I want to introduce you to a good friend of mine. You might not have seen him around much over the past few years, but nonetheless he remains my good friend.
He’s the kind of friend that when you meet, even though you have not see them in years, you seem to be able to start up with just where you left off. It is a comfortable friendship that seems not to have been dulled by the passing of years or by the period of separation. In that sense ‘Shame’ is a little like my good friend Steve, who was my best man, or Nick and Katherine who have been good friends over the years. We have not seen Steve and his wife Vicky very much in the past few years, yet whenever we see them or stay with them, as we have recently, we feel welcomed, comfortable, and at home.
‘Shame’ is another good friend, just like Nick and Katherine, or Steve and Vicky! … Perhaps I need to explain.
First, it has been quite a while since I spent a bit of time with ‘Shame’. It has been over 14 years since we really spent any time together. That was in my MA dissertation at St. John’s College, Nottingham! There have been a few days, here and there, over the years that we have been able to spend together, but this Autumn has been the first time for many years that we have been able to spend a decent amount of time in each others company. Yes, there was a few days on retreat two or three years ago but nothing like the amount of time we have had in the past few weeks.
‘Shame’ has led me on a merry old dance once again. I’ve been able to meet lots of new friends who seem to have got to know ‘shame’ since I last spent any time with him. He’s introduced me to social anthropologists, theologians, psychotherapists, psychiatrists – some of them really down to earth, easy to understand people. He’s taken me to meet a few famous names along the way as well. If you ask me sometime, I’ll tell you about a few of these. Name dropping is good fun! ‘Shame’ has helped me too to do a bit of thinking about Jesus, his death and resurrection. He’s talked with me too about his past and his travels around the world. It would be good to tell you about some of these experiences. Perhaps I’ll get round to that over coming days.
If you meet my friend ‘shame’, give him my regards. Tell him that you have heard of him through me.
A word of warning, however, ‘Shame’ is a great guy, but don’t get too entangled with his estranged cousin. Confusingly this more difficult character, the black sheep of the family, has the same name – ‘Shame’, although if you encounter either of them, my friend or his estranged cousin, abroad in Europe or in many other countries around our world, they’ll be a little easier to tell apart.
You see, in Great Britain we only have the one word for ‘shame’. Whether we are talking about a healthy sense of shame: which teaches us about our limits; that sets appropriate boundaries; that protects us from rushing to place ourselves in the public sphere when it is inappropriate or before we are ready; that helps us to be discrete, to respect other people’s privacy, to judge when our actions are inappropriate – we might call that ‘discretion’. Or talking about an unhealthy sense of shame which overwhelms us, leaving us feeling utterly worthless, wanting nothing other than to shrink into nothing and never be seen again, a sickness of the soul, an intense feeling of being utterly exposed to others – we might call that ‘disgrace’. Shame’s estranged cousin ‘shame’ is not nice, he is predatory and intrusive, he will hold onto you with a strength that is surprising! So learn to tell them apart if you can. One is to be embraced and welcomed. The other …, well the less said the better!