reliable track record for successful recovery from addiction–is that they emphasize the disease as the problem, and honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility as the solution. They do not excuse the behavior while admitting the disease, and this blend of honesty and humility, acceptance and tough love, works like nothing else. It is, as recovering alcoholics are quick to point out, a spiritual program: the Catch-22 of a body which craves alcohol without limit and a mind which denies the resulting problems cannot be solved any other means.

But as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, the problem is not the booze; it is not even the obsessive, irrational mindset which drives the drinking. Both these problems are symptoms of an underlying decay, one of spiritual dimensions, characterized at its core by extreme self-centeredness. The pursuit of happiness by feeding this monster creates not the promised joy but rather pain and emptiness. Alcohol hides that pain for a while, until the monster, growing ever stronger by its constant feeding, kills its host spiritually, emotionally, and often physically.

But addiction is hardly alone as a symptom of this dark core. The list of destructive behaviors arising from its belly is endless: obesity, sexual promiscuity, compulsive overwork, materialism, computer obsession, gambling, the pursuit of beauty over character, the lust for money and power. Some may be biologically-driven; some learned behaviors or dysfunctional coping. All seek to fill a hole with no bottom, providing the wrong salve for the pain, and more of the same when the salve makes the wound fester.

And what of Darin? In many ways he is fortunate: his life is on hold, and forced reflection and change are his for the taking–should he choose to grasp them. The price is high; it might have been much higher. Yet his choice–and ours–is the same: feed the monster, or turn life over to One whose burden is light, who alone can fill that deep inner void.

The Engine of Shame – Part I

This essay, the first of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – Part I”

The Engine of Shame – Pt II

The Engine of Shame - Part 2

DRGWIn my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.

Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.

The power of shame is the secret; its antidotes, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.

The barriers to this liberating openness are fear and mistrust: fear that revelation of our darkest selves will lead to rejection, pain and humiliation; and lack of trust that the sharing of such darkness will be used against us to our detriment. This fear and mistrust lock us into a self-imposed prison from which there is seemingly no escape. Our only recourse becomes the adaptive but destructive defenses of withdrawal, self-attack, avoidance, or aggression.

The most dangerous type of infections in medicine are those occurring in a closed space. As the bacteria grow, they generate increasing pressure which drive deadly toxins into the bloodstream. Only by uncovering and draining the abscess can the infection be treated and health restored. And so it is with shame: we must take that which is most painful, most toxic, and release it, lest we become even more emotionally and spiritually sick.

So just how do we go about such a process? It is not something to be done lightly, as the world remains a dangerous place, and there are many who cannot bear such disclosure–and who may indeed use it against us. It is for this reason–this reasonable fear (amplified many times over in the echoes of our inner chambers of shame)–that many will not take this step until life circumstances become so difficult or painful that they have no other choice. Hence you will find this process first in the alcoholic at his bottom, at the therapist for intractable depression, at the counselor after divorce, in the prodigal son re-seeking fellowship in a grace-based church or small group.

But we need not wait for such disasters before beginning the process of addressing shame. There are a number of principles to begin the journey from shame to sanity and peace. Here are a few which come to mind:

  • Sharing of shortcomings with trusted friends: First and foremost, we must be willing to open the door, to begin sharing something of our inner selves with others. This involves finding someone trusted, someone who is a good listener and not quick to judgment. It means taking some risks, as many people may be unwilling–or unable–to be safe harbors for our vulnerabilities, failures, and shortcomings. Test the waters by sharing some small issues with others who seem trustworthy–or perhaps even better, by being open to others who may be willing to share their pain in some small way with you. Nothing builds the trust of others quite like your own vulnerability: it signals a willingness to establish a relationship based on true intimacy. We all put our best foot forward, expending great energy at maintaining our masks. But at the same time, we all hunger for the intimacy of being truly open with another.
  • Learn to listen: Our isolation begins to lessen when we hear our story repeated by others. As we begin to hear the bits and pieces of our own experiences, failures, and struggles in the lives of others, the uniqueness–and the shame–of our own experiences begins to lessen. We develop compassion for the struggles of others–and thereby become willing to accept our own shortcomings. Becoming mutually vulnerable is the essence of true, intimate relationships–and to achieve this we must be willing both to share our own weaknesses and to accept those of others.
  • Honesty: Deceit and shame go hand-in-hand–dishonesty with self and others is a requisite for the maintenance of the autocracy of shame. Dishonesty becomes habitual, making life far more complicated and difficult than one based on openness and truth. The main driving force for deceit is fear: fear of discovery, of condemnation, of judgment, of rejection. In reality, the consequences of honesty about our failures and shortcomings–particularly with those we trust and with whom we reciprocate acceptance–is far less onerous that of sustaining the fragile edifice of a life of lies.
  • The importance of forgiveness: When you begin to make yourself open to others, trusting them, you will sooner or later get hurt–perhaps intentionally, more likely inadvertently. Count on it, it’s a sure bet. Once it happens, you then have some choices: you can withdraw, no longer exposing yourself to the pain, or strike back, or carry a resentment. These approaches are proven shame-builders: they do little or nothing to visit revenge on our offenders, but rather replay the injury over and over (re-SENT-ment: to experience–to feel–again), reinforcing our loneliness and worthlessness. Forgiveness allows you to move on. It may mean taking the risk of confronting the one who has hurt you–a terrifying thought for a shame-based person–but such courage pays off in restored relationships at best, or maintaining your dignity at worst. Courage is not acting without fear, it is acting in spite of fear–and is the best antidote to fear, as reality is virtually never as bad as the scenarios our fearful minds fabricate. Bear the pain, reconcile where possible, and move on from there.
  • Other-orientation: We are designed to give, but have been programmed to receive. We try to fill our inner emptiness by getting: material stuff, the attention and admiration of others, pleasure, the oblivion of drugs or alcohol, food, sex, success, achievements in work or society. None of it works–the emptiness remains, as we are not worth something because we have something. We become worth something when we give–when our actions and efforts are helping others, improving their lives, giving them joy, help, comfort, support. This is why someone like Mother Theresa experienced a richness in life unmatched by endless hosts of wealthy, famous celebrities or business billionaires. We nod, agreeing that this is so–but no one wants to walk her path: we lack her faith, and her calling. But we don’t need to move to Calcutta to start down the same path: we can begin in small ways, one little act at a time. Make an effort to help someone out each day, somebody who doesn’t deserve it, perhaps someone you don’t like or would rather avoid. Do it when you’re too busy, or self-absorbed, or too tired. Do it willfully, not grudgingly. Don’t do it with any expectation of return. Try it–and watch miracles begin to happen, in your life and those around you.
  • Grace and mercy: Grace is receiving what we do not deserve; mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. Shame tells us we deserve nothing good, that we are tried, convicted, and condemned both by ourselves and by others. Grace trumps shame by not waiting until we are worthy, or worthwhile, or “fixed”, but by accepting us right where we are, just as we are. It must be experienced–it cannot be appropriated by logic, reason, will or effort. It is, indeed, anti-logical. It starts when you tell a friend a painful, dark secret–and hear that he has done far worse. It begins with terror at relating humiliating events, and ends with laughter and perspective about those same events. It arrives when you tell of hurting another, and receive not condemnation but understanding and guidance on repairing the damage and restoring relationships. And it shatters the gloom like shafts of light through broken clouds when the God whom you have driven away and abandoned–a God in whom you have lost all hope and confidence–instead wraps His arms around you in tears of joy at your return. When you have experienced such grace, your life will never be the same again.
  • The role of faith: People struggling with guilt and shame often turn to religion for answers and relief. This is not invariably a wise decision: religion can be of enormous benefit in overcoming these liabilities–but can also greatly exacerbate them. Guilt and shame are the golden hooks of toxic religion and religious cults, and even mainstream religious denominations which have a highly legalistic emphasis can cause far more harm than good. Cults and toxic religion lure the wounded by offering “unconditional love”–which later proves very conditional indeed. You are accepted only when you rigorously follow the rules–which may be arbitrary, capricious, or even unspoken–and interaction with “unbelievers” outside the sect is severely restricted, leading to isolation, ritualism, and depersonalization–and severe rejection should you choose to leave. Becoming enmeshed with such groups, driven by shame, is highly detrimental and a recipe for personal and emotional disaster. But true grace-based faith and spirituality can transform shame into service, guilt into gratitude. It finds the balance between a God who is just and One who is merciful. It is a place where love accepts us with all our imperfections and shortcomings–yet desires their removal that we may live with more joy and purpose, not hiding our flaws but using our own brokenness to restore, heal, and lift up others.
There was, the story goes, a holy man, who sat by the side of the road praying and meditating. As he watched and prayed, the broken of the world passed by–the crippled, the lame, the ragged poor, the sick, the blind. In his prayer, with broken heart, he asked God, “How could such a good and loving Creator see such things and do nothing about them?”

