I Learned Kindness on the Putt-Putt Course with Mom
If the opposite of shame as a noun is self-esteem, what is shame’s opposite as a verb? In our series The Opposite of Shame, Tyler Charles looks to the Bible and to his mom for an answer.
The March issue of Christianity Today featured a cover with the intriguing title "The Good News about Shame." The cover story, written by Andy Crouch, contrasts eastern honor/shame cultures with what he refers to as a western "postmodern fame/shame culture." He writes, "Like honor, fame is a public estimation of worth, a powerful currency of status. But fame is bestowed by a broad audience, with only the loosest of bonds to those they acclaim."
Crouch also quotes an American missionary who serves in Central Asia and writes under the pseudonym of Jayson Georges, "The opposite of Western shame is self-esteem—I feel good about myself. The opposite of Eastern shame is honor—others thinking highly of me."
As compelling as Crouch's article is, it focuses exclusively on shame as a noun—something that we experience, feel, or possess. It's increasingly common, however, in our fame/shame culture to see examples of "shame" in verb form—intentional actions directed at others in order to shame them and potentially also designed to diminish their "status."
Recently a popular teacher in my county was fired for publicly "shaming" a student. This particular fifth-grader apparently was notorious for bullying classmates. So the teacher asked him to stand in the front of the class while students took turns sharing the things he had done to hurt or offend them. This teacher believed—and so did many parents who protested her dismissal—that she was curbing "bullying." The school board, however, decided that she had publicly "shamed" this student. And she lost her job.
I don't know what's reasonable and appropriate in a fifth-grade classroom (I will let you draw your own conclusions about this situation). But online, I've seen plenty of examples of shaming that are more black-and-white. Social media is a hotbed for shaming with its potential for anonymity and endless opportunities to criticize without ever looking anyone in the eye.
And this type of shaming is ugly, depressing, heart-wrenching, and sometimes downright exhausting. When Caitlyn Jenner emerged a couple weeks ago, the Internet went crazy with support and criticism—and a deluge of bickering back and forth. For a couple days, even skimming Facebook or Twitter nearly wore me out.
OPPOSING SHAME WITH A VERB
I've been thinking recently about "shame" as a verb. Crouch and Georges may be right that in western culture, the opposite of shame as a noun is self-esteem. What is the opposite of shame as a verb?
The answer, I've decided, is building others up. And it's no wonder that we find this action articulated more than once in the Scriptures.
In Ephesians, Paul talks about how believers should "put on the new self." In the list of behaviors that this should include, he adds, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (4:29).
Similarly, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul gives these instructions: "And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else" (5:14–15).
After a little more reflection, I realized that I know someone who lives out these verses, someone who embodies "the opposite of shame." It’s my mother.
When I was a kid, my family liked to go Putt-Putt golfing. As my sister and I got older, we noticed something about my mother. After every putt, she always said something encouraging. Always. After a good shot, it was "Nice job" or "Good shot." After a bad shot, she'd say, "Oh, so close." (Honestly, it's hard to ever not be "close" on a par 2 Putt-Putt course.)
Even after a terrible shot—you know, the type that ricochets off an obstacle and comes right back at you or one that soars over a ramp and bounces all the way across the parking lot—she would still say, "That was a good try." And she would say it sincerely. Not a hint of sarcasm.
Eventually my sister and I began to tease her for being so affirming. (Maybe we were embodying the opposite of the opposite of shame?) But we still could not deter her from being a voice of encouragement.
When I turned 18, I started playing in weekly Putt-Putt tournaments with friends. It was fun, cheap, and there was nothing else to do on summer Tuesday nights. During those tournaments, my friends and I criticized and mocked one another constantly.
"How did you miss that?"
"Are you trying to lose?"
"You're going to have the worst round ever."
"Dude, you suck."
"You might as well quit now."
Maybe mocking good friends on a Putt-Putt course doesn’t matter that much. Maybe words of affirmation on a Putt-Putt course don't matter that much either. But the criticism, the mockery, the insults, and the finger-pointing we encounter in other phases of life take a toll.
There's something therapeutic and redemptive about hearing words that "are good for building up" and that "give grace to those who hear." Things like:
And maybe even, "So close."
Instead of shaming others, what if we looked for ways to "encourage the fainthearted"? What if we intentionally opposed shame as a noun by "always seeking to do good to one another and everyone." Instead of indulging in the temptation to join in the shaming, what if we could all be a little bit more like my mother? What kind of impact might that have on each one of us and on everyone we encounter?
I think it's worth a shot. And if we fail a few times, it's okay. Just remember:
"That was a good try. You were so close."