When Shame Kills, Love Stays | Thoughts on Shame, Rage, Dragons, and Jesus

They nailed love to the cross.

That’s what my friend, Simara, said during a Lent meditation over Zoom: They nailed love to the cross. They killed love.

I’m used to hearing things like death was nailed to the cross and our sins were nailed to the cross. But love? Simara is a gifted woman who speaks the words of the Holy Spirit. So I’ve learned to listen, especially when those words catch me off guard.

Surely they did nail love to a cross…or more accurately: Love. Because Jesus is love personified. I find it easier to think about nailing sin and death to the cross, than to consider that, in their depravity, people nailed Love to the cross. Because “they” is me and why would I kill Love?

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

One day, many years ago, I became acutely aware of my personal participation in the crucifixion of Jesus. I was outdoors, kneeling before a large wooden cross at our old church, when God revealed the deep resentment, hatred even, that I feel toward Him. I saw that even though I wasn’t physically at Calvary 2000 years ago, I was guilty of wanting to destroy God. Some call this original sin – a base opposition to the Lord, a desire to be one’s own god. Some call it pride. But maybe it’s more complex than that.

Maybe the death of Love is rooted in our shame and separation from God.

Shame. It’s an awful feeling: a hollow yet lead-heavy sensation in the gut, a stomach full of spoiled milk, a million needles piercing your skin, overwhelming self-loathing, the need to run and disappear, and the rumblings of self-destructive, all-consuming rage.

That’s how it feels to me, anyway. But what is it? Shame is the core belief that there is something inherently wrong with one’s own person. For me, shame sounds like this: I am inherently defective, flawed, less than, unlovable, irredeemable.

I’ve dealt with my shame a lot. In prayer. In therapy. And I’ve come a long way from the days of believing I trespassed my way into existence; so far, that I can now say (and mostly mean) that I am legitimate, I am good, I am enough, I am worthy of love.

One question: WHY AM I STILL SO DAMN ANGRY?

Me, just last week, texting friends: I am filled with unquenchable rage.
Friends: Why?
Me: 🤷🏻‍♀️ Menopause?

Yes, I’m kind of young for menopause! That’s beside the point. The point is, rage lurks within me like a fire-breathing dragon, and early-ish menopause seemed a valid explanation. Until a few days later. When God, in His ever so gentle way, pointed out that my rage is actually connected to unresolved issues of shame.

That was exciting; I mean who doesn’t love to revisit shame issues? <<<insert sarcasm here

Of course, when something is disturbing enough, like say unquenchable rage, you find a way.

I suppose it’s no coincidence that last week I came across the article Rage, Shame, and the Death of Love by David Cloke. Fair warning: after reading it, I felt like someone had turned me inside out, body and soul. It hurt like hell, but the truth often does.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Shame often begins in infancy when healthy familial attachments are thwarted for one reason or another; or it may begin later in life when a person is exposed to abuse, significant loss, or other trauma.
  • Shame is excruciatingly painful and therefore ends up buried deep within the unconscious. When something triggers buried shame, a person typically responds by doing whatever is necessary to stop the pain. This can take many forms such as distracting oneself in healthy and unhealthy ways, avoiding shame-inducing people or circumstances, seeking revenge, etc.  
  • Shame often stems from “rejected love” (when one’s love and affection is spurned by another) and leads to a “now despised urge to love” (when one hates one’s own desire to love). In Cloke’s own words this “evokes destructive feelings that attack the very thing that is desired, often precipitating an inevitable death of love.”
  • Shame is often part of a shame/envy/rage/guilt cycle. For example: A baby experiences some form of abandonment and that excruciating pain is thrust into the unconscious. Later in life, the child sees another person getting what she wants (attention, affection, praise) and feels envious. This triggers unconscious shame, setting off a rage response (according to Cloke anger and rage are different). Some children will be frightened by their rage, which could lead to rejection and further abandonment, and therefore they try to hide it. Other children will act on their rage. Both will likely feel guilt and an increased sense of shame as a result of their choices.
  • People experiencing the shame/envy/rage/guilt cycle often create a “redemption fantasy” in which they believe certain people or circumstances will magically relieve their shame. I will use myself as an example again. While growing up, I viewed every boy as my potential rescuer; I believed his love had the power to save me from my shame, that his love would somehow make me lovable. Yet I eventually came to despise them all – even the ones who treated me well. My reasons for hating them always included a common thread: I judged them all as weak. Ultimately, this perceived weakness was really about their inability to rescue me.
  • According to Cloke, shame-based rage may have several intentions including: “magically changing the other person, creating in the other person a shame feeling…as a form of empathy, to penetrate the other in a powerful way, or to seek revenge.” People experiencing shame-based rage may lash out at their offender in various ways ranging from snubbing to slander to murder, and everything in between.

