I must confess that at 45 years of age I am still deeply fascinated by the same things which captured my attention at 13 years of age. In spite of the social and professional status which I have attained, I am still quickly reduced to adolescent silliness when confronted with burