Turning Shame Into Courage

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"Sometimes courage is born from a desire to avoid shame," writes Karen Swallow Prior in our series The Opposite of Shame. But other times, "to give courage, we must find our own courage."

As a professor, it is always my intention to encourage students—encourage them to stretch themselves, to do better, to discover more, and to enjoy the entire process of learning—even though encouragement isn’t my particular gift. I always score lowest on “encouragement” every time I take one of those tests designed to reveal one’s spiritual giftedness. And it’s tempting simply to leave it at that. To trust that others have this gift and I don’t. But I’m an educator. And encouragement is essential to effective education.

But anything that involves feedback as stark as clear corrections of errors (“sentence fragment” or “ ‘their,’ not ‘there’ ”) and actual grades (“B+” or “70”) carries with it an inherent risk of bringing shame rather than encouragement, however unintentional. I have sometimes found, though, especially with younger college students, that they are “encouraged” to read and study when they know they will be held accountable for doing so by performing or presenting their work to their peers, not just their instructor. I understand, of course, that such “encouragement” really stems from their desire not to feel shame from their peers (shame some are less likely to feel when their professor is their only audience). So the line between shame and encouragement can be mighty fine.

A Broader Definition of Encouragement

Which makes me wonder if our conception of encouragement is too narrow. When I hear the word encouragement, I think of soft, sweet words spoken gently in season. Hallmark cards. Certain Pinterest boards. Stuart Smalley-esque words of affirmation. If this thin understanding is all encouragement is, I fear I will never score well on the encouragement test.

But the word encourage actually means so much more. It means to hearten, to make strong, to give courage. The ways to give courage to someone in need of it are countless.

Turning Shame Into Courage

As in the example of my students, sometimes courage is born from a desire to avoid shame. But sometimes encouragement can turn shame into courage. I think, for example, of a poignant moment in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre when the young Jane, while a boarder at a miserable charity school, accidentally drops her slate on the floor, cracking it in two. Incensed, the cruel school supervisor, Mr. Brocklehurst, makes Jane stand on a stool in front of the class in shame. He addresses the entire room by offering a litany of accusations against Jane’s character, then demands, "Let her stand half-an-hour longer on that stool, and let no one speak to her during the remainder of the day." Jane continues,

There was I, then, mounted aloft; I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were no language can describe …

But suddenly Jane receives encouragement from a simple gesture by her classmate Helen Burns:

… a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool. Helen Burns … returned to her place, and smiled at me as she again went by. What a smile! I remember it now, and I know that it was the effluence of fine intellect, of true courage; it lit up her marked lineaments, her thin face, her sunken grey eye, like a reflection from the aspect of an angel.

Helen’s simple smile seems to say to Jane in the midst of her great shame, “Take courage!” It proves to be a significant moment in Jane’s character development. The strength Helen imparts helps Jane transform a crippling bitterness toward those in her life who have wronged her into an attitude of forgiveness that ultimately frees her from the pain of her past.

Finding Our Own Courage

Sometimes to give courage, we must find our own courage, the kind that allows us to think and act outside the box of convention.

Many years ago, when I was the principal at a small private high school, one of the students showed up for the umpteenth time wearing fleece sweatpants and a sweatshirt—a direct violation of a dress code that was already fairly relaxed. Student dress code violations among teenagers are, of course, as common as pimples. But this student’s case was different. I knew about her particular struggles. I knew how her struggles gave her feelings of shame. I knew the sloppy, shabby clothes she wore on the outside reflected how she felt on the inside. Although I was generally a strict disciplinarian, I decided not to punish the student according to the rules. Instead, I pulled her out of class, took her on the metro rail, and got off at the nearest shopping mall where I bought her clothes that flattered her awkward adolescent bulk, clothes I hoped she could feel good wearing. When we returned to school, her sweats were in a shopping bag, and she was appropriately—and beautifully—attired. She never wore baggy sweatpants to school again. Over the ensuing years, I have watched her face various obstacles in her life with courage.

“Flatter me, and I may not believe you,” writes William Arthur Ward. “Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.” Encouragement is so much more than saying sweet words. When we encourage, we give courage—sometimes by our words, yes, but sometimes by a timely exhortation, by a loving challenge, by a personal sacrifice, by our mere presence, and sometimes by our own example. It’s a test we all can—and should—pass.