“I’ll never forgive myself,” Marie said, looking pitiful. I was in an addiction treatment group circle with Marie and a dozen others. Twenty years before she had a baby girl who died. Though no charges were filed, Marie admitted to us her drinking was a key factor in the neglect that led to the baby’s death. Now in her late-forties, she was struggling to face this and other failures and humiliations caused by three decades of hard drinking.
Of all Marie’s heartaches the baby’s death certainly seemed the most punishing. Our society reserves a special shaming for women judged as “bad mothers” – especially those who abuse substances. By declaring herself unforgivable, Marie gave voice to a shame heaped upon her by others and now she heaped it upon herself. Was she unforgivable as she supposed? The normally talkative group fell silent.
Finally another woman spoke up and with great tenderness asked, “Marie, are there any advantages to not forgiving yourself?”
“No, there’s nothing good about not forgiving yourself,” she answered.
“Then why do you continue to not forgive yourself?”
“I don’t know,” said Marie.
The woman persisted, but not unkindly, “I think maybe there is something you find useful about not forgiving yourself. Can you think of what that might be?”
“No.” There was now an edge of defiance in Marie’s voice.
“As long as you don’t forgive yourself for your baby’s death,” the woman said softly, “you have a reason to continue drinking.”
Now this was a twist I didn’t expect and the intensity of the insight gave me goosebumps. By the time the group was over Marie seemed relieved, her burden somewhat lifted. Why then did she collude with her miserable shame for so many years by declaring herself incapable or unwilling to forgive herself?
As they say, addiction is the human condition writ large and the shame dynamic we observe in Marie’s life is likely universal to the human condition. As Ernest Kurtz writes in his outstanding book Shame and Guilt:
Shame contains a “not” – the “not” imposed by essential limitation. That “not” is to be neither severed nor undone: it is lodged in the very essence of our human be-ing. To be honestly human is to be aware that one falls short – to accept that the ability to be is also the ability to be not. Thus, to be human is to experience shame – to feel “bad” about the not-ness lodged in one’s essence.
To say human beings feel “bad” about shame is a vast understatement. Shame is agonizing and fear of exposure leads us to expend enormous mental and emotional energy to keep shame well hidden, even defending its foul existence with declarations like, “I will never forgive myself” or “I will always feel this way.” When shame is exerting its power, we hide and human connection is lost. Shame brings isolation, alienation and loneliness. One cannot begin to measure the sum of human misery in the world attributable to this.
Why does shame feel bad? Does it have to? Kurtz observes the painful power of shame stems from how deeply rooted is our conflicted response to our dual nature as beast-angels:
Why this feeling-bad of shame? Because of the anomalous nature of the human as beast-angel, as essentially limited yet craving unlimitedness. The anomaly is inherent, for to be human is to be “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Confronted with the task of being human, one must live both its polarities: one cannot be only either… Inevitably one falls short of being either beast or angel – neither can be total so long as both are actual.
Beast-angels: rational-animals. The “angel” represented by all that is uniquely human: our reason, the ability to think conceptually, to aspire for the eternal, to live principled lives, examined lives, and maybe even to love. The “beast” in us is represented by the body and all that is demanding and finite about it. Despite its wondrous beauty it is also crude, it harasses us with its desires and attachments, and it will weaken and die someday.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker bluntly states human beings are “gods who shit” and that we are typically burdened and shamed by the contrast. It’s not hard to observe people who attempt to resolve this by alternately living all one way or the other: do the “responsible” thing during the week, party hard on weekends. This is a distraction from the more difficult work of reconciling the two natures.
The process of resolving the shame-filled dread of one’s life begins with self-acceptance. Self-acceptance means accepting one’s human limitations. This cannot be done in secret, it requires renewing open connections, reversing the isolation with supportive and understanding human beings, the way Marie did it. As Kurtz puts it, …to be real is to be limited, and to be limited is to be real…. for limitation proves reality. This understanding enables joyous acceptance of the human condition. For beast-angels like us, self-acceptance bridges the gap between the two natures, reducing shame and making self-forgiveness possible. When we are okay with all “we be” and all “we be not” the fruit is sublime, spontaneous, unavoidable joy. People often speak of this experience as an awakening.
The strange and wonderful paradox is this: In self-acceptance we are most open to genuine change. In self- condemnation we consent to remain the same. I often hear people talk of “finding themselves” as if the process is nothing but one happy discovery after another. But facing ourselves as beast-angels means embracing the light and the shadow co-existing within. As Ernest Kurtz writes: … accepting the reality of self-as-feared is the essential pre-condition of finding the reality of self-as-is.