“Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”
We must be careful with our thoughts – they determine our vision; the lens through which we view the world and the course and happiness of our lives.
Our thoughts direct our decisions, and our reactions to the actions of others. If we engage our ability, born of free will, to shift our thinking, to turn from a degrading thought to an uplifting one – we can, thought by thought, build a life of joy.
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” To gain the wisdom necessary for a happy life, we must witness the nature of our internal world and how our thoughts are revealing themselves in our life.
Over the years, I have been plagued with discontented thoughts. “When we move, then things will be better” “If only I could travel more” “My laundry room is just too small!” These ideas have been extremely unhelpful in my life. When they linger, they keep me from appreciating the bountiful blessings that surround me. When I take the time to notice these discontented ideas taking space in my mind, I try and stop and shift to gratitude. Two thoughts cannot occupy the same mind at the same time. Through prayer or pondering we can shift our focus.
If we find ourselves disproportionately angry or hurt by something, we should examine what thoughts have been ignited: “She thinks she is better than me” “He never cared about me” “I am not enough”. If we can examine the thoughts, as disinterestedly as possible, we can search for clues to the source of such thinking. We can determine if these thoughts are helpful or harmful.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
Examining our thoughts takes introspection and often a struggle against our own nature. If we have a more negative disposition, the quest will be arduous. It is painful to admit to the destructive nature of many of our thoughts. We may uncover envy, bitterness, and cynicism driving many of our ruminations. But the first step is to notice – to be a witness to our own thinking – and be honest enough to admit to the harm our thoughts may be doing. The next time we see a tired, old, negative-thought pop up, we can let it pass away – seeing it for the devil it is.
If we want our life and relationships to improve, reigning in negative thoughts is crucial. Abraham Lincoln, a man with a life full of suffering and tribulation said – “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” We must make up our minds. When we do, we will transform our thoughts – and our lives can begin to express the happy desires of our thoughts.
As someone thinks within himself, so is he. Proverbs 23:7
Fathers provide the strength, perspective, and love that enables their children to thrive physically and psychologically. When a father is absent, the consequences are steep- his departure is felt by culture at-large. Fathers, unlike mothers, are not physically compelled to stay with their children. They must be compelled morally. We must make clear to our sons that leaving a child is an immoral choice. Men that desert their obligations will have to stand accountable before God, their own children, and the society they leave in ruins behind them.
However, men that stay and love and encourage their children deserve our respect and admiration. Those that minimize the importance of fatherhood are simply ignorant to the foundation that has been laid by every unassuming and unheralded father. This week, let’s acknowledge the hero that every Dad is. Imperfect as he may be, he is fulfilling his moral obligation, which lesser men have fled. His children and society should thank him.
This article, from The Art of Manliness, show the debt we owe to our dads and the scourge left behind by absent-fathers.
A quote from The Brothers Karamazov demonstrates the torment fatherless children are left with. Surely the command to “Honor they Father” does not apply to men that abandon their children.
“The sight of an unworthy father involuntarily suggests tormenting questions to a young creature, especially when he compares him with the excellent fathers of his companions. The conventional answer to this question is: ‘He begot you, and you are his flesh and blood, and therefore you are bound to love him.’ The youth involuntarily reflects: ‘But did he love me when he begot me?’ he asks, wondering more and more. ‘Was it for my sake he begot me? He did not know me, not even my sex, at that moment, at the moment of passion, perhaps, inflamed by wine, and he has only transmitted to me a propensity to drunkenness- that’s all he’s done for me…. Why am I bound to love him simply for begetting me when he has cared nothing for me all my life after? Oh, perhaps those questions strike you as coarse and cruel, but do not expect an impossible restraint from a young mind. ‘Drive nature out of the door and it will fly in at the window’.”
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Without the encouragement of your father the world is a dismal place. It is difficult to be a courageous person unless you have your father behind you in body and spirit. It is very demoralizing. … If your father rejects you, or doesn’t form a relationship with you, it’s as if the spirit of civilization has left you outside the walls as of little worth. It is very difficult for people to recover from that.
Thank you to all the courageous men that live lives of quiet power, as fathers.
“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
We all have good reason for worry. The sufferings, uncertainty, and anger we see all around us may leave us feeling powerless and at the mercy of an unloving world. A few nights ago I felt a darkness surround me. I was concerned about a relative’s health uncertainty, my own children’s future in this world, the economy, and numerous other anxieties. I tried to distract myself, but a feeling of dread weighed upon me. I went to bed but could not sleep. As I lay awake the story of Corrie Ten Boom came into my mind. She was a strong Christian woman from The Netherlands, placed in a concentration camp during WW2 for the crime of hiding Jews in her home. Most of her family was killed, including her beloved sister who died while in the camp together. Her book, The Hiding Place, is a testament to the power of love and faith in overcoming darkness. Corrie Ten Boom was a woman who had every reason for anxiety, anger, and despair. Yet she understood the self-defeating nature of worry.
“Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear….Worry is like a rocking chair: it keeps you moving but doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Despite living through horrors we can only imagine, she found peace in their midst. She placed her fears at the feet of one much stronger than herself. She forgave the unforgivable. She became a beacon of hope and love to her fellow prisoners.
“There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
When we attempt to fill our hearts with love, with gratitude, with optimism – and get busy in sharing those feelings with others – our fears have nowhere to rest their heads. We have to be willing to let go of our worry, to have faith they will be caught by someone much more capable of handling them. Someone that sees the end from the beginning.
“Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
The next morning, after remembering Ten Boom’s example of strength, I woke up feeling lighter. I hope this feeling can remain with me. It is difficult to maintain faith in the face of crisis. It may seem uncaring and cold to not be consumed with torment in such times. But a soul in torment cannot be a light. We must always attempt to free ourselves from that which impedes us from accomplishing good. If we can trade worry for love our lives will be lighter. As it says in John, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment.” I am grateful for the example Corrie Ten Boom provides that such love is possible.
“Love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”
All quotes by Corrie Ten Boom
-For Christians and non Christians alike, I highly recommend the book The Hiding Place.
My grandfather had a difficult childhood. The son of a rough and often-absent cowboy, his mother died when he was young. He was shuffled from relative to friend and grew up without much disciple or direction. Later in life he would tell his grandchildren of the time he stood at a critical crossroads in his life, when he met a “wise and noble” man at his church. This man took the time to guide him with his example and influence. He exemplified the adage, “A man stands tallest when he stoops to help a child.” My grandfather never forgot him; he owed him a great deal. He would quote this poem to describe his experience.
He stood at the crossroads all alone, The sunlight in his face. He had no thought for the world unknown— He was set for a manly race. But the roads stretched east, and the roads stretched west, And the lad knew not which road was best; So he chose the road that led him down, And he lost the race and victor’s crown. He was caught at last in an angry snare Because no one stood at the crossroads there To show him the better road.
Another day, at the self-same place, A boy with high hopes stood. He, too, was set for a manly race; He, too, was seeking the things that were good; But one was there who the roads did know, And that one showed him which way to go. So he turned from the road that would lead him down, And he won the race and the victor’s crown. He walks today the highway fair Because one stood at the crossroads there To show him the better way. (The Upward Reach, Sadie Tiller Crawley)
Let’s not forget the millions of young men at crossroads. They too are “set for a manly race”. This month, as we celebrate fathers, I hope men, particularly, are inspired to use their greatest power – the power of their righteous influence. They can change the course of a young man’s life, son or stranger. They can inspire him to go upward, to win the race – rather than downward to lesser roads. Within all men’s sphere of influence there is a young man who needs a strong and wise arm to guide him. If you help this precious young man, generations will be shaped by the victory he achieves.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
…If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. . . . In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in.’ It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. . . . Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny.’ All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. . . . The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
The Devouring Mother comes in many forms. We must be conscious of our own tendency to over-protect and control our children, but we should also look outside the home for other “Devourers” of free-will. These Devourers may be well-meaning and concerned for our safety, but the end result is the same – the stifling of self-determination. There are times which may necessitate such stifling, but as parents we must make choices for our family, not out of fear or control, but based on truth and the quest for goodness. A world filled with free agents is often a dangerous one, but the alternative is bondage.
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
Affection is defined as a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. A home filled with affection is akin to heaven on earth. It is a home where you greet your children with a welcoming hug, a home where you wink and smile at your seven-year-old at the dinner table, where you massage your teenage son’s feet after a long practice. Children feel safe here, they know they are loved, they feel it. Physical affection is particularly powerful. When our feelings of love are expressed physically, it unites the spiritual and physical world with a loving touch.
The Potency of Touch
“To touch is to give life.”
We are all seeking happiness, especially the kind that can hold steady in turbulent times. But the nature of life is turbulent and our moods and circumstances make lasting happiness seem like an illusion. However, the longer I am a wife and mother, the more I realize that if there is something to help us cross the rivers of turmoil – it is the loving touch of someone we trust. When our world falls apart, we need to be grounded – pulled back with physical and concrete love – with an affectionate embrace. We have all seen the movies showing a neurotic and over-emotional person being slapped, bringing them back into reality – this I do not recommend, but a loving embrace can accomplish the same feat. Sometimes when pain is stuck in the body, we need to use the body to release it. The physical reality of love can plant our feet on the bridge Overcoming.
Last summer my husband traveled a lot. I had no break from the noise and chaos of a house full of little children and I usually ended the days with my nerves frayed. One night, after putting them all down and relaxing on the sofa, I heard my 8 year-old girl get out of bed and ask for water. She didn’t realize that my “noise-bucket” had been overflowing for hours and I quite angrily told her to get back in bed. Almost immediately, I felt guilty. I knew I had to apologize. But I was so worn out from noise and the hard day that I really didn’t know how I would approach it without allowing my stress to betray itself again. As I walked into her room, I did not say anything, I just went into her bed and laid beside her and held her. It is incredible how those five minutes of affection renewed my spirit. I thought I was doing it for my daughter but instead I felt my own stress melt away. As I left I said, I love you; she said, Mom I love you too.
I can’t tell you how many times in motherhood I have come into a potentially hostile situation with my children with no idea how to properly resolve it. Perhaps we want to do what’s right but our emotions are getting in our way, or the proper course of action is not clear, or we just don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. When this is the case, I usually opt to arm myself with affection. If I put my arm around my son – our previous animosity will melt away. If I rub my husband’s neck as he drives, it helps him release his work-day stress. We should never use touch to manipulate – but it can help us fill in the gaps of our weakness. It is the mortar that holds the family together. Without physical affection the home becomes sterile and unforgiving.
The Decline of Physical Touch
Unfortunately our world is increasingly becoming just that, sterile and unforgiving. With human interactions at an all time low, is it any wonder we find ourselves less compassionate of others? Touching another person makes them real, they are no longer an image on a computer screen or a voice on the other side of the phone but a living soul, deserving of empathy.
I worry that even when this pandemic passes, we may retain the norm of “social distance”. I hope this is not the case. Physical affection between friends, and even strangers, can tie communities together and prevent strife and misunderstandings. Children, especially, need to be free to express themselves physically and receive affection from friends and teachers.
My children go to wonderful schools and I am grateful for their loving teachers. However, I am increasingly concerned about the “institutional” nature of schools. My daughter was reprimanded in kindergarten for hugging her friend at recess. In many schools teachers are not allowed to touch the students. It is easy to see why such restrictions may be put into place – schools are attempting to reduce their own liability. But there is no doubt that these “institutions” are destined to be cold and unloving places. Combine this with the worry brought on by the COVID epidemic, sending our kids to school may soon feel like admitting them into a sanitized hospital. We mothers need to make adjustments. If we choose to send our children into schools, the increasingly sterile environment must be counteracted by increased affection at home.
The Science of Touch
When a mother is affectionate with her child she is building her child’s social networks, improving their ability to fight infections, and building a bond that will last a lifetime. Premature babies that are touched thrive, while babies who aren’t are much more likely to die. Studies done on Romanian orphanages show the power of human touch in brain and social development. Alternatively, children who are raised without affection are much more likely to be violent and have mental health issues.
Some scientific findings on the power of touch:
-Researchers have found that children touched more frequently by their mothers developed more neuronal networks in their “social brain” – resulting in more empathy. Children touched less are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial.
-Preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment.
-You have likely noticed the constant rear slapping and high-fiving between teammates in NBA and NFL games. Turns out they have good reason for this. Studies reveal that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games.
–Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion.
– (And highly relevant now) -“In one set of studies, touch was shown to boost the immune systems of people who had been exposed to the common cold. For two weeks, researchers monitored a little more than four hundred adults, asking them, not just about their social interactions, but about how many hugs they’d gotten over the course of each day. Then the subjects were quarantined in rooms on an isolated hotel floor, where the researchers proceeded to expose them to a cold virus. The virus was quite effective: seventy-eight percent of subjects were infected, and just over thirty-one percent showed signs of illness. But not everyone was equally susceptible. The people who had experienced more supportive social interactions, battled infection more effectively and exhibited fewer signs of illness—and, when you tease apart the effects of social support and hugging, touch, in itself, accounted for thirty-two percent of the reduction effect.” (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
“The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”
Maria Konnikova (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
The truth is that often it takes courage to touch. For example, imagine after an argument with your husband it feels like a gulf has opened up between you. Days pass and the chasm grows bigger. You believe that the simple act of reaching over and grabbing your husband’s hand can bridge that chasm – the tension can melt and you will be free to resolve your issue. But that initial touch takes courage, you are reaching into the dark hoping he will take your hand- it will take the full use of your free-will to overcome your pride and fear. But the outcome can be healing and unity.
Touch as a symptom of the relationship
We cannot easily pretend with touch. A good indicator of the strength of relationships is how comfortable we feel with affection. If touch is awkward and uncomfortable then the relationship needs work.
“One mother, after hearing a discussion about how mother’s should supply love to their children, determined that before her fourteen year old son went to school in the morning, she would give him a hug. She wanted to prove to him and to herself that she was a good mother. That next morning, as she tried to hug him, he rejected her. But she was determined to give him a hug, and she chased him around the kitchen table and even out the back door. He ran away from her- down the driveway, down the long sidewalk, and around the corner beyond her sight. She stood abandoned in the driveway, crying. She was so frustrated that she went into the house and called the school counselor and told him the whole story, how her son was mean to her and rejected her when she had tried to love him.
The concerned counselor called the boy privately out of class and tried to talk to him. He asked the boy why he had acted that way towards his mother. The boy looked at him quizzically, then he said, “Mr. Jones, do you know the difference between a hug that gives and a hug that takes?” The counselor, who was not a very sensitive person himself, replied, “No” And the boy said quickly, “That is what I thought.”
This is a perfect example of doing things for the wrong reasons. The counselor did not call the boy in to find out how the boy felt, but rather to scold him for not making his mother feel better. And the mother had not wanted to hug the boy because her heart was filled with love for him, but rather to prove to herself that she was doing her job as a mother according to specifications.”
Excerpt: Sterling Ellsworth, Getting to Know the Real You
We cannot fake physical affection. We have to build a relationship worthy of its display. We have all had the experience of receiving a hug from someone that is cold and distant – done out of obligation. The soul is betrayed in our physical interactions. We must not misuse touch or it can become a dark thing. Men and women who were sexually or physically abused often have difficulty giving and receiving physical affection for this very reason – honest and loving affection was replaced with something ugly and false. We must always strive to ensure our touch is unselfish and done with an attempt to build stronger relationships. When touch does not come naturally; it may be a symptom of an underlying issue within ourselves or the relationship itself. We must attempt to repair the fracture quickly and then we can honestly display affection for one another.
Some of us are not naturally “touchy” people. Our childhood home may have shunned affection. Some cultures are less physical than others. However, we need to ensure there is a place for touch in our homes. When words aren’t enough, or our pain is too complex to communicate, or when a child feels alone or discouraged – they need to know they can feel safe in our arms.
Some children need more touch than others. If touch is your child’s “love language”, they may not know you truly love them unless you show them physical affection. Ever since I was a small child, I have craved physical touch. My mom said I would give her about 100 hugs a day. Even today, I feel love most not from kind words or gifts – but when someone touches me on the shoulder, or pats me on the back. If I lived in a home that lacked physical affection, I would feel unloved and unsafe.
Touch can, unfortunately, be used as a tool of manipulation. Since we all crave touch, this need can be used against us. My toddler even knows this. A few weeks after taking away all her pacifiers, she was sitting on the couch next to me and I said, “Juliet, come cuddle.” She looked at me sternly and said, “No! Not until you let me have my paci again!”
But withholding affection in an attempt to control others will sour our relationship and hurt our own chance for happiness.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo F. Buscaglia
When I hugged my daughter in bed that night, she forgot about my harshness and instead saw me as a loving mother. Physical touch can help repair damage caused by our imperfections by showing the genuineness of our love. This love can be shown not just for our families and friends but is the natural outgrowth of the empathy we feel for others. There are millions of lonely and confined people in this world that crave physical contact. Just as babies fail to flourish without touch, the elderly in nursing homes, the homeless, and disabled and mentally ill, need touch to thrive.
A few years ago my sister was visiting my brother’s family in New Delhi, India. While there they went on a humanitarian tour of a nearby train station where there was a large population of street boys. I had attempted to take the same tour a few years before. I was pregnant at the time and despite having relatively mild morning sickness – simply standing near the train tracks and seeing the rats, filth, and experiencing the smells caused me to lose my lunch and nearly faint. Thousands of young boys and some girls in India live in these conditions, attempting to survive off food thrown from passing trains or begging from travelers. They usually have no mother to comfort them, no father to encourage them. Rather they are raised expecting the abuse of strangers, arrest by police, and the scorn of passers-by. The only potential for a kind word comes from the rare soft-hearted stranger, or humanitarians who sometimes bring food. But loving touch – that is something these children do not experience from adults.
While my sister was on the tour she saw a group of boys berating a small boy, no more than five. They were mercilessly teasing and hitting him and he was weeping bitterly. The other boys left him in this state of distress. My sister simply could not bear it, she walked over to the small boy and knelt down to sweetly speak to him. He kept weeping and barely acknowledged her presence. She kept trying to comfort him but he would not be calmed. She felt the call of a nurturing mother – to take this poor child into her arms – but also the ambivalence of touching an unknown dirty child. Yet she gently put her arm around his shoulders. He instantly stopped crying and looked into her eyes, astonished. A powerful moment occurred between them. She suddenly knew that this was the first kind embrace this boy could remember. She was astonished by the instant effect her touch had on the boy, it seemed as if God’s love was being poured out to him through her hands. Her touch was speaking to him and hearing him – when words were useless. With anguish she had to leave that beautiful boy there, now calm, in that filthy train station. That experience has had a profound impact on her.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Touch is powerful. It can be the mortar to our relationships. It can bring healing when words are useless. It can develop empathy and bring joy and meaning into our lives. We must bravely use the power of touch often and wisely in our homes and in an increasingly affection-less world.
*If you would like to help a very good cause – feeding desperate migrants in India stranded because of COVID, please consider donating. This effort is run by a trusted family friend in India. 100% of donations go to help the poor. Regular updates/photos are shown in the GoFund Me page. The more they raise the more they will feed. Thank you.
“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A mother’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity a mother for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
G. K. Chesterton
Rather than accepting the common sentiment of the day – that motherhood holds us back from greater things, let’s appreciate and be grateful that we are truly Everything to our young children.
Responses to Covid-19 vary within nations, states, counties, towns, families, and individuals. The new tension within these groups, created by our responses to Covid-19, has created collateral damage in our relationships, financial lives, civic lives, and governance. While, in general, it is easy to criticize strong responses, my interest in this article is not to critique our responses to the crisis, but how to recover from the damage they have caused to our personal relationships. Our relationship lives have been affected by both social distancing and our deeper immersion in the polarized public response to political action. Once the threat and fear of the virus has subsided, we must assume that collateral damages to our relationships will remain. Now what?
CRISIS RESPONSE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
As is typical in the fog of crisis, it’s hard to see the silver lining. Many families are facing financial ruin due to government-mandated cessation of their revenue. While that subject deserves loud discussion, this article does not intend to focus on that component of the Covid-19 tragedy. Here, I intend to look at some nuanced changes in our social relationships and their implications. It’s not as if there are no positive social outcomes from our response to this pandemic. No doubt, in houses across the USA that have not been visited by medical despair brought on by Covid-19, families have been expressing some positive sentiment about baking more bread at home, reducing expenditures, creating more reliable family rhythms, and increased time spent with nuclear family members. Also, I suspect there is serious upside potential in re-thinking how we educate our children. We are learning a lot about the means of education while schools are closed. And regarding friendships, many families are doubtlessly pleased to find that some friendships are being prioritized while others are fading. This is kind of a study in the Darwinian fitness of our friendships. Only the strong [friendships] will survive while the weaker ones will fade into oblivion. This will allow more decidedly “important” priorities to arise within families. That’s great. But, seeing the upside in the shake-down of our friendships will require us to deal with some negative feelings as well.
Let’s look at how shame fits into this scene. Shame can be either self-imposed or foisted on us by others.
SHAME ON YOU
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the tension in our already-tense public discourse. Being immersed in strong opinions about political action is not new to us. However, this dynamic has really ramped up and been accentuated with some additional features. Rather than merely each waking moment being an opportunity to shout our opinions about Federal competence, we now have added opportunities to squabble about varying expert medical opinions, failed infection rate models, fiscal and monetary action, the role of scientists in a cohesive advisory body, the costs and benefits of planned economic slowdown, whether or not human safety can be discussed in terms of monetary cost, the effectiveness of our local government’s response in comparison to that of other cities and counties, etc. As if we didn’t have enough to disagree about, Covid-19 is providing ample opportunity for us to further upset each other with differing opinions. Add the risk of lethal infection and observe heightened levels of emotion.
Being worked up about any or all of the changes resulting from our reaction to Covid-19 needs no justification. Change can be hard to accept. Add to that any mistrust or cynicism toward decision makers or community members and it is natural to get frustrated. However, how about when someone close to you starts talking in a way that really irks you? How about when a friend or family member starts talking ignorant nonsense? We are familiar with the admonishment of a person when they say something stupid, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Maybe they should be. Or maybe you aren’t listening well enough. Thus, the emotional walls can be erected and catapults loaded with burning tar.
When the dust settles after any social display of anger or fear there is always at least one party who is left feeling less than good. Someone is left sweeping up the pieces (maybe under a rug!) and reconciling what just happened. Part of the fallout when someone recognizes that they over-reacted is the feeling of shame.
We often feel ashamed or humiliated from our own public displays of weakness or vulnerability. This is as true for uncontrolled crying in public as it is when we look physically incompetent by stumbling on the sidewalk. We can feel shame when we display any type of incompetence that is seen by strangers. Losing a job can feel shameful if we think the loss makes us appear inadequate. A girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with us after we admitted love to them makes us feel ashamed. Losing a house to fire can make us vulnerable and ashamed when our projection of competence is interwoven with our possessions. I had a friend who felt deep shame after their home was plundered by burglars. Even on social media, unhinged outbursts and emotional recriminations toward our neighbors fit this description. Losing control is rarely seen as virtuous and many think it is shame-worthy.
The cloak of privacy that shields our identities on social media doesn’t help matters. I like the analogy of a Mardi-Gras mask and social media. When people don a flamboyant mask (I’m not talking about an N-90 face mask) at Mardi-Gras they might feel more apt to do something out of their ordinary because they feel anonymous. However, committing what you might think is a slimy act while being unrecognized doesn’t change the fact that you observed yourself making that particular decision. Will you feel ashamed at having done so? Maybe. The experience of unfettered freedom does not guarantee the feeling of pride in what you choose to do with it. The same goes for our behavior on social media. Regardless of how the person in question feels, we often think a person’s lack of emotional control is deserving of shame.
Emotional control is certainly virtuous for civilized adults, but hardly something to force in a young toddler. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I had to learn this lesson begrudgingly. If emotional control is required for my children to participate in society, why couldn’t they just learn it early! Since realizing that children can only learn to regulate their emotions from adults who model it, I have (far too often!) found myself in a horribly strange house of mirrors where my frustrations are simultaneously cause and result of difficult moments with my children and wife. Some of these emotionally-complicated moments just feel like a small slice of Hell and shame is not helpful for anyone.
This isn’t to say that shame is never helpful. Even for children, an interior feeling of shame can be both a helpful indicator that they behaved incorrectly, as well as a motivator to not repeat the incorrect action. Self-imposed shame can be felt in big doses and small doses, and can likewise be useful or toxic. As with many things, the “poison is the dose.” It might be that the interior perception of our own shame is useful only in proportion to our capacity for self-reflection and ability to articulate a way forward.
When shame is cast by one upon another, the scenario gets even muddier. Why would someone cast shame on others? Sometimes they deserve it. Casting shame can function as an accountability mechanism in a community of adults who share common interests. To the extent that the interior experience of shame motivates us to avoid shame-worthy behavior, others can signal it in our direction when they think we are toeing the line of inappropriate behavior that jeopardizes our common interests. Beyond this, people can cast shame for all sorts of dark reasons. Maybe they see something in another that they hate about themselves and fight it with casting shame outward. When we shame others, we had better either get it right or apologize quickly.
Shame is often cast on others very hypocritically. In our responses to Covid-19, we have created a lot of opportunity to cast shame on strangers. A good buddy of mine was tide-pooling at a beach with his daughter the other day. There wasn’t a person in sight. Soon, a duo of cyclists cruised by. One of them shouted, scornfully, at my friend, “Social distancing!!” To what benefit? I’m not sure, but the attempt at shame-casting was shame-worthy.
In an environment of heightened emotions, we might think other people are acting shamefully with more regularity than usual. Or maybe, with a little reflection, even our own actions deserve a little shame.
SHAME ON ME
In social distancing, we have agreed to not see people that we would normally spend time around. Some of these people we miss dearly. Others, we are pleased to avoid. Some other social situations we had previously not considered avoiding, but now enjoy their absence. How does this affect us? Usually, when we get enjoyment from an act we “should not” enjoy, (like eating too much cake or avoiding a friend or family member) we feel at least a little bit of shame or guilt. There’s a reason we call it a “guilty pleasure.”
Humor me while I indulge in a hypothetical shaky moment between uncertain friends. Let’s say that you have a monthly dinner date with a friend but the requirements of social distancing prevent you two from meeting this month. Also suppose that you were getting a little tired of this monthly dinner date. The whole idea of monthly meetings was an experiment. He wasn’t really that great of a friend, and you suspect that he benefited more than you did from the monthly meeting. After all, all he did was complain about mutual acquaintances and you found it annoying. While you thought he was a bit broken, you could see that he needed a friend. You were happy to be that friend when it was convenient, but now seems like a great opportunity to duck out of the arrangement. “Thank you, social distancing.” Next month, maybe you’ll feel different.
You’re probably thinking that this relationship was destined to dissolve (and maybe they should try different meds) but that isn’t necessarily true. Government-mandated restrictions on gatherings create a layer of fog between some friends. The veil of ignorance covering the reason for friends not seeing each other (“Have they not visited because of government mandate, or just because they don’t like me?”) creates a prisoner’s dilemma where we can do more harm than good.
The psyche is a bizarre thing. What happens when we observe ourselves wronging a person with whom we have an unsigned contract of friendship? Shame begets mistrust. When we feel a little ashamed about avoiding our friend, our psyche, in a tantrum of projection and blame avoidance, can easily generate mistrust toward the person we wronged. Once we wrong that person (by neglecting our relationship) we assume his willingness to neglect, or betray, the relationship too. Thus, we can begin to mistrust another person when we grow suspicious of their capacity for betrayal. What tipped us off to the idea that they might betray our friendship? Our own betrayal of the relationship… no matter how small it might have been at the time. We assume our friend is unaware of the pleasure we gained from avoiding him. However, this pleasure is not without consequence. In fact, we might begin to mistrust him precisely when we understand that he might get the same guilty pleasure by neglecting our friendship in like fashion. I don’t need to point out the obvious immaturity here. In this example, the root cause of our mistrust toward our friend’s commitment is actually our own shame in choosing to avoid him.
Changes in our psyche are rarely made under our full control. One emotion morphs into another when we see our reflection (no matter how distorted) in another person. In this example, we are obviously not talking about a super high-quality friendship that has weathered many ups and downs. Many friendships can benefit from the endurance of stress. Others whither and disappear, and not without emotional fireworks. While some personalities are far more neurotic and insecure than others, everyone must maintain positive relationships for overall health. Government-mandated social distancing has fertilized the soil for negative feelings between friends. And this can make us ashamed of ourselves.
Cringe-worthy behavior not befitting of our pre-Covid-19 social interactions can yield self-righteous indignation, pity, resentment, belittlement, or self-centered anger. We mustn’t forget that we will see our friends and family again. Even a single moment of resentment or pity toward a community member or family member will silently change the dynamic.
Covid-19 has, indeed, presented additional complications to an already-complex world. One of many results is an increase in potential for shame in our social lives. This additional amount of shame has resulted in damage to our social fabric that is difficult to quantify. How do we mend the fabric, and who is responsible for righting the wrongs?
As an analogy, let’s look at how we recuperate financial losses before looking at social losses. To the extent that we as individuals have taken financial losses due to societal responses to Covid-19, our solution sounds easy; “Give me my money back.” If money is lost, and debt accrued, because of a mandated response, then an appropriate post-crisis recovery includes an attempt to recuperate those financial losses and resolve the debts. Because we can chalk up these losses to either an act of God or to government restrictions on income, choosing the methods by which we are made financially whole is obviously problematic. We have many options, such as renewed personal commitments to save instead of borrow, work extra hours, business ventures that profit from the post-Covid-19 landscape, insistence that governments intervene on our behalf with the redistribution of other’s resources, etc. The possibilities are endless. Nonetheless, quantifying the loss is not impossible, and most of us agree on our desires to recuperate financial losses and pay down personal debts.
SHAME AS DEBT
To the extent that love and careful attention are a relationship’s currencies of transaction, shameful social action puts us in debt to those with whom we share friendship. Acting shamefully towards our community members is to over-spend our relationship currency, no matter if the act is passionately unwitting or deliberately malicious. Shameful social action is deficit spending; an emotional debt payable to those in our community.
How can we ever pay this back? How can we encourage others to move on and forget our shameful actions? The shameful debtor is in a helpless position. How can we work it off? For the answer, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the person to whom the relationship debt is owed.
The ancient Israelites had a way of dealing with debt that can be useful in this discussion. Every forty-ninth year was a “Year of Jubilee” wherein all debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and prisoners released. This effectively placed a ceiling on how big a debt could grow. Applied to this discussion about emotional debt and the release from shame, we can see how a moment of Jubilee would effectively limit the size of any grudge. (I suggest not waiting forty-nine years.) How does Jubilee translate to personal shame amidst our responses to Covid-19? Show a little mercy.
We must have mercy on those whose actions we think deserve humiliation. I think marriage and parenthood have equipped us with some useful tools here. Routinely in family life, there is somebody over-reacting, freaking out, lashing out, blowing up, or breaking down. Whether the cause is missing an afternoon nap or anger toward political theater is irrelevant. In a family where emotional closeness is requisite for proper function, the forgiveness of ridiculous acts is eventually required. Sometimes, following a shameful act of irrational frustration, a peaceful understanding is reached through explanation and discussion. Other times, blood-sugar is low, sleep deprivation has set in, and work is stressful. In these situations, we constantly say and do ridiculous things that we would never plan on doing after a full night’s rest, hearty breakfast in our belly, and gleeful work environment. When our spouses act in such irrational ways, and we think we understand why, what do we do? Show some mercy. They deserve it.
In stressful times, people freak out. Shall we hold it over their heads? Shall we ransom them with ridicule and reminders? Shall we be the type of debt collector that brutalizes his debtor? Of course, strangers on social media are not the same as family members in our household. Also, some behavior absolutely requires legal response. What I’m talking about is the irrationality that can drive wedges into our social lives due to stressful and extraordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Show some mercy. A lot of us need it right now.