“You cannot avoid her forever,” Mom’s sewing barely paused as she cut the thread and got another length through the eye of the needle, “not when Alice lives but an arm’s length away.”
I hunched miserably over my own sewing, the tip of my tongue lodged against my teeth where it would not show but can still provide me some security. The ‘hidden’ stitch kept sprouting comas of thread on the side of the hem one wasn’t supposed to notice any. I was hopeless at needlework. Mom still insisted.
I avoided you finding safety pins in my hem, I thought to myself, and our cramped quarters allow even less than arm’s length.
“I’ll go around,” I tried.
Mom actually snorted. “You think Mrs. Munster will become your thoroughfare?”
I shrugged. Mrs. Munster’s house bridged the alley. She was a dragon, but I just couldn’t face Alice. I was too ashamed.
Vince shook his head. His eyes sought the window and rose along the flagpole to its top. The silence lingered.
“No,” the Veteran said quietly. “We’d heard rumors, of course, but nothing could’ve prepared us for the conditions there.”
He took a deep breath. His hand tightened around his cup and his eyes remained glued to the flag outside. “People crammed into cold, bare rooms. Without necessaries. Not even a place to sleep. Frightened, sick children. Belligerent guards. I’m ashamed, Son. The flag I fought under now flies over American concentration camps.”
“How is it possible that it took place and no one knew?”
“How can they say they didn’t see?”
“Can people really be this blind?”
“Don’t they care?”
“Don’t they see?”
Maybe they didn’t. The improbable is possible. People can be that blind. Even when they care, they may not see.
It is easy to see what one wants, what’s congruent, what matches assumptions or views or held beliefs. It is easy to recognize what one had learned already, to follow perceptions already accepted, ways familiar … easier to understand words that resonate with what does not burden with new challenges or calls for reassessment or brings up shame.
Shame. People don’t like to see what brings up shame.
The very whiff of it can bring on denial. Projection. Deflection. Blame of others. Avoidance. Cold shoulder. Dismissal. Refusal. Minimization of the pain of others to avoid feeling one has done wrong, seen wrong, is wrong.
Shame tugs along with hate and violence, in words or action or both. Inflicting pain on others might get justified or explained away … A way to keep downtrodden what one thinks should stay unnoticed, un-make-wave-able, quiet, under rugs, buried. Unseen.
It takes time, heart, and bravery to crack and drain shame.
It is easier to blame. To point fingers. To make “an other” to scapegoat or distance from. To claim misfortune due to one’s abilities, affiliation, religion, political leanings, nationality, age, gender, race, vocation, location, possessions or lack thereof.
To yell “false claims”, “exaggeration”, “attention seeking” or the newest term: “fake news.”
Shaming is a weapon of pseudo self-preservation for those who need to ensure the pain of another remains unseen and one’s own comfort can stand unprovoked.
Unspoken words of wounded children
Pleas of disrespected women
The worlds of the oppressed, belittled, turned against them.
The desperate, the lost … unanswered. Unaccepted. Unacceptable.
It does not need to so remain.
To face what was already there but eyes were closed to, is the first step to unmaking shame. To healing pain.
May we find ways to see. May we take heart to act. May we become for others what we need or needed them to see in us, to do for us, to hold with gentleness.
Last year, a preteen I worked with told me about a child in her class who began cutting herself. The classmate showed this child the scars but swore her to secrecy.
We discussed the kinds of secrets that one should not keep (the ones that feel ‘too big’ to keep, or are about someone being hurt, or feel wrong to keep, or come from shame or guilt), who to tell (a parent, a teacher, a trusted adult, even the school nurse), and how. The girl was relieved to know that she did not have to keep this scary secret (“I get worried that maybe she’ll like, bleed to death or something and then she’ll die and it will be my fault for not telling anyone …”).
In our conversation, the reasons children self-harm also came up: to deal with difficult feelings, to express pain they don’t know how to verbalize, to feel alive, to feel numb, to ‘try and see how it feels’, to be noticed … And what to do if she ever felt the urge to hurt herself (thankfully, she said she never did feel that way, but it never hurts to give some options just in case …).
Relieved though this girl was to know she could share this secret with someone, the preteen was also worried that it will somehow become known to the other children and how it will make things worse. “Kids are already like, making fun of her for everything …” she fretted, “so, if they found out she’s like, cutting … they’d be all like, joking about it and texting and stuff ….”
Apparently the self-harming classmate–not the most attractive by other students’ standards (directly derived from society’s harsh shaming of anyone who does not adhere to a very narrow range of ‘acceptable’) was found to have confessed a crush on a boy in a higher grade … Someone found the note where it had fallen from the girl’s pocket, ‘kindly’ photographed it, and circulated it in among the students, along with some choice words about the girl’s morality (you can insert your own words here, copied from the shaming terminology of grownups toward women and girls: ugly hurtful words that are meant to cut to the core). A cascade of comments and ugliness ensued, along with catcalls, leering, and whispered words.
“Some kids even say that she’s like, you know … the ‘c’ word …”, the girl blushed in embarrassment and indignation. “She didn’t even kiss him or anything …” she said, then added urgently, “not that it would even be okay if she did let him kiss her … or, you know, stuff …”
The “if she did let him” did not escape me … nor did the outright meanness of exposing vulnerability and turning it onto some way to cause harm. The backbone of bullying.
Bullying is a very real issue, and not only in children and teens. The culture of putting down others for real or perceived differences and flaws is disturbing, and for those caught in it, it is often shattering. Bullying thrives on shaming, and shaming reflects a void of compassion and empathy. It is especially apparent on websites, news media, twitter, Facebook, and many online blogs: people behaves in ways that are purposely hurtful, narrow minded, and outright cruel; and it is somehow seen as witty and cool.
It is not cool.
It is not witty.
It is cowardly and it is heartless.
It is, really, a form of terror. Insidious and sneaky, but no less meant to cause helplessness and pain.
The truth is that bullying is not ‘fun’ or ‘funny.’ Cruelty of words is especially cowardly, and cyber-bullying is uniquely hurtful in that it can easily seem like the whole world is (and indeed can be) laughing at one’s misery. Many would cringe at the sight of someone literally cutting another person or kicking them in the groin, yet somehow cyber-bullying has become a culturally accepted means of expressing disdain and showcasing ignorance. Meanness is not frowned upon, but adopted and propagated. It should not be so. It can and must be stopped.
Some of the things people (children, but not only children) write:
“Why don’t you just kill yourself so we can be rid of you?”
“You are so ugly that you shouldn’t have been born.”
“Everyone hates you. Just go jump from a bridge or something.”
How have we let it come to that?
The conversation I had with the preteen was not unique–bullying often occupies children’s conversations. However, I was reminded of the one I had with this particular preteen as I watched Monica Lewinsky break her silence and deliver an outstandingly candid and important speech–her first public talk in 16 years. Lewinsky calls out the shame culture that allowed (and cultivated) the ugliness toward her in the late 90s, and which is all too alive and well today and still takes lives–figuratively or literally.
Monica Lewinsky survived it, but not without immense cost, and she would not have survived it had it not been for the compassion and empathy of family and friends who held her close through the awfulness.
Not everyone has people to hold them through bullying, and not everyone survives it. Even in those who do, the price is often very high.
Watch this video, and pass it along. It is important. It is worth the time.
Because the Shame Game can only be played if we perpetuate and feed it, and it will cease if enough of us practice compassion and empathy. Like the preteen who turned to me, and would not be a silent witness to pain or bullying, let us all become ambassadors for compassion and ending shaming.
Let there be no more casualties of shame, no more shattering of souls. Let us not be instruments of despair–directly or by our silence.
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