The Opposite of Shame

The Opposite of Shame

It was one of those perfect spring Sundays. I had just come from hanging with two girlfriends. John sent a great video of Maya, snaking down a slide and laughing in the park. The windows were rolled down and the wind was blowing in my hair. And then the goddess threw a cherry on top: Kelly Clarkson “Since You’ve Been Gone,” one of my favorite songs to go crazy to on the dance floor in my 20s, came on the radio. I was belting it out and feeling more than fine when… CRASH.

That’s right, I managed to run smack into my neighbor’s parked car while trying to take the sharp right required to fit into our tricky space in the driveway. My mind hurried to catch up to the terrible sound of metal crunching. It couldn’t be, could it? Did I really just do that? Kelly went on singing incongruously. My perfect spring Sunday was violently over, like the moment your mom hits the off switch on the television with feeling after she’s told you to go up to bed multiple times and you’ve lingered.

I slunk around the rest of the night — feeling stupid, feeling guilty, feeling, almost as if I were being punished for something. “I was having too good a time,” this weird voice inside of me said. “I should have made better choices. I shouldn’t have been so la-di-da while driving.”

John Cary, the author’s husband, washing his pride and joy with baby Maya in hand. (Courtney Martin)

John, meanwhile, was as nice as could be about it. “It’s only money,” he said, even though our car — the first one he’s ever owned — is his pride and joy. He takes meticulous care of it, even strapping Maya to his chest in the baby carrier while he sprays it down at the neighborhood car wash.

My neighbor was obscenely kind, too. “I was wondering when that thing would get a scratch so I could just stop worrying about it,” he said, beaming a totally authentic smile.

But the shame monster in my head wouldn’t let up. Especially not the next morning when I found out how much the damage would cost. “I work so hard,” I thought. “How could I be so stupid?” I sat in my office, head in hands, and tried to cry. The tears didn’t come.

I’ve always had this catastrophic tendency towards my own mistakes. In middle school, I shoplifted alongside a couple of girlfriends at the local J.C. Penney. We got caught, but managed to slip out of any punishment (hello, white privilege). I felt so guilty that I actually ended up telling my parents. I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table and sobbing, “I will understand if you never trust me again!”

At moments when I’ve unintentionally hurt people with my writing, I’ve gone back to this dark, bottomless pit of a place. I imagine myself to be monstrous, almost like a reverse Midas. Everything I touch turns to shit. It makes me want to stay inside, stop creating, stop taking risks. I rationally know I’m not vindictive or careless, but this pit isn’t a rational place. It’s all stomach aches and regret and self-hate.

(Keturah Stickann / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

If there is any gift of going into the pit, it’s that when I emerge, I feel more human somehow. It’s like my ego is squeezed out like a wet rag. I’m less judgmental of others, reacquainted with just how hard life can be. I don’t crave transcendence; I just crave relief — a humble knowing that I am not perfect, and don’t have to be. And so I will just do my best and hope it’s enough.

It’s like the range of human emotions lives on a spectrum. On one end, there is shame; on the other, there is love. The only things that seem to drag me back towards the light side is time and the tenderness of people who know my heart.

Maya woke up at 1:30 am a few nights ago and John volunteered to go soothe her. I lay in bed, listening to their interaction. When she first registered that he was in the room, her cries got louder and more desperate. But then John started talking to her: “Momma loves you. And Dada loves you. And Kima loves you. And Oma loves you. And Didop loves you. And Nana loves you. And Gramps loves you…”

He went on like this for a good 10 minutes straight, just naming every single person (cats and dogs included) that he could think of that loved our little girl. Her cries turned to whimpers. Her whimpers disappeared.

This, I thought as I lay in the darkness, is the opposite of shame. To acknowledge all the people that love you, despite and sometimes even because of your mistakes, is to crawl out of the pit and into the light. You honor them by forgiving yourself. As hard as it can be.

(Kerem Tapani Gültekin / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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