There’s a lot more to the article, but that’s a solid recap. Rather than tell you all the ways this affects me personally, I want to focus on something more universal, something that, I hope, will speak to us all.

I nailed Love to the cross. Not death. Not sin. Love. And pride doesn’t kill love. Shame does.

Shame has been my constant companion since my days in the womb, when I was first called “illegitimate”, when my existence was a burden, and my presence was feared. Life got messier after that; it doesn’t matter how or why. Shame has many fathers. What matters is that shame lives inside me like a sleeping dragon, and when she wakes no one in her path is safe.

I am not alone. According to many mental health experts, including Bill Cloke, Brene Brown, and Daniel Amen, nearly everyone experiences some level of shame, even those who have relatively healthy childhoods. Why is that? Father Thomas Keating, founder of Contemplative Outreach, says that the real root of shame is our perceived separation from God.

Woah. Let’s think about that for a minute: God is our Source, our Father, our Mother. Yet here in the fallen physical realm, we experience separation from our perfect Parent and the Love we so desperately desire. This is no small matter. It has rent the very fabric of the universe, left a gaping chasm in every star and leaf and rock and atom, even to the very depths of our souls. The separation is excruciating. All of creation cries out in pain. We feel cut off from God, abandoned, exposed, naked…and ashamed.

What if shame is the universal lie that blinds and binds? Telling us that we are lost, alone, unlovable, and irredeemable, that our pain is incurable and our rage is unquenchable? Telling us that our only options are to run and hide or to attack and destroy?

What if our opposition to God stems from that shame and our fear that we’ll never be good enough? Adam and Eve hid. The Pharisees judged. Cain lashed out in rage.

What if we hide from, judge, and lash out at God because, as the unattainable object of our deepest desire, He is also the source of our greatest pain?

What if this is why we nailed Love to the cross? Because we came to believe that Love’s destruction was the only way to end our unbearable suffering?

What if we nailed Love to the cross not so much because our hearts are evil but because our hearts are broken?

I nailed Love to the cross. And I have murdered Love in my heart a thousand times since then.

Shame kills.

But what if Love still pursues me? What if Love is running after me, not to harm me, but to heal me? What if Love picks me up, spins me around and says, Go ahead. Put your hand in my side. Feel the scars in my hands and feet. Yes, I am still here.?

What if Love sinks Himself deep into my dragon lair of shame, builds a fire, and puts the kettle on for tea?

What if Love says, Do your worst, Nichole. I am here to stay.?

© Nichole Q. Perreault

A GIRL AND HER BASKET OF BROKEN THINGS

There I was, a little girl standing before Jesus, with a basket in my arms. My basket of loaves and fishes. Everything I had to offer was in that basket.

As Jesus stretched out his hands for my basket, I hesitated. Dipping my chin, I took one last look at my offering. Suddenly, shame covered my small frame like a wool coat five sizes too big.

I had worked hard to fill that basket. And while I felt the weight of all my attempts to get it right, to do something good, to bring something special, my basket was filled with nothing but moldy crumbs and eyes and scales and bones. It might as well have been empty.

Photo by Annie Spratt

I wanted to run, to disappear, to make excuses – but there’s none of that nonsense when you’re face to face with Jesus. Shaking and uncertain, I looked up at him through tears. What would he say? What would he do? Would he be disappointed? Or angry? Would he yell? Or shake his head and pass me by?

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this Christmas whispers

this Christmas
whispers
from behind a midnight sky
trembling
on crystallized air
a wrinkle in the starlight
like the tinkling of tiny bells

we fell
once upon a time
now we fall
and fall
blazing, burning out across
that inky wall
still Christmas whispers

among the glaring of
the screens
the clanging songs
that drag their feet along the hall
tradition on repeat
the dead-eyed throng

into the silence of my heart
empty as the space
between the stars
this Christmas
whispers

wordless whispers
like snowflakes
lay a blanket down
upon barren ground
a heartsong
a homesong
love letters without ink

this Christmas whispers
breath that flickers flame
pats the chair
says come sit
beside a fire you didn’t build
warm
like cinnamon
and mugs of tea

this Christmas whispers
rest
be
wonder
breathe
this is enough
you
and Me

©️ Nichole Q. Perreault

so my newest pastime is writing on the walls…