When Love Reaches into the Dark: An Unexpected Story of Healing

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Nothing Kay did met the approval of those who had the power to love her into the light, so she tiptoed in the darkness instead. In our series The Opposite of Shame, Sam Van Eman takes us into the wilderness for an unlikely story of healing.

We had been hiking for three days with high school kids when the youngest and shyest participant in the group passed gas. It happened at dinner as we sat around a camp stove meal in a grove of pines. The sound escaped from her little body like a humiliating terror, a mean break in the chatter and conversation others were having while she, Kay, huddled alone once again in her remarkable silence.

Kay was less an introvert than a child broken by years of ridicule. Nothing she did met the approval of those with the most power to love her into the light, so she tiptoed in dark corners instead. We had been trying to draw her out with no success. Now discretion itself betrayed her.

The group burst into laughter. How couldn't they? Kay had finally announced her presence and did so in the most unexpected manner.

Yet the response had a particular quality to it: it wasn’t aimed at her. Something in the way they teased said that she mattered. How do I explain this? Yet it's what they did, and the wounded Kay began to laugh with them until all of us lay on the ground grasping for enough breath to proclaim God's great favor on this tiny creature. Which—once we recuperated—is exactly what they did.

How odd for healing to come like this. We spent another five days hiking, with Kay surprising us over and over with gifts (courteous ones!) nobody knew she possessed. After returning to base, the director, who had known Kay from a distance for years, asked, "What happened out there? I've never seen this girl so happy, so alive."

She had come out from hiding.

Shame and the Feeling of Being Something Wrong

Our pain from the past interrupts us, saying, "Whoa, whoa, do you really want to put yourself out there? Don’t you remember when … ?" Then we do remember and return to our shells because there’s too much at stake. Too many painful reasons to consider anything but hiding. Too much shame.

Consider the question personally: When did you last experience a glorious moment of full acceptance, where it truly didn't matter what you wore, did, or said? You snorted when you laughed and found spinach in your teeth and felt none the lesser for any of it. Something about that time with those people caused you to say, "This is me. The real me. I feel exposed and yet completely alive right now."

In Genesis 2:25, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” How idyllic. Some are fortunate to have good friends or caring family members who make us feel at home, but this other comfort—this deep peace within our own skin (metaphorically or realistically speaking)—is a rare thing. When it occurs, it feels like heaven. To observers, it looks like heaven, too.

Shame, however, strips us of ourselves. Clinical psychologist Marilyn J. Sorensen puts it in stark terms: “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong.” Shame makes us want to disappear.

We Are Changed by What Breaks Us

Perhaps it is like the effects of a concussion on an athlete. The first time sets him back a game or two, but once the headache subsides and neck muscles relax, he may be convinced he is as good as new. Only this is not the case. The brain has been injured and, consequently, is more susceptible to further injury. If he maintains his current level of play—weakness now exposed—concussions can increase in frequency, lesser force required to cause each one. So he employs better defenses: a more protective helmet, a more strategic tackle, more ibuprofen. As these lose effectiveness, he may turn to internal defenses, now trading speed for hesitation and boldness for fear—every stage downgrading the athlete he once was.

Shame is like a concussed brain in that repeated offenses make the person disappear.

How does one return to the former state? It is impossible for the athlete. Perhaps it is also impossible for Kay and for all of us, even if we could remember a time worth returning to. We are changed by what breaks us. When Jesus promised a new heaven and new earth, he did not promise a return to Eden, where there existed a possibility of pain. Rather, he promised a time in the future when “No longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22:3).

We have been called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This orientation frees the captives we encounter and it frees us, too. Yesterday’s darkness gets replaced today by tomorrow’s light.

Our Work as Light-Bearers

In the pamphlet “Leading From Within: Reflections on Spirituality and Leadership,” Parker Palmer suggests:

A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being—conditions that can either be as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him or her self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.

We have seen both conditions and created both conditions, haven’t we? Light at church and shadows at work; light on neighbors and shadows on the family. The space we create for others comes from the space we inhabit ourselves. How important is it, then, for us to turn toward Jesus’ promise by standing with the psalmist who proclaims, "For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). This stand acknowledges the futility of trying to return to what used to be and what could have been, and looks toward a new future instead.

Maybe it isn't odd for healing to come to someone like Kay through flatulence, however bizarre that sounds. For to be known in a way that heals is to be known fully, and to be known fully is to be known without filters—filters as potent as social avoidance or as mild as courteous discretion. Should we have the courage to love and let Christ love in all the public and hidden arenas, then we might begin to understand how freedom feels. We might even begin to understand the sheer delight of a tiny, wounded teenager in the moment of her release.

For a gripping—and also humorous—description of shame and the power of God to heal us, see Dan Allender’s keynote talk from the CCO’s Jubilee Conference.

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