By some estimates, humanity has lived on the earth for about 200,000 years. True, our ancestors had been here much longer than that. But as a species, we are relatively young on this planet that has been floating around the sun for over four-and-a-half billion years. And when we think about it, some of the biggest discoveries in human life were made only in the last 150 years. The advents of air travel, automobiles, radio, television, computers, space travel, visits to the moon, corded telephones, walkie-talkies, mobile phones, and so much more have occurred in what amounts to the blink of an eye. And while those inventions are, for the most part, good, they bring with them some unwanted side effects. Over the next few days in our Lenten journey, we’ll explore some of those together.

               Medicine has made some pretty remarkable leaps and bounds over the last century. Take vaccines, for example. While vaccines have been used for a few hundred years, they were rapidly developed during the 20th century. As vaccines became more and more widely available, people stopped dying of ailments that were previously death sentences. While vaccines used to take years and years to develop, scientists have drastically shortened the process, saving even more lives more quickly. Because scientists had already begun years of work on a SARS vaccine, they were able to shift gears and create a vaccine for the very-similar SARS co v 2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, in very swift time!

Other advances in medicine focused on behavioral health and how to raise children properly. Over the course of the 20th century, there were a number of doctors who wrote books teaching parents how to raise children who would grow up to become productive adults. The techniques they preached saw almost immediate results. Parents who read these books soon discovered they were able to get sleep at night by following the guidelines meticulously prescribed by the “experts.” Parents were encouraged to let their kids “cry it out.” After one night, of crying it out, children would often remain peaceful from then on. Practices like male circumcision were strongly encouraged, and parents were encouraged to feed their infants formula instead of natural breast milk. The problem is, many of these recommendations were made without understanding the long-term consequences of these practices.

While there are a number of reasons parents might use formula to feed an infant today, it’s universally accepted in the medical community that breast milk is the best food for at least the first few months of life. Circumcision is now frowned upon in many communities (other than for religious purposes and other reasons that pediatricians might name), and its benefits are often thought to be outweighed by complications and easily taken care of by good hygiene. And allowing kids to “cry it out” at night may have been effective in keeping kids quiet the next day, but child psychologists now understand that this is likely because of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Children internalize a concept of, “Mom and Dad didn’t come when I communicated the only way I know how. I guess there’s no reason to try!” It’s now thought that this practice can lead to feelings of abandonment and emotional needs not being met. These feelings are often deeply felt and experienced later in a person’s life, but not fully articulated.

Why do I know so much about these practices? Well, because I was a child raised with them. Perhaps you were, too. There is more information now than there was when you or I were infants. There is much more research out now, and psychologists and doctors have studied the aftermath. One of the most common side effects, one that affects me personally, is a feeling of shame that is buried deep down in my soul somewhere. Not guilt, mind you, but shame.  Shame is a feeling that tells us we’re bad people. Not that we’ve done something wrong. Guilt informs us. If I take your lunch money and I feel guilty about it, then I’ll remember next time not to take your lunch money. We can learn from guilt! But shame is much more personal. If I took your lunch money, shame tells me that I’m a bad person. I’m a thief. It’s about who I am rather than what I did. Guilt is a healthy emotion when we learn from it. Shame is not. Shame is torture and it can be debilitating.

Lent is often a time when we’re taught to do something special or to give something up. These have the potential to be wonderful practices under the right circumstances! But for someone who has deep feelings of shame, the practice can bring those feelings to the surface. When I was a child, if I “gave up” ice cream for Lent and then “cheated” on my fast, then I felt really bad. If I forgot it was Friday and I ate a piece of lunch meat as a snack, I thought I was doomed. I was convinced that I was a bad person. I still feel that way even to this day. When we experience alcoholic family systems, like the one in which I was raised, then these feelings are magnified. The alcoholic family system teaches that we all keep the family “secret” and we all play by the family “rules”. This is true even if we don’t know the rules. We learn them not by having them explained to us, but rather by being punished for breaking them. It leads to feelings of wandering through life not knowing which doors are safe to open, which people are trustworthy, and not being very confident. We become hesitant to try something new because we might fail. When we fail, we’re taught that we are failures, instead of we can keep trying and eventually get better.

I am grateful for the advances in medical care that help me to overcome my feelings of shame and unworthiness. I have taken countless hours of therapy and even medication to help me when necessary. I now look at Lent not as a time of punishment and to remind me that I’m a bad person and I shouldn’t partake of things that bring me joy. I look at Lent as a time for self-growth. It’s a time to enhance self-awareness. It’s a time to become more in tuned with our emotions. It’s a time to learn from what we have done in the past and to shape how we would like to respond in the future. If you experience feelings of shame, please know that you are a good person. I’m qualified to tell you this. I’m your priest, after all. Shame doesn’t ever go away completely, but it can be managed. I am a good person. Even though it hurt me to write that. Whether you experience debilitating shame like I do, or you have never had to worry about it, take some time today to say out loud, “I’m a good person.” Do it. Really. You are a good person. So am I. And if it takes Lent for us to realize that, then God bless Lent.

Live Without Shame