I met with her many times. Being chronically ill, she ended up in the hospital often. Regardless of what we started talking about – her health, her grandchildren, her attempts to find a place where she could be at home – we always ended up talking about shame.
For most of her life, people who claimed to loved her behaved as if they hated her. They told her she was stupid, ugly, worthless, and hopeless. They beat her, they sabotaged her efforts to achieve, they denied her the right of personhood. According to them, she couldn’t do anything right. Certainly she couldn’t “be” right. Her burden of shame left her depressed, angry, lonely, and sick. Though she clung to the idea of a god who loved her, she couldn’t feel that love.
This is toxic shame. It eats at us relentlessly, but does nothing to encourage us to repair the wrongs we’ve perpetrated nor to seek restitution from those who’ve harmed us. With toxic shame, there’s no making things better, because it’s not what we did that was wrong, but what we are.
For this patient to blame her parents or her husband for what happened to her, or to assert that she deserved love, would be disloyal, a defiance of all her family had taught her. When shame stains everything we believe we are, we can end up believing that the only way to find redemption is to destroy the self.
Defined by Shame
We can destroy ourselves in many ways. There are addictions, cutting, suicide, abusive marriages, depression, and dissociation. We can choose to project the faults we see in ourselves onto others, thus separating those faults from our perceived identity, or we can reject society’s standards of goodness and embrace a life of shamelessness. Even a longing for mystical emptiness can disguise a desire to cease existing due to a belief that we are, essentially, unworthy.
These attempts to ease our suffering or buttress our fragile sense of self are based on lies. In the case of the patient I knew, those lies, both the ones others told her and those she learned to tell herself, spanned a lifetime. She never had a chance. Shame defined her.
At one point in our conversation, the topic of forgiveness arose. Not the forgiving of those who had done harm to her. She’d already forgiven them. After all, she was an unimportant creature, so the hurts others perpetrated on her were insignificant and easily absolved.
No. She felt the need to forgive herself.
You might be forgiven for thinking that an odd concern in one so abused, but self-forgiveness is itself an odd thing. Often, those who cause the least harm have the hardest time releasing their remorse and self-recrimination.
But self-forgiveness is odd in other ways, as well. Paul C. Vitz and Jennifer M. Meade contend that self-forgiveness is even dangerous. It splits the self into the “bad” person who does wrong and the “good” one who forgives. When we project our “bad” side onto others, this can lead to oppression and scapegoating. If, instead, we try to pretend those “bad” parts don’t exist, we can end up with dissociative disorders or depression. Additionally, self-forgiveness means that the one who committed the crime will also be the one who forgives it. That makes no sense. Most important, though, is that forgiving ourselves is done in isolation, yet the harm is done in relationship. Thus, it must be healed in relationship. Forgiveness must occur in community.  As Heidi L. Maibom writes, “[S]hame concerns our lives with others.” 
Does that mean that forgiving ourselves is impossible? Or is that the wrong question?
No Right or Wrong
While thinking about this column and researching the concept of shame, I came across the oft-quoted line from a Rumi poem: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/ there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”  In that field, there is no language, there are no ideas, the concept of “each other” doesn’t exist, so nothing we do can be right, nor can it be wrong. In such a place, shame makes no sense. Forgiveness is meaningless.
Is that what we need to understand about shame and self-forgiveness, that they are illusions, constructs, ideas that don’t matter in that field beyond wrong and right? We can’t live in this field every day, but perhaps we can end up there. When all is done, perhaps we can let go of moral codes and assumptions.
But what would guide us then?
Surely shame is not all bad. As Maibom explains, “People stop themselves from doing what is shameful out of fear of the imagined reaction of others.”  Shame, and, perhaps even more, the fear of being shamed, keep us from hurting one another. Do we really want to live in a world where right and wrong do not exist?
The Relationship Matters
As is often true of quotes, those lines were taken out of context. “A Great Wagon,” the poem from which it comes, is a love poem. It is a poem about relationships.
Rumi starts out describing what happens when the lover sees the beloved: “the stones start spinning,” “I lose my place,” “water turns pearly,” “new shapes appear,” and a desire rises up that is as “widespread as Spring” and that moves like “a great wagon.”
Such love demands attention; it spreads everywhere. Like an enormous wagon, love may be hard to get started, but once going, it rolls along relentlessly. Some people try to define this love, Rumi tells us. The same way they wondered about the “Song of Songs” in the Bible, they wonder if the love Rumi describes is “spiritual or sexual?” Relationships can be hard to define.
But perhaps the most important thing is what Rumi tells us three times: “Don’t go back to sleep.” Listen to the breeze that rises with the dawn. Ask for what you want. Pay attention, and you will notice a doorway between the worlds through which people cross, and you will see that “[t]he door is round and open.”
Stay awake. Don’t sleep. You, too, can pass through the doorway.
Of course, it’s scary to go through that door. One wants to. As Rumi writes in the very next line, “I would love to kiss you.” Yet to do so means to pay with one’s life.
But love doesn’t mind. It knows what matters. “What a bargain,” love cries out, “let’s buy it.”
It’s the relationship that matters, you see.
Things that Don’t Matter
According to Rumi, there is much that doesn’t matter, as well.
In that field beyond right and wrong, beyond ideas and language, hurts don’t matter anymore. The lovers have been other places, but that makes no difference now. “There is light and wine, and sweethearts/ in the pomegranate flowers,” but these, too, have ceased to matter.
Forgive or don’t forgive, hurt or don’t hurt, feel shame or don’t feel shame, “these do not matter.” Rumi repeats this: “these do not matter.”
No matter whether or not we come together, whether it is winter or spring, whether we can study or we get distracted by the love that swells within our chest, there is life and the giving up of life, and it all opens us to that loss of self that spills us into oneness. But before we can reach that field, that place where things “do not matter,” we must acknowledge and tend to the brokenness within us.
The Remedy for Lameness
Rumi writes that “some of us walking alongside are lame.” He wakes feeling “empty and frightened.” He has lost his place. When the beloved arrives, the things that used to matter, like manuscripts and studying and hanging lamps, become unimportant.
So Rumi gives us the remedy for lameness, emptiness, fear, futility. The remedy is beauty. It’s kissing the ground, loving the beloved, entering into and through relationship and forgiveness and emptiness to a oneness that lies in a field beyond right and wrong.
These are the remedies for what ails us. These are also the remedies for shame.
But Rumi does not lay them out in isolation. He doesn’t go the field alone. He meets us there. Indeed, in the poem’s first line, he sees the face of the beloved. Instead of one, there are now two.
In the beginning is the relationship. Outside the context of that relationship, nothing makes sense. That’s why “A Great Wagon” is a love poem. If there is no wrong or right, just some field in which we lie down in ecstatic oneness, love itself is pointless, for without the “other,” a person who can hurt us and whom we can hurt, love has no object and ceases to be love. That place of oneness may be a field of ecstasy, but we can’t get there without first going through the door between the worlds, then returning to this land of light and stones and water and manuscripts and pomegranates. We travel “back and forth.” Love is spiritual and sexual.
So we start in the world of objects and ideas, and love allows us to see that there is a door and that it’s open. We don’t get to that field without first entering into relationship, falling into that spiritual and sexual union, a union that can heal our lameness and ease our emptiness. And though Rumi never says the word “forgiveness,” we cannot get to that place where wrong and right don’t matter without first forgiving that which has been wrong and has been right and which hurts us and blesses us both.
To let go of wrong and right, we must let go of the hurts that arise out of our knowledge of pain and sorrow and abuse. We must forgive.
Before we can forgive, though, there must be something that needs forgiving. To recognize that something needs forgiving, we must be able to experience shame. Our capacity for shame can cripple us, but it is also the door that can lead to our restoration.
And that restoration only occurs in relationship. Thus, before we can forgive ourselves, we must first feel forgiven, if not by our parents or our friends, then by God or by a chaplain or a therapist or a pet. We must experience being loved. When shame is our core, love is what heals us. Without it, self-forgiveness makes no sense.
That patient is learning to feel loved. She has a counselor who affirms her goodness. The time I spend with her confirms that she matters. Her children are starting to accept her. She is beginning to find a few friends.
Even so, she likes this idea of forgiving herself. Over the years, she has allowed one person after another to demean her and take advantage of her. Victims are often victimized again. She feels responsible for this. But should she?
For her to claim control of her life and make changes, for her to set limits that protect her and say “no” to those who would abuse her, she must accept responsibility for some part of what happened to her. She has not been perfect. She has even done things that hurt others. This guilt and shame worth are exploring and healing.
To Love and to Forgive
Yet we are speaking here of the hurts she endured at the hands of others, the ones she clung to, that she used to define her and build around herself a damaged life. She is wounded in body, heart, and spirit. If we had lived her life, we would be no different, surely. Yet she allowed the abuse to go on and on and on. Does she not deserve to forgive herself for that? Does she not deserve to understand that she could have done no different than she did, that she was a hero just for surviving in such a tortured world?
And yet, she cannot do it on her own. None of us can.
On our own we would never see the door that leads to the field where nothing matters. We certainly wouldn’t notice that it was open. If we never experience love, a true and joyful love, how can we ever change?
Helping Others Forgive Themselves
There are many kinds of shame and shamelessness. There’s the shame of having done wrong and the shame of being named “wrong.” Forgiveness is important in both instances. But no matter what kind of shame we experience, and what we’ve done to hurt ourselves or others, forgiveness cannot occur outside of relationship. Even self-forgiveness requires that we first feel forgiven by others. It requires that we learn that we are loved.
If we have felt loved and thus learned to love, if we have been forgiven and thus learned to forgive, we have a responsibility to offer love and forgiveness to those who don’t know what it feels like. Show them the door between the worlds. Open it, invite them to walk with you alongside that great wagon, back and forth between the lands. It doesn’t matter if we limp. As we take in that love and accept that forgiveness, our lameness will, though it will take time. That’s all right. Be patient. Shame doesn’t heal in a day.
In faith and fondness,
- “Self-forgiveness in Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Critique,” Vitz, Paul C. and Jennifer M. Meade, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 50, No. 2 (June 2011), pp. 248-263, 251, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41349785, accessed 5/22/20.
- Maibom, Heidi L., “The Descent of Sheame,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research vol. 80, no. 3, 2010, pp. 566-594, 568, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20722807, accessed 23 May 2020.
- Rumi, “A Great Wagon,” https://onbeing.org/poetry/a-great-wagon/, accessed 5/20/20.
- Maibom 569.
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved