The Enemy Within
Enemies outside are unable to hurt you when you have no enemy within.
- African Proverb
The setting is a high school hallway. A girl, 15 years old, is fussing around in her locker. It’s December 20th, the last day of school before the break, and she’s dressed like an elf.
White leggings, red dress, black belt, red hat, bells–the works. She had been dressing like an elf every year just before Christmas break since fourth grade. It was a weird tradition, but it was hers.
Then the doorway girls entered the scene. You’ve met them. They cluster in groups, like black adders, waiting in crevasses in hallways all over America, ready to bite unsuspecting, lone girls. All their sentences end with a question mark, their mouths are open in a perpetual state of moral outrage and they aren’t dressed like an elf.
“Oh my God,” said one in a voice so loud it was meant to be heard by Soviet astronauts. “Is she really dressed that way?”
“What is she, like three years old?”
“I would be so embarrassed to be seen like that.”
And on and on. Did I mention that these girls were only about six feet away from the aforementioned elf girl? Did I mention they didn’t try to hide their disgust? Did I mention the elf girl was me?
I closed my locker and walked away jingling. I kept going until I was home. It didn’t matter that it was ten in the morning. I never dressed like an elf again.
If you think about it, I was a forward-thinker. Just recently I rode past a larping event in the park. There were like fifty elves fighting each other with sticks. And it’s not even Christmas! But the memory still burns. Partly because the shame of it was seared into my brain. Partly because I want to go back in time and jingle their hats a bit about the proper way to treat people.
Shame Can Kill You!
Have you ever been completely unable to raise your head up high? What was the cause? What brought you to that lowest moment?
Shame! Embarrassment! You did wrong! You got caught! You’re about to be caught! You will soon have to face the consequences!
But what is shame, exactly? If scientists were to gather together, dice up your brain to find that hidden shame-thing that is growing like a so many green blobs on a Chia head what would that look like?
No really, I want you to draw it and send it to me. Best drawing wins candy!
Chances are, your drawing would be abstract. You would draw a lightning bolt hitting an elf or an elf getting boiled by three doorway witches. But you can’t actually draw shame.
Because it isn’t really there.
According to Virginia Strum (fancy doctor lady) shame lives in a marble-sized bit of your brain called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (say it five times fast!). This region of the brain is like a highway between higher functions of the brain (the part that makes you want to dress like an elf) and lower functions (the part that makes the elf breathe) and when something embarrassing happens, it opens for business, sending signals down the highway, telling you to be afraid, be very afraid. It changes your breathing and tells your body to send the scary “you better run fast” chemicals to your body.
Not surprisingly, these parts of the brain are linked to depression.
I can’t stress this enough: that shame part of your brain is literally a little bit of brain goo and some electricity. That’s it. Why are you letting it stop you?
Shame Helped Us Survive
Back in the days when we were uni-brow’d cave people (no, not the 1970’s) we had to live in the harsh and lonely pre-internet/cable/mid-sized sedan world. It was an ugly place filled with mastodons, giant sloths and huge fuzzy killer butterflies.
Okay, maybe not butterflies, but you get my point. This place was dangerous.
We survived by clustering into groups. The group helped us find food, fight off butterflies and locate water. We liked the group.
But the group had rules. If Og didn’t care for Steely Dan and you played “Reelin’ In the Years” incessantly on your rock drum, Og was going to kick you out of the group to be eaten by butterflies. Because of your advanced state of deadness, you were unable to have babies–or if you did, your babies were eaten by saber-toothed dingo butterflies (they had evolved by then).
Do you know who did have babies? The people who were afraid of Og.
Soon, that “fear of Og” gene was everywhere. We still have it. It stops us from making stuff because now EVERYBODY is Og!
Everybody is Og
Your mother is Og. Your spouse is Og. You are Og. You live in a complex world of rules and all these rules are different from person to person, group to group. Next time you sit down with friends listen to the conversation like a scientist. Chances are the ONLY thing people are discussing are the rules of the group, who is breaking the rules, and how much we should all shun those people for breaking the rules.
The morning news is a great example of this. Every week there is a new shame victim. Someone who did wrong, someone who needs to be publically punished, who should lose their job, their sports team, their family, their friends, their life. This week its Rachel Dolezal—a woman who identifies as African American but is actually Caucasian. Last week it was someone else. This person is prodded by interviewers, made to look foolish and set as a “public example of what not to do.” The favorite punishment? Fire them from their job, a.k.a. kick them out into the cold to be eaten by butterflies.
Do we check up on these people to make sure they are okay? Do we attempt to correct errant behavior and let them get on with their lives?
Nope! We let the butterflies eat them. We insist the butterflies eat them! Yay!
No wonder everyone is scared.
Art is Weird & Shameful
All forms of art-making is an act of standing apart from the group. Standing apart from the group (i.e. wearing shoes with jingle bells on them) makes people look at you, talk about you and eventually say things like:
“Who are you to call yourself an artist/writer/creator? You are a nobody!”
“You think you are special, but you are really not.”
“Your stuff is dumb and so are you!”
“You aren’t talented.”
“You are weird.”
“You are a fraud.”
“Get a haircut, hippie!”
Shame Lies To You
After you have been shamed (and it can be as subtle as a look from your lover, a brush-off from your friends, someone not reading your novel) you will be tempted to listen to that still small voice, it will whispering appealingly that it is best to stay under the radar and all the pain will all go away.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works.
The Book of Matthew
There is no glory in hiding. There is magnificence in trying. Take no heed of these lies that shame whispers to you. It is stopping you from facing the world and making unimaginable achievements. It is stopping you from doing bold things, from doing your best. Worst of all, shame is stopping you from realizing your true potential. Do something about it!
Next Week we will discuss what we can do about shame . . . and giant killer butterflies. Until then, keep making art and keep fighting shame!
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