Being Fully Human, childhood sexual abuse, Children, darkness to light, healing, listening, sexual abuse, sexualized violence, shame, survivor, vulnerable

Bound By Shame

Barbara Lee survivorHappy New Year! How many of you celebrated? I wanted to go see Jack Leaver perform at the Highway Inn, but I didn’t feel well enough to go out. Were any of you there? Did you hear what happened there? One of the waitresses announced that it was time to get ready and that at the stroke of midnight she wanted every person standing next to the one person who makes their life worth living. Well, it was kind of embarrassing. As the clock struck, the bartender was almost crushed to death.

Leif and I spent a quiet night at home ourselves. I had an interesting dream the night before that Leif had given me a diamond necklace as a New Year’s Eve present. I asked him what he thought it meant and he told me I would find out that night. At midnight, as the New Year was chiming on his grandfather clocks, Leif handed me a package. I was so excited, I ripped the paper off and there in my hand was a book entitled:  ‘The meaning of dreams’.

There was something much less funny posted in the news during the holidays. I know that some of you saw it because I was so appalled I posted it on Facebook. Someone in a bar posted a sign on the door that said, “We like our beer like we like our violence… domestic.” It was eventually taken down, but it served as a sad reminder that despite our holiday merriment, there is much pain that people are somehow managing to endure and that we have a responsibility as human beings to try to bring to an end.

Darkness to Light

As you know, today we will be having Darkness to Light training after the Gathering and I hope you will stay for it. This training is specifically about recognizing and responding to child sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where this training is critical. I wish it weren’t so. I wish this nation lived out the ideals it says it does.

  • But the reality is that half of all music videos on MTV feature or suggest violence, present hostile sexual situations as acceptable, or show male heroes abusing women for fun.
  • The reality is that there are 4 times as many peepshows and adult bookstores in the US than there are McDonald’s.
  • The reality is that one in eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme.

Can you imagine what life would be like if we were not such a civilized and morale people? Clearly we human beings continue to make a mess of this world we’re living in.

And we know it. Retired Republican Congressman James T. Walsh said, “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is one of the most vicious crimes conceivable, a violation of mankind’s most basic duty to protect the innocent.”  That failure to protect the most vulnerable among us has deep and lasting consequences. And it happens far too often. At least 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

The Legacy of Abuse

Most people who are sexually abused as children experience difficulties related to the abuse. They can experience strong, sometimes crippling emotions, even decades after the event.  These emotions include:

  1. Fear: of recurrence, of sexual intercourse, of intimacy.
  2. Anger, with God, with the molester, with people in general.
  3. Guilt, thinking they caused the act, that they didn’t fight hard enough, that their body betrayed them by responded to the act.
  4. and perhaps most debilitating of all, Shame.

So what is shame? Have you ever felt as if there was something happening in your life over which you had no control? Clinical Psychologist Gershen Kaufman describes shame in this way. He calls shame an impotence-making experience because it feels as though there is no way to relieve the matter, no way to restore the balance of things. There is no single action that is wrong and can be repaired. Shame isn’t about feeling like you did something wrong, it’s about feeling like there is something inherently wrong with you. Shame arises out of the belief that one has simply failed as a human being.

And shame is a binding experience. Shame is the painful feeling of being exposed, being made vulnerable, being uncovered and left unprotected, being naked and looked at by others. Shame implies that we were at some time vulnerable to the scorn, disrespect and even the hate of another human being and that no repair followed.

Shame leads to self-shaming, to rejecting our self before others can reject us. Shame brings distance between people and even within parts of our self. As a result we may find ourselves raging at others, mistrusting people, striving for perfection, striving for power, or internally withdrawing all in an effort to protect our self from further hurt.

It’s hard for me to think of anything more binding in our culture today then the painful reality of sexual abuse and the shame that too often results. Any activity that a person feels violates her or his boundaries may fall within the realm of sexual abuse, but today we are focusing on childhood sexual abuse. We’re especially aware of the children in our lives right now having moved through the holidays with our own children, grand children, nieces and nephews. And now we are more than ready for them to return to school. And we would do anything to keep them from being hurt.