There was a long period of silence with no answer. Then, in a soft voice, God replied: “I did do something about them: I made you.”

Our shame, our brokenness, brings us great pain and wreaks much destruction in our lives. Yet it is by this very means that God equips us to be His hands, His heart, His voice, His compassion. In such can be found a purpose in life unmatched by anything else we might wish for or desire. Such are the ways of the God of endless surprise and limitless grace.

The Engine of Shame – Pt I

The Engine of Shame - Part 1

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often. On the other hand, if you’re among those who believe guilt and shame are simply the tools of religion and society to restrict your freedom–that as a perfectly liberated postmodern person you are beyond all that–well, you are probably wasting your time reading this. But most of us recognize the influence of guilt and shame in our lives–even while trying not to focus on them, as they are uncomfortable emotional topics, best avoided if possible.

There is a tendency to conflate guilt and shame, merging them into a single human response to bad behavior or personal shortcomings. Yet they are quite different. Guilt is about behavior, shame about being. Allow me to expand on this a bit.

Guilt is an emotional–or some would say spiritual– human response to behavior or actions which violate a respected set of rules. The rules violated may be internal or external, and may be based either in reality and truth or distortion and error. The rules which may engender guilt must be respected: that is, they must originate from a valid source of authority–parents, elders, religion, law–or have been internalized into one’s personal mores or conscience from one or more such sources. Rules which are not respected pose no difficulty: I feel no guilt at not becoming a suicide martyr for Allah, since I do not respect (i.e. recognize as valid) the rules which promote such behavior. The response to violating respected rules is at its heart based on fear: fear of punishment by God or man, fear of rejection, or fear of ostracization from friends, family, or society.

Since guilt is an uncomfortable emotional state, we generally make efforts to avoid or mitigate it if possible. There are a number of means by which this can be accomplished, with greater or lesser efficacy. We may of course, practice avoidance of the behavior which induces the guilt. If the rules are legitimate and based on worthwhile principles, this is obviously a beneficial approach: if you don’t steal things, you won’t go to jail for burglary. But avoidance may prove destructive if the rules are based on error. For example, if your parents or religion have taught you that all sexual activity is wrong or evil, this can prove a huge impediment to physical intimacy and relationships in marriage.

Guilt may also be mitigated–especially when it is chronic and recurring–by changing the rules. You may leave a religion which is highly legalistic for another less so–or for none at all; you may change your situation or environment to one where the rules can be ignored and not enforced; you may seek counseling to correct perceptions about sexuality or other destructive interpersonal biases or beliefs. Or you may simple practice denial–justifying your behavior through the creation of new internal or social rules, while avoiding or rationalizing the inevitable consequences of your still-errant behavior.

So guilt may be addressed by modifying behavior or changing belief systems, through choice or denial. What then about shame?

Shame–the very word makes us uneasy, striking deeply into the core of our being. For shame is not about what we do, but about who we are. It speaks to a deep sense of unworthiness, rejection, inadequacy, and isolation. It says we are not OK, that what we truly are must be hidden. And this we do with all the energy at our disposal, throwing up an impenetrable wall to keep others out at all costs. For the essence of shame is relational–it says that if you really knew what I was like, you would be repulsed and thus reject me. The resulting isolation–real or perceived–is a devastating threat, engendering a pain so profound it approaches unbearable.

The origins of shame are varied, and not fully understood. We seem to be programmed to interpret certain words and behavior by others–especially parents and siblings in childhood–as not simply critical of our behavior, but a statement of our worth. This is an especially powerful force coming from parents, under whose authority and supervision we are molded into social beings. While this may be especially pronounced in dysfunctional or abusive homes–alcoholism, sexual abuse, and mental illness come to mind–it occurs even in well-functioning family units, and with speech and actions which are not intended as critical or demeaning, but which are interpreted as such. The soil of the soul seems fertile ground to bring forth a tainted crop of shame, even from the seemingly benign bruises of normal human interactions and relationships.

From the Judeo-Christian perspective, this propensity toward shame is understood as rooted in the spiritually-inherited rupture of our relationship with God, manifesting itself in an extreme self-centeredness and self-focus, which acts as a toxic filter letting in the destructive while keeping out the good. Having been born into a state of remoteness from God–perceived at a spiritual level as rejection by Him, though in fact just the opposite–we are acutely sensitized to rejection by others: it fits the mold perfectly. Thus every real or perceived hurt, criticism, or rejection simply confirms that we are rejected, worthless, and of no value. Our self-centered mindset insures that even events not focused on our self-value are interpreted in ways that affirm our sense of shame–hence the child that blames herself for her father’s drinking and abusiveness.

While shame lives deep below the surface–a monstrous child kept hidden from public view–its manifestations are legion, and its ability to percolate to the surface and alter our lives and behavior is formidable. The pain of shame requires response, no less than a hand on a hot stove, and it may be triggered by many means: by concerns about physical size, strength, skill, or ability; by issues of dependency or independence; by competition with others; by worries about personal attractiveness and sexuality; or when dealing with matters of personal closeness and intimacy. Thus triggered, an outward manifestation is inevitable, and will generally fall into one of these areas:

  • Withdrawal — perhaps the most natural response to pain, we retreat from its source to avoid the risk of exposing our vulnerability. Hence we steer clear of people or circumstances which may trigger shame, withdrawing into a nominally safer–but profoundly lonely–world. This response may range in manifestation from shyness up to deep, pathologic depression or psychosis.
  • Attack the Self — The loneliness of withdrawal and isolation is itself a deeply uncomfortable state, and often raises the profound terror of abandonment. To avoid such painful estrangement, many will resort to demeaning and depreciating themselves, thereby becoming subservient to others more powerful, resulting in a condition of dependency. While this may lessen the pain of isolation and abandonment, it further exacerbates the underlying shame by reinforcing one’s worthlessness and inferiority. The relationships so formed are not those of equals, and therefore satisfy the need for true intimacy poorly. Such responses range from obsequiousness and self-demeaning deference to others, to depression, and all the way to masochism, self-mutilation, and suicide.
  • Avoidance — If the shame cannot be eliminated, the feelings most surely can: shame is soluble in alcohol, can be freebased, and its pain assuaged as well by a host of other self-destructive behaviors. One’s choice of drug–chemical or behavioral–is influenced by genetics, neurochemistry, and environment, but all have the common goal of emotional oblivion. Eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior, behavioral addictions to work, computers, gambling, or sex can divert the mind and stimulate sufficient endorphins to make the pain go away–at least for the moment. But the drugs and behaviors only worsen the underlying sense of failure and inadequacy, and lead to fractured and destroyed relationships, loneliness, and sometimes physical illness and death.
  • Attack Others — Rage and anger are common responses to shame, as we seek to defend our threatened worth by destroying the antagonist–or at least diminishing their worth, through sarcasm, criticism, gossip, physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or violence. But as with other coping mechanisms for shame, the outcome is invariably destroyed relationships, and adverse consequences, both legal and personal.
Thus the engine of shame drives a host of behaviors which are both personally destructive and socially disruptive. If you scratch the surface of nearly any dysfunctional personal or social problem–alcoholism and drug abuse, obesity, international terrorism–you will find at its dark heart the issue of shame. It is, at the very least, a common thread among such societal and personal liabilities, if not a central driving force.

So it behooves us to get a handle on this matter of shame, uncomfortable though it may be. Our responses to its provocations are major causes of personal agony and social crisis. But like a schoolyard bully, once confronted face-to-face, the tyranny of shame can be broken through courage and openness, and the strength of numbers. On these thoughts I will be reflecting in a subsequent essay.

The Revenge of the Fifth

Revenge of the Fifth

MercuryIt seemed like such a great idea at the time… His name is Darin. Of course, that’s not his real name, but he is a casual friend of mine. A bright young man, possessed of good looks, a warm smile, and a soft-spoken demeanor. Darin is brilliant with computers–not merely competent, as many are, but a true geek, tear-’em-down-and-rebuild-’em smart, fearless in the depths of sockets and motherboards, Windows registries and Unix terminals. A true success story, you might say, bright future, make some girl very happy. But Darin was toolin’ down the freeway of goin’ nowhere fast.

You see, Darin had a little problem: a fondness for the grape and the snort which always seemed to get the best of him. Not that he didn’t try: he was in and out of AA rooms more often than a pastor’s wife at church socials, always returning beaten and remorseful, determined to do better this time. “This time” rarely lasted more than a few weeks or months.

Darin was quiet, but a man of passion. He was always in love. Intoxicated with the flush of a new romance, that rush of euphoria so real yet so maddeningly transient. Each new girl was “the one”, but nights of passionate, drug-enhanced sex soon proved impotent to overcome the waning charms of Miss Demeanor, the rumpled sheets, and the rumblings of his restless soul. Before long he was again cruising for some other codependent wench, herself seeking a sodden soul to save. Like an ugly tie wrapped up pretty under the Christmas tree, Darin’s package looked good at first glance, but he quickly proved to be a daddy’s nightmare: “no phone, no food, no rent”, as the song goes. Soon he was once again welcome only in his mother’s house, with whom he could do no wrong.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Darin: someone did him dirty, stiffing him out of a good deal of cash, and forgiveness was not one of his many charms. The details are murky: a computer built or repaired, promises made but not kept. There was much lighthearted chatter at the coffee houses–was it Darin’s fault, or his nemesis? No matter–like a quiet bubbling cauldron in a witch’s lair, Darin was cooking up his favorite dish: a rip-roaring resentment. Not visible on the outside, of course, but raging like a Jerry Springer slug-fest in the conference rooms of his mind. It was the perfect mixed drink: a perceived injustice blended with that unique obsessiveness which addicts possess seemingly in endless measure.

It is not clear when the brainstorm struck–an idea so brilliant, so flawless, that it would right all injustices and settle all disputes: Darin would break into his detractor’s home and steal back the computer which tortured him so. No mere larceny, mind you, but the picture-perfect crime, a liberation to rival Paris in ’45. Carefully timed when the enemy was not at home, staged so not even Sherlock Holmes would presume that Darin might be the perpetrator. Sweet revenge, sweetly executed.

Like tightly-written computer code, Darin’s nimble mind set the parameters, checked the variables, and executed commands in a tight loop whose efficiency and speed wasted no cycles. The Day of Vengeance arrived, with only one small ingredient missing: courage. But Darin had that algorithm factored as well: a fifth of Vodka erased all fears, drowning all doubts. By stealth of night, with watches synchronized and bottle drained, the window glass parted to usher him to glory. The mission was underway.

No one knows whether anyone heard the shattering of glass, but despite his stealth the disruption somehow caught the notice of neighbors. When the police arrived, the cause of the disturbance became evident: there was Darin, passed out on the floor, beside the untouched computer he coveted. Fate had struck a cruel blow–his celebratory blackout had arrived on the wings of Mercury rather than with the spoils of Mars. He awakened to handcuffs and an open-ended reservation at the Gray Bar Hotel.

All good stories–even true ones–should have a moral, but Darin’s story eludes easy lessons. He was taken by that peculiar insanity which alcoholics possess in abundance, even while sober. When Darin hatched his master plan, he was not drinking, but engaged in one of his countless attempts to clean up. For the alcoholic, the danger lies not in the bottle, but in the brain. The sane among us make mistakes, to be sure: wisdom comes from experience, and experience often comes from lack of wisdom. But facing the inevitable consequences of bad choices, we generally rearrange our lives and priorities to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again. Not so the alcoholic. Obsessively repeating behavior long ago proven destructive, he nevertheless pursues the optimism of denial which says the next time will be different. This baffling disconnect from reality cascades from farce to tragedy, as the alcoholic perceives no problems other than those bastards who are out to get him.

There is much resistance to the idea that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. Much of this comes from conservatives, and those of religious conviction, whose proper emphasis on personal responsibility and moral rectitude sees in the alcoholic only reckless hedonism and wanton irresponsibility. These qualities the addict has in spades, but less obvious is the driving obsessive compulsion, the thought disorder which is their engine. The medical evidence for the disease model of alcoholism and addiction is deep and wide, as I have detailed in part elsewhere (see also this and this for more on the topic). The liberals have this one right: the alcoholic is a victim of his or her genetics, and the addition of a mind-altering drug–which one is probably moot–starts a swirling whirlpool whose vortex holds only misery, destruction and death. Not many survive its power.

Yet defining deviance from normal as disease also has its risks: the proliferation of social disorders redefined as diseases seems endless, and points to the abrogation of all responsibility for one’s actions. It can become laughable at times.

Several years ago, I saw a patient, a healthy, athletic women in her 40’s, who was covered under Medicare. Medicare covers the elderly, but also those with chronic renal failure and the disabled, so I inquired as to the nature of her disability. I was informed she had “hyperactivity disorder.” Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? No, just hyperactivity disorder–she was restless. A black belt in Karate, she traveled around the country constantly, competing in tournaments and teaching seminars. She was disabled, in short, because she couldn’t sit still. No “cripple” jokes around her, no siree, unless you wanted your skull crushed by a foot you’ll never see coming.

The concern about labeling alcoholism, or any other behavioral disorder, as a disease is the tendency to tolerate and rationalize the resulting behavior, to use the “disease” label as an excuse for selfish, self-centered behavior destructive to one’s self, society, and those around you. The issue is not disease or no disease, but rather what drives the behavior and what can be done to change it. The paradox about 12-step programs–which have the only reliable track record for successful recovery from addiction–is that they emphasize the disease as the problem, and honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility as the solution. They do not excuse the behavior while admitting the disease, and this blend of honesty and humility, acceptance and tough love, works like nothing else. It is, as recovering alcoholics are quick to point out, a spiritual program: the Catch-22 of a body which craves alcohol without limit and a mind which denies the resulting problems cannot be solved any other means.

But as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, the problem is not the booze; it is not even the obsessive, irrational mindset which drives the drinking. Both these problems are symptoms of an underlying decay, one of spiritual dimensions, characterized at its core by extreme self-centeredness. The pursuit of happiness by feeding this monster creates not the promised joy but rather pain and emptiness. Alcohol hides that pain for a while, until the monster, growing ever stronger by its constant feeding, kills its host spiritually, emotionally, and often physically.

But addiction is hardly alone as a symptom of this dark core. The list of destructive behaviors arising from its belly is endless: obesity, sexual promiscuity, compulsive overwork, materialism, computer obsession, gambling, the pursuit of beauty over character, the lust for money and power. Some may be biologically-driven; some learned behaviors or dysfunctional coping. All seek to fill a hole with no bottom, providing the wrong salve for the pain, and more of the same when the salve makes the wound fester.

And what of Darin? In many ways he is fortunate: his life is on hold, and forced reflection and change are his for the taking–should he choose to grasp them. The price is high; it might have been much higher. Yet his choice–and ours–is the same: feed the monster, or turn life over to One whose burden is light, who alone can fill that deep inner void.