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

You Are Enough (God Says So)

I’ve seen this quote popping up in my feed a lot lately and I’m not feeling it.

A few years ago, I probably would have adored this quote. But now….not so much.

Here’s why: Much about the way this is worded implies that “she” (a symbolic “she” with which all Christian women are invited to identify) “she” is not lovable, is not worthy of forgiveness, and is not good enough to be a child of God. And people…especially women…often accept that as truth.

There was a time when I would have agreed with this quote and not without good reason. God created us, loves us, and forgives us because of who He is. There is nothing we can do to secure our right to exist, earn His love, or deserve His forgiveness. We are a people who found ourselves separated from God by our sin and without any means to close that distance between us, except for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Everything we are and have is because of Him. That is true.

Along the way, however, that truth often becomes twisted:
‘I can’t earn God’s love’  becomes  ‘I’m unlovable.’
‘I am a sinner saved by grace’  turns into  ‘I’m not good enough.’
‘I can’t earn love or forgiveness’  becomes  ‘I am not worthy of love or forgiveness.’

See how that works? Take the truth, twist it just a little, and you’ve got yourself a powerful lie. Typical, and oh so very destructive. That’s how the enemy rolls.

Over the last several months, God’s been speaking to me a lot on this subject. Here’s what I believe He has to say:
You are enough.
You are good.
You are worthy.
You belong here.

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On Grief and Love

We may be tempted to believe that those acquainted with grief should take the smaller losses in stride. We may think that after the loss of a parent, a child, a sibling, a spouse, what’s so bad about selling your home or a child growing up or friends and family moving away? But I find it’s quite the opposite. Once acquainted with grief, all the other losses become greater.

Grief remembers grief. And when those feelings of loss come in like the tide, washing over my toes and ankles, in that moment my body, mind and spirit remember…I remember…I remember all the times the waves crashed into my thighs, my gut, my chest, even over my head. And the feelings, though I do not call to them, though I do not want them, though I hope against hope they will stay at sea…those feelings come anyway.

The sorrow, the heavy emptiness, like a vacuum stealing air from my lungs. “It’s hard to sleep, to even breathe, harder still to wake and leave.” The waves come and I can’t stop them. Wet and salty and cold enough to burn, they come. Until I’m drowning, full of a sorrow I can’t contain, and those wet, salty waves, spill over the shores of my eyes. Waves that run hot now, because they come from the deepest wells of my heart and soul, the place where love dwells…no matter how I try to wall it off, or pack it away in ice…there lies love, love that can’t stop, won’t stop, burning, yearning, turning toward the smallest open crack.

Oh dear friends, and oh my soul, grief remembers grief because love remembers love. And love never fails.

 

In the Rubble of Broken Hearts

Photo by Frank L. Ludwig | CCC BY-ND 2.0Photo by Frank L. Ludwig | CCC BY-ND 2.0

Even writing hurts. This thing I sometimes love more than life…hurts.

I want to stop. To put it off. To wait until I can write about things that sparkle and bring light to your eyes. I want to wait until I can make you smile, make you laugh, make you remember why we’re even friends.

I don’t want to hurt. And I don’t want to be the girl who’s always hurting. And I don’t want to be the girl you roll your eyes at because she just. Won’t. Stop. Complaining.

I want God to give me shiny, happy words. Because I want to be shiny and happy.

But He’s called me to this: the right now…the ugly and real…the what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

And some days, I hate it. Today is one of those days…

In my last post, I referenced Isaiah 54:10:

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken, nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord who has compassion on you. (NIV)

That was just a few short weeks ago and even then, I couldn’t possibly imagine how much He’d be willing to shake, how much He’d be willing to remove.

My world’s a small world. And I have taken things like love and friendship and kindness and peace for granted.

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Unanswered

I find the letter. Worn. Faded. The words still familiar.

Melodic whispers of another time, another place. Of two faces, close together, flushing beneath a thousand sunlit cherry blossoms. The blushing trees stretching endlessly in every direction, motionless…as if holding their breath, waiting, listening.

His soft, brown eyes already asked the question. Her heart beat out an answer. An answer. An answer.

He held her in his eyes. She touched his cheek. And for a moment they were one. They were forever. All that was, all that would be, colliding in perfect stillness…

Before I finish reading, I slip the yellowing paper back into its envelope.

I close my eyes and find that moment…crystalized, frozen in time…pink petals suspended in the air. No questions. No fear. No doubt.

No words left unspoken. No letters left unanswered.

Just him. And me. And my heart still beating out an answer. An answer. An answer.

Written in response to Writing 101: Be Brief 

If My Heart had Wings

Four Generations

Four Generations

Some days, I miss her so much I can almost feel her next to me, in front of me…taking my face in her papery hands and drawing me close to kiss my cheek.

She wasn’t always old, though.

We lived a number places together: the Green House in the hills of Granby, an apartment in Simsbury and then, later, a raised ranch further up the street. Wherever she was felt like home to me.

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Frozen | Thoughts on Biblical commUNITY

Here’s the thing: If I knew when I committed to writing this post that the blogosphere would be buried in Frozen commentary like Arendelle in deep, deep, deep, deep snow, I probably would have reconsidered. But alas, I’ve promised a post, so here it is. 

If you have kids, teenagers, college students or well, even a young-at-heart-sister-in-law, then you’ve most likely spent your winter as I have: listening to said family members belt out the entire Frozen soundtrack morning, noon and night. My girls have even taken to singing duets, complete with knocking on a door, any door, before crooning: Do you wanna build a snowman?

And then they built one. Look familiar?

Family Photo

Family Photo

Anyway, I have this quirky habit of perceiving spiritual truth in all sorts of pop-culture media. Give me a minute and I’ll preach you a sermon on Finding Nemo, Perfect, The Hunger Games. (In some case, I already have.)

Frozen is no exception. Besides, you didn’t seriously think I could watch a movie with the tag-line “only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart” and not write about it, did you?

But that’s not because I want to preach you a sermon. Rather, it’s because I know what it’s like to have a frozen heart. To live so heavy under a curse, that I feared being discovered, being known. “Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know,” were lyrics to the soundtrack of my life long before Disney wrote Let it Go.

Some hearts, like Elsa’s, freeze because of fear, and some hearts, like Anna’s, freeze from wounds caused by others. For most of us, it’s a combination of both.

I know what it’s like to be mortally wounded – to be struck through the heart with icy shards of rejection and abandonment. To feel the cold spread across my chest, squeezing the air from my lungs, leaving me breathless, face down in the hard earth.

And I know what it’s like to do the wounding, the destroying – to be the ice queen. To detest the woman in the mirror. To distrust my darkened self, because “I can’t control the curse.” To live in terror of corrupting everything I touch, everyone who comes near me because there’s “no escape from the storm inside of me.”

I’ve fought in vain to be “the good girl [I] always had to be” – not just because I don’t want to be hurt – but because I don’t want to hurt others. And I have run away, isolating myself in an ice castle of my own design. A place where fear bars the doors to pain…and love.

Ice castles. We all build them. At first they seem beautiful, protective, even empowering, like Elsa’s. (OK, hers was pretty awesome.) But they’re also cold and confining.

Like Anna, people have come knocking on my door, offering me love with open hands: “You don’t have to keep your distance anymore. We can head down this mountain together. You don’t have to live in fear. I will be right here.”

And like Elsa I have cried out, “You mean well, but leave me be. Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free!  Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me!”

But can a person be alone and free? Our ice castles – fortresses built to protect and isolate – are less like palaces and more like prisons than we care to admit. But even if the cold never bothered us anyway, loneliness and disconnection weary the heart. And weary hearts can’t fly free.

We can be alone, but we can’t be alone and free.

Yet sometimes, a weary, earth-bound heart seems bearable in exchange for a life safe from harming or being harmed. But a life without love inflicts its own sort of pain. Not only on us, but on those around us.

Elsa’s cry, “Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me!” sounds like a noble sacrifice and a reasonable demand when considering the stakes. But she failed to discern the thin, sharp edge that separates truth from reality…

To avoid others, to avoid love or vulnerability or pain, is not to be free, but to chain ourselves to freedom’s great imposter: independence.

Elsa believed that she could shut away her frozen heart and live independently without consequence. But the opposite happened. By isolating herself and giving in to her fear and curse, she set off an eternal winter, nearly destroying her entire kingdom. She wasn’t free at all. In fact, things were worse than ever.

And so it goes with us. How often do we succumb to our darkest fears, satisfy our guilty pleasures, indulge our most agonizing curses, and tell ourselves that as long as we do it alone, no one will get hurt? But someone’s always getting hurt.

Build an ice castle and no matter how much it sparkles, you will wound hearts and court the eternal winter…because relational independence is a lie. Our choices and our actions affect each other in ways far beyond what our eyes can see or our minds can know.

The truth is that we were created for community, connection, relationships – with God and with each other. Relationships aren’t a luxury; they are a necessity – living water for our thirsty souls.

Community, first with God in the holiest of communities: where the warm, glowing Breath of Life and Love made ours by the ultimate act of true love, thaws our frozen hearts and lifts the burden of our curse so our souls can take wing. Only in binding ourselves to Him, our True and Mighty Fortress, are we set free.

Free to love from the fortress of His perfect love, we are Not Alone, but Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters. Like Elsa and Anna, we can face this life together, hand in hand, even though someone might get hurt.

And therein lies the greatest freedom: to throw open the doors of your heart and love, really love…despite the risk, despite the loneliness, despite the pain, despite the failure, despite the brokenness. That is true freedom.  

Unashamed Love

Family Photo of Kenny

Family Photo of Kenny

I believe that for most little girls, their first love is Daddy. I hardly remember my dad at all, much less loving the man. But my first stepfather, Kenny, I loved him. While it was a tentative and guarded love, made all the more so by his long illness, when he died my twelve year old heart broke in ways and places I didn’t know existed. Today, February 13, is Kenny’s birthday and, as always, that kind, gentle, funny man is loved and missed.

Love for me has never come easily and so I struggled with this week’s Writing Challenge, My Funny Valentine. Then I remembered a story and thought that maybe, maybe, this little window into the warping and twisting of love in the hearts of children, might somehow, some way, help set you free too.

As a little girl, I always had an older me inside – one who saw and understood things that my unripened vocabulary couldn’t express. Instead, I felt everything, like wordless impressions stamped deep into the soft clay of a sensitive heart. With no Living Water to keep my heart tender and pliable, to fill the valleys and smooth the mountain peaks, I formed my own truth, my own tilted view of life and love and people.

In today’s memory, I am about five years old: I tiptoed from my bedroom up the dark hallway and into the kitchen. Staying close to the wall and probably more conspicuous than I believed, I peeked around the corner and into the living room. He wasn’t there yet. Kenny. He and my mom were dating at the time and they’d recently broken up. I didn’t know what they’d fought about or why he’d left. But the murmured words of adults drifting back and forth above my head hinted of his return. An anxious hopefulness practically oozed from the walls. Everybody loved Kenny.

Anticipation wiggled its way throughout my small body, so I invented a game for the waiting. I’d walk from my bedroom up the short hall toward the living room, one slow, careful step at a time, wondering with each press of the foot: is he here? My hopes would rise with my heartbeat as I edged nearer the light of the living room archway. Once there, I’d quickly pop my head around the doorframe and….nope. Not yet. Deflated, I’d turn around, shuffle back to my room and do it all over again. And again. And again. Slower with each pass. Each time hoping that would be the time I’d find him coming through the front door.

Family Photo of Kenny and... maybe that's me in the picture and maybe it isn't. I confess to nothing.

Family Photo of Kenny and… maybe that’s me in the picture and maybe it isn’t. I confess to nothing.

I don’t know what I expected. A celebration? Handshakes and hugs all around? But for all my anticipation, when Kenny finally arrived, nothing exciting happened at all. No one rejoiced. No one gave him a hug or said, “Hey, welcome back!” He just came in silently, sat down on the couch and stared at the TV along with my mom and grandparents. Nothing but nods and awkward “hellos” and silence in front of the television.

So this is how we do it? I mused. Pretend nothing’s happened?

Obviously doing what I wanted most – to jump in his lap and throw my arms around his neck – would be scandalously out of place. And so I pretended. I played along. I became an Actress.

But, refusing to be ignored and refusing to ignore, I did what any self-respecting five year old would do: I picked up a throw pillow and…well…threw it at Kenny. He was, after all, my playmate and my friend. This was our ‘normal.’ We tossed the pillow back and forth. I laughed and he smiled. Kenny was a quiet, subtle guy and his smile told me we were good. Reconciliation by pillow fight.

Yet some part of me wanted more. An invitation to sit with him on the couch? A hug? Words of assurance? For the first time, I became conscious of the fact that I wanted his love and acceptance. Needed it, even. But needing is dangerous. No one likes a needy child. And what happens when what we need becomes something we can’t have?

My stomach filled with a strange, hollow-heavy, sick feeling. Embarrassment, rejection, nakedness of soul, fear of punishment, a desire to hide all wrapped in one little lead ball behind my belly button.

I was Needy and I was Ashamed. Ashamed of needing, of wanting, of loving. Afraid of being unlovable. Hadn’t my own father been unable to love me? Ashamed of being me.

…………………

30 some odd years later, I sit, head bowed, eyes closed, in a dimly lit church. I sing the words “Worthy….You are worthy…of a childlike faith and of my honest praise and of my unashamed love…of a holy life and of my sacrifice and of my unashamed love…”

And I think, as I always do when singing this song, of loving Jesus unashamedly – boldly, without worrying what others think, without hiding my Bible at the doctor’s office or avoiding talking about God outside of church.

But then God brings me a precious jewel…the memory of that day with Kenny…and as I sing the words that wash over me, He turns the glistening gem around in His hand to show me another facet of love…

of my unashamed love….love without fear, or embarrassment. Love that doesn’t act or pretend to be self-sufficient. There is no shame in needing love – there is no shame in needing God. That is who we are. Who I am. Needy for the Lord and his Love.

of my unashamed love…love that doesn’t fear punishment or rejection. Love that trusts in the Father who supplies all our needs. I am Safe.

of my unashamed love…love that runs into her Father’s embrace and throws her arms around His neck. Love that is free from falsehood. I am Real.

Full and light is the feeling that soars into my soul and lifts upon its wings the hollow-heaviness of shame and carries it away…eternally away. And my belly warms with acceptance and tender hands upon my face and eyes that see me fully and a smile of adoration…for me. And I am Loved.

UNASHAMED LOVE by Jason Morant

CHRISTMAS TRADITION DOs & DON’Ts | DO Keep What You Love!

Hang onto those traditions you love, even if they are a wee bit inconvenient.

After we put up the tree, we string the lights. “We” being me and me alone. Not because the others aren’t willing to help, but rather because I won’t let them. I know that sounds terrible, but the lights make the tree and I want my tree to sparkle. And sparkle it does! I’ve heard that pilots flying over our neighborhood on the way to Bradley Field can detect a faint glow coming from our home. (Maybe don’t tell the FAA about this.)

How long does it take to wrap every branch from tip to trunk, covering the tree in 2,000 lights? Long enough for my husband and kids to go out and get most of their Christmas shopping done. Which they’ve been known to do.

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Almost halfway there! | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Not only does tree lighting take me three or four hours, but when I’m done my hands are covered in cuts and scratches and my feet and back hurt like I’ve been touring Disney for a day. (I know, I know, first world problems.)

Crazy, I know. And every year, a small part of me dreads the tree-lighting process, but I wouldn’t want it any other way because those few hours proffer me an entire month of tree viewing pleasure.

So if you love your traditions…even the inconvenient ones…then hang on to them! Life is hard and the holidays are challenging and if frosting a gingerbread house or creating handmade cards or knitting everyone you know a scarf or in my case, looking at bright, sparkly objects, brings you joy, then do it!

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com

Just see how it sparkles | Photo by nicholeq.wordpress.com