Unwanted Sexual Attention 

Child sexual abuse includes any experience during childhood or adolescence that involves inappropriate sexual attention by another person, usually an adult, but sometimes an older child, teenager, or even a same-aged playmate. The behavior may be forced, coerced, or even willingly engaged in by the survivor, but it is understood as abusive because a child cannot truly give free consent.

Fear, anger, guilt and shame influence behavior, causing irrational, sometimes hostile reactions to natural life situations.  Often, a person is bound in their own secrecy, ashamed and afraid to share this part of the self and the past with others.

I was bound for 22 years before I could claim publicly that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was bound by shame that set in when a traumatic silence followed the abuse. As with most child sexual abuse, my perpetrators were not strangers, but the son and the daughter of my father’s friend. When my father learned about the abuse, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. In the end, it was that lack of any noticeable reaction at all that was more damaging to me than the abuse itself.

I was confused and puzzled. Was it really acceptable that this had happened to me? Apparently, it was. I internalized a sense of being deeply flawed and I filled my emotional warehouse with a great reserve of shame.

Suffering in Silence

People who are bound by shame suffer in silence that they cannot break. So it is up to us to speak. We need to speak the truth about their experience. We need to say out loud and regularly: You did nothing to deserve sexual abuse.  There was nothing in this act that God or anyone else willed. This abuse hurt creation because you are creation’s precious child. Love wants you to be healed, to be loosed from your bonds and to once again stand up tall and straight. You can feel whole and clean and joyful again.

And if a survivor is able to break his or her own silence, then we need to be able to listen. Victims of sexual abuse struggle with trying to find a sense of universal love and compassion in the midst of their horror. We need to listen to their stories if we are to appreciate the reality of that horror and confront the hard questions about sexuality and violence in our culture. More than easy answers, they need us to listen carefully, to not assume that we can easily understand their pain and their grief.

And if we are to really take seriously our task of healing the binding results of abuse, then we cannot only pay attention to individual victims and their recovery. We must also act to heal the ills of our society. Frankly, we live in a rape culture in which primarily children and women receive messages every day that their bodies are meant to be used as commodities and that violations of their bodies will be ignored, tacitly condoned or blamed on them.

Confronting Sexualized Violence

It is natural for us to recoil from such a harsh truth, to close our eyes to the pervasiveness and the horror of sexual abuse in our own backyard. It is much more comfortable to redirect our attention to the outward and reprehensible abuses of other people in other lands because acknowledging the cold, hard truth of our own country’s atrocities forces us to question our belief that we are part of a democratic society that is both rational and decent, as well as our desire to believe that we as a people are loving and kind.

We need to face up to the reality and horror of sexualized violence in our media, in our neighborhoods, in our lives – not try to cover it up. And we need to monitor our own actions, our language, our choices in this life so that we do not contribute to a society that continues to harm, to bind and to cripple our sons and our daughters.

Shame is a biding experience, but it is not a life sentence. Even the bonds of shame can be untied. And that starts with us. With our actions, our words, and our awareness. Please be part of the untying and the healing by joining us for the Darkness to Light training today. An unknown author wrote, “You can’t fight the dark. You can wait for the light, you can look for the light, you can share the light, or you can shine.” Today I invite you to shine.

The light in me recognizes and bows to the light in you. Namaste.

Being Fully Human, domestic violence, endings, Forgiveness, healing, new years eve

The End

2014A few years back the Muskegon Chronicle ran a list of global traditions to welcome in the New Year. The Dutch burn bonfires of Christmas trees to purge the old and welcome the new. The Spanish eat 12 grapes at midnight to secure 12 happy months in the new coming year. In Japan “forget-the-year” parties are held to bid farewell to the problems and concerns of the past year and prepare for a new beginning.

I don’t like any of it! Before the year even ends it sounds like people are already poised to scrub it off like soap scum from the shower tiles of our life and rinse it down the drain. After all, a new year is right there knocking at the door, even before we’ve had a chance to say goodbye to the year we have just had an incredibly intimate relationship with.

I Miss Stephen Colbert! 

When I was a kid I hated endings. Always have. In fact I remember sitting in the movie theater as a young kid and hating it when the movie started because I knew that meant it would be soon be over.

I hated it when our family moved when I was in first grade.

I hated it when my gerbil died even though I had stopped playing with it a year before.

I hated it when school would let out for summer.

I hated it when a friend had to go home.

I hated endings – all kinds of endings.

And the fact is, I still do.

This has been a traumatic month for me. First, Charlie from the Newsroom died. Then Stephen Colbert went off the air. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take!

And you know what else? I LOVE the fact that I hate endings. Even when I cause the thing to end. Even when I can hardly stand waiting for the new thing to begin – I still hate the ending. And I love hating it.

I love the fact that summer camp for the kids at Stony Lake can end after a week and (much to my children’s embarrassment) I’m the one wiping the tears from my cheek.

I love the fact that when I’m on an airplane flying home from China I want to cry.

I love the fact that the end of a job or a relationship or the day can fill me with an overwhelming sense of loss and pain – even when I know things will be so much better, even when the thing ending needs to end.

A Time for Mourning

Keep in mind I didn’t say I love endings – I hate them. But I think I love hating endings because it means that I embrace the idea that within each ending is a death – and all death deserves respect and at least a moment of mourning. An acknowledgement that for better or for worse something has happened. And now that something will cease. And that something made a difference – some kind of difference – it mattered, it had weight, it was real, it was alive.

And so I prefer to experience endings rather than jumping over them or bypassing them on the way to something new.

I didn’t always feel this way. For most of my life I was the cut-off queen. When I was hurt the best possible thing I thought I could do was to slice the offending party cleanly out of my life, move quickly forward and never – but never – look back. Skipping over the ending and going right to the next thing also allowed me to escape the pain that comes with acknowledging that what I did also contributed to the ending and that some of my own choices also hurt other people.

But you can never fully journey forward if you haven’t dealt with the past. So I’ve spent the last couple of years going back to the endings, exploring them, trying to understand them, savoring their bitterness and learning from them something more about the people in my life – and much more about me.

Healing Old Wounds By Facing Them 

When I was 20 years old, something terribly important to me ended. It was my first marriage. I was filled with deep pain and anguish for this impossible decision and the impossible circumstances I was living in. And I cut him off. I was afraid and my fear found me running away as fast and as far as my mind would let me. On the rare occasion when I would see him in public, my heart would beat convulsively in my chest and I would flee. I never wanted to see him again.

But then one night as I sat in Barnes and Noble doing some work, he appeared. And my heart started pounding and I – well I asked myself how I wanted to react to this and why after all this time I would be afraid. And I nodded to him. And when he came over I asked if he would like to have a cup of coffee with me. And we visited for 2 hours.

It was the most incredible 2 hours. It was a time of forgiveness. It was a time of healing. And for me it was something more than that. It was a witness to my past. It was affirmation that my experience was real and – therefore – I am real.  For there are no endings that don’t shape us or inform us or affect us in some way.

It occurs to me now that I was much more afraid than even I had understood. Because not only did I fear this man, but I feared acknowledging the role I played in the hurt we both suffered. I wanted a quick jump from the way things were to a place where they were better without needing to acknowledge the genuine pain of the ending itself.

I’ve been flooded with a lot of memories since then. No, that’s not the right word. I have invited the memories to wash over me since then. Some are really good, some are really bad, but all of them now appear to me to be somehow beautiful. It is liberating to be able to hold all of these memories and see how they have helped to shape me into who I have become today – and how they have also helped to shaped the life of this man. And the wonder is that we have both changed so much while at the same time we have both been shaped by the same memories.

A Neverending Story 

So after my chance encounter with the past I am beginning to wonder if maybe there are no endings at all. Oh things change. Loss is very real and when we experience a loss, things are never the same again. But I’m thinking that maybe nothing ever really ends unless we manage somehow to no longer carry its influence within us.

Every end is a new beginning

But every beginning also requires an end.

In the midst of death comes new life. There is rebirth. But it never comes through avoiding the past. The past must be dealt with first, and then we can move into new life. A fresh start always begins by dealing with the past. After that, healing can take place.

There is something in every experience that shapes us, our present thought and our future action, long after its end. And in that respect there is no ending. There is only an amazing unfolding of events that have brought us each to this very moment. Who you are, who you are with, why you are here has all come about in this unfolding, in the ebb and flow of the tides that move and shape our lives.

Happy New Year and Namaste!