Shame and Being Seen
Last week we talked about our shadow side, the part of our psyche hidden from our conscious mind. By living an examined life, we discover more about ourselves each day, yet we will never fully understand what lurks within the recesses of our being. We often act out of ignorance, deluding ourselves about our true purpose, feeling annoyed by the idiosyncrasies of others that – without our knowledge – touch on our own. With effort, we can mitigate our flaws, but we never avoid them completely.
One way to discover our true self is to allow others to see us. This is also the only way to experience love. Friendship, agape, childish adoration, the lifelong coupling of two souls, the compassion that arises in a chaplain for a patient, all require an intimate seeing. Exposing the truth of who we are is scary. Doubtless, some will revile or reject us. But unless we reveal our ourselves, any love we receive will be a lie. On the other hand, we must also look honestly at our beloved. Otherwise, we will see only a reflection of ourselves.
Of course, sometime that happens. Not all of us can see; not all of us can love. We fear intimate knowledge of the other for good reason. What if we discover we don’t like our beloved? What if he doesn’t like us? Especially if we’ve experienced more ridicule and humiliation than affirmation and appreciation, it can be hard to see the beauty and grace within each soul, especially our own. Our shame gets in the way.
Dread of Being Known
Dan Allender speaks of shame as “the dread of being known”  Too often, we fear that what lies at the depths of our core is despicable and shameful. If the world knew the terrible things we had done, it would denounce us.
One man I visited, upon hearing that I was a chaplain, began to cry. “I have done bad things,” he said. “I don’t think God can forgive me.”
He didn’t offer details, and I didn’t ask. The litany of wrongs to which I have been a witness in my career is already long enough to understand the depths to which we humans can descend. He had struggled with addiction, I knew, was impulsive and thoughtless, betrayed the ones he loved. He alienated friends and family. After all, even the best of us can only take so much of being hurt.
So here was this man, unable to process too deeply, for he had a mental illness, perhaps dementia, yet he still ached with loneliness, cringed from guilt and shame. He wished he could have been someone different, made different choices, had a different life.
I thought of the poem, “Martin,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca. The author writes of an ache, of a longing to have been young, to have had a girl love him, a family that would shelter him, “but these were silver inlaid pieces of another man’s life.”  They were not for him.
Instead, Baca was draped with “the gray skin of the streets,”  as if shrouded in shame. We stigmatize the poor, the confused and afraid, judge those who survive in ways that appall the comfortable. Whether we are trying to protect ourselves from that stigma or deny our culpability, we hide. We dread being known.
We Cannot Hide
So we run. Take Jonah, the prophet who got swallowed by a fish. Sitting for three days and nights in the creature’s belly was a direct consequence of his trying to flee from the Lord. God had commanded him to go to Ninevah and prophesy against them, but Jonah knew that if he denounced their sins, they would repent. Then God would forgive them. Jonah didn’t want that. The Ninevites were his enemy and deserved to be punished.
Yet we tend to judge others harshly only because we, ourselves, are ashamed. Unable to accept that we are fallible, that our urges are as lustful as anyone else’s, we pretend perfection while damning our enemies. Jonah’s shame was deep and insidious. He could not bear to forgive. So he sailed toward Tarshish. Did he really imagine he could avoid a god who had dominion over every place and every thing? Does it not say, in the book of Jeremiah, “’Who can hide in secret places so I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24 NIV)? In Proverbs, it is said, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3 ESV).
This god could follow Jonah to the hinterlands of place, time, and heart.
You Have Searched and Known Me
Take Psalm 139. It begins:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?Psalm 139:1-7 NRSV
Or where can I flee from your presence?
Had Jonah paid attention, he would have realized that running would gain him nothing. Yet he was angry; he didn’t want to submit. So God trapped him in a fish, hemming him in and laying his hand upon him. If we learn anything from this it is that only a fool will try to avoid God’s call. Only a fool will pretend God cannot see us.
Longing to Be Seen
Some of us, however, long to be seen. Maybe we feel invisible. Perhaps our parents never noticed us, nor teachers, nor other children. We might have known love, but terrible things like wars took from us our family, our sweethearts. Perhaps we had to hide, learn to pass unseen. Nicole Krauss tells the story of a man named Leo Gursky who spent three and a half years hiding from the Nazis. Eventually one gets used to being overlooked.
Thus, Leo survived and made it to America, where he looked for the sweetheart who arrived before him. When he found her, he discovered she was married, had two children. One of them was his, though he hadn’t realized she’d become pregnant.
Three times he asked her to come away with him, and three times she refused. He didn’t even get to meet his own son. At his beloved’s request, he hid from the boy. What else could he do? “After all, what does it mean for a man to hide one more thing when he has vanished completely?” 
So he took to feigning clumsiness, spilling things, banging into doors, farting, anything to get attention, to prove he was not a nonentity. He even posed as a model for art students. Though they reduced him to form and line, shade and contour, at least they stared at him. They didn’t see him, though. Not really. Perhaps Rodin saw the soul of David, but art students are not like the sublime sculptor. Young, halting in their efforts, they failed to render the invisible visible, failed to bring Leo to life.
The Baal Shem Tov and the Priest
None of us see as clearly as a god. Probably, we don’t see like a Rodin, either, but we do our best. As I listened to that man who lay in his bed weeping over a past he could not change, I tried to see. It is easy to feel remorse when one is ill, and surely a troubled childhood doesn’t excuse us everything. When we have done wrong, we need to own it.
That is one moral we learn from the story of the Hassidic founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and the high priest. 
One day, the Baal Shem Tov, informing his followers he was about to die, and gave them tasks to do when he was gone. His follower, Reb Yaakov, was to be the storyteller, traveling everywhere, spreading the Hassidic stories. The reb didn’t want to do this, for he didn’t want to live as a bard, wandering in poverty, without a family, but his teacher insisted, so he agreed.
After the Baal Shem Tov died, Yaakov wandered throughout the land, telling the stories he knew. People loved them so much, they gave him coins and clothes and food in exchange. He lacked for nothing.
One day, he came to the village of a rich man who was delighted to hear of him. That Reb Yaakov knew the Baal Shem Tov personally made him even happier. The rich man invited him to dine at his house, and he would invite all the townspeople to hear this famous storyteller.
Finding the Story
When the time came for Yaakov to tell his first story, however, he found he could not speak. He could remember nothing that had happened while the Baal Shem Tov was alive, nor any tale his master had shared. His mind was blank.
With great kindness, his host invited him to stay the night. “Perhaps you will remember a story in the morning.”
The next day, however, the young man could still think of nothing to say. Even so, he let himself be persuaded to sleep there the next night, then one more. It didn’t help. He had no stories left. With deep regret, the rich man offered the reb a carriage to take him to the train station, and the Yaakov left.
On the way to the station, though, he remembered a story. “Go back, go back,” he cried, and the driver returned the reb to the rich man’s house. There, on the stoop, he told this story:
One day, the Baal Shem Tov took him to a far away town. The Christians there were holding their yearly ceremony in which they sacrificed a Jew. The Baal Shem Tov sent the young reb to interrupt the priest who was speaking to the crowd and tell him the Hassidic leader wanted to see him. Obviously, that was dangerous. They might sacrifice the reb. But the Baal Shem Tov insisted he would be safe. So Yaakov made his way to the podium and did as he was told, and surprisingly, the priest agreed to come. He led the Baal Shem Tov into a house, and that is all Reb Yaakov knew.
Some Hope Left
It seemed like such a paltry story, but the rich man was thrilled. Dragging the reb into his home, he proceeded to tell him a story of his own.
He was that priest. Once he had been a Jew, raised by good parents to obey the commandments. With time, though, he fell away and became a Christian. He learned that if he spoke ill of his people, he would be rewarded by his new community. So he came up with an idea of sacrificing a Jew at a yearly festival. Delighted, the Christian leaders made him a priest.
For years, he presided over this ceremony, and he came to love the power of it.
One night, he dreamt he was in heaven. His ancestors stared sadly at a shriveled object he understood was his soul. They wondered if there was any hope left for it. Then appeared a man who was not of his lineage, the Baal Shem Tov. He touched the shriveled thing, and moisture beaded up beneath his finger, thus showing them that there was, indeed, still hope.
From this, the priest knew the Baal Shem Tov would intercede for him one day, so when Yaakov appeared, he was happy to talk to the great teacher. After hearing his confession, the Baal Shem Tov told him how he might be redeemed.
“There is no guarantee you will be forgiven,” he said, “but if you desire it, sell your property. With one third of the proceeds, buy your freedom from your position as priest. Give the next third to the poor, and with the last, buy a house. Make it known that anyone who comes to you may receive food, clothing, and shelter. Perhaps that will be enough for you to one day be forgiven.”
Naming the Harm
“But how will I know if that day comes?”
“You will know,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “because on that day someone will tell you your own story.”
When Yaakov told his story, the rich man knew he was forgiven. The priest had done a terrible thing. How hard it is to admit to such wickedness. It makes us feel ashamed. Yet something inside us heals when we are truly known.
So how might I help this man with his rambling story and his quiet tears? Was it possible to mend his broken life? When we have done wrong, it helps to name that misdeed, to own it. That can be a first step. Like the priest, this man in the hospital was owning his sins. Sometimes I affirm that for people.
“Yes, you did wrong.”
At other times, we feel shame because we were victimized. “Yes, wrong was done to you.”
It can be a relief to have someone acknowledge that it matters what we did, what was done to us. It is not nothing. If there was harm, go ahead and call it what it is. Yet not with vengeance; not with accusation. How does it help to pile shame upon shame? Are we so saintly that we dare judge? How does it help any of us to deny the aching heart that regrets, especially when that regret so often is way beyond the measure of the injury?
So instead, I told him, “You only feel so bad about because you are a good person.”
Longing to Be Good
What else do you say to someone whose mind has become simple through the weight of time, the battering of a dissolute life? It is an unsophisticated answer, perhaps, but it serves its purpose. It reminds him, and me, that within us all lies a core of compassion. Even if our soul is withered, there is hope.
We want so much to be good. Baca’s poem speaks to this. He wished he could have had the “fairytale” life one hears about on television, a life that would make him good in the eyes of the world, that would reward him with love and home and safety. It is like the fairy tale filled with ogres and evil stepmothers, where obedient girls receive gold and bad ones get toads, like our belief that if bad things happen to us, it is because we were bad. After all, does God not know us better than we know ourselves?
Too often, when we are denied that fairy tale life, we decide that we don’t deserve it. After years of being told we are unworthy, we begin to believe it. Despairing that we might ever be good in the ways of love and kindness, we decide to be good at being bad. Either we become the victim, accepting our abuse as fit punishment for the depravity that must lie within us, or we become the bully, punishing everyone, including – though we would not admit it – ourselves.
Hating the Enemies
Perhaps this is why we see evil in everyone else. As we discussed last week, when we deny our own shadow, we project it onto the world. Is this what lies behind the psalmist’s sudden change in tone in verse 19? After extolling the weightiness and number of God’s thoughts, after expressing how wonderful it is that this busy deity has time for him, the author suddenly begs God to “kill the wicked” and send the “bloodthirsty” away.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?Psalm 139:21-22 NRSV
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
What is this? Why does he hate these people so? They have denied his god, made a mockery of his faith. The measure of his outrage is, apparently, the measure of his love. Yet don’t take his word. The god who sees all and knows all will surely recognize his righteousness.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;Psalm 139:23-24 NRSV
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
We want to be good enough to live in God’s house forever. The psalmist sounds almost defiant when calling on God to search him, know him, test him, see that he is empty of wickedness. He longs to be seen, but also to be vindicated. No matter what God uncovers within him, the psalmist has one last request. In utter faithfulness, trusting in God’s eternal patience and forgiveness, he asks his creator to lead him on the path toward everlasting life. It’s a path of goodness and purity, but we cannot travel it on our own. We need God, perhaps. Certainly, we need other people.
A Recovery Church member told a story of a woman who cleans patients’ rooms in a hospital. One day, while she was mopping the floor of a room, a visitor asked what she was doing.
What did the man want to know? Did he question her right to be there? Was he curious about her task? Did he want her to tell him her job title?
The housekeeper didn’t bother asking. Cutting through the chaff, she said, “I’m healing people.”
She realized that her work was vital to the patient’s well-being. Not only did she sanitize, but she created a fresh, neat, peaceful environment that helped patients rest and relax.
As our member commented, this woman understood her worth. Even if the world didn’t appreciate her, if they scorned her for being a manual laborer, she knew she mattered. Perhaps she saw herself as God did, recognized her loveliness, her wholeness. She contributed to the grace and beauty of creation. She helped in the sacred work of repairing the world.
If, instead, we lose sight of our sacredness, God will gladly bring us back to ourselves. She will create cracks in our defenses, shatter our security, force us to notice that life was not meant to be easy. Still, we can ignore God’s message. We can deny our own shadow, project our meanness onto those around us. It is up to us to realize our value, to nourish our shriveled souls. We cannot hide forever.
My frame was not hidden from you,Psalm 139:15-16 NRSV
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
Hiding No More
According to the psalm, God sees us even in the dark of the womb, the depths of the earth. God is always with us, always sees us. We cannot hide from the divine.
Are we good or bad? Will we be cursed or forgiven? The man in the hospital asked these questions. With his limited capacity, he was trying to make amends.
“I apologized to my cousin,” he said. “She sent me a book. That’s how I knew she forgave me.”
Was the story she sent him a reflection of his own, like the one the priest was told? I don’t know why this book seemed to prove her forgiveness, but why not? If he gave her the gift of apologizing, she could give him another sort of gift to show she had accepted his offering. The point was that they were repairing their relationship. To do this, they would need to recognize the holy in one another.
When we look with the eyes of compassion and forgiveness, we can heal people. There is no shame in seeing through the chaff to the wheat, to the core of who we are. That core is where we find the divine. Yet we’ll never find it if we lie to ourselves about our worthiness, if we pretend to be perfect, if we lash out at enemies in self-righteous tirades. To free ourselves from the tyranny of our shadow, to see that the evil mask our enemy wears is our own, we need to accept that glory and terror go together. We cannot have one without the other. So look. See. Be Seen. Hiding is no longer necessary.
In faith and fondness,
- Allender, Dan, The Wounded Heart, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2008, 45.
- Baca, Jimmy Santiago, “Martin,” Martin and Meditations on the South Valley: Poems, New York: New Directions, 1987, 20.
- Krauss, Nicole, The History of Love: A Novel, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 36 of ebook.
- Adapted from “The Forgotten Story,” itself adapted by Doug Lipman, https://hasidicstories.com/Stories/The_Baal_Shem_Tov/forgotten.html, accessed 5/1/21.
Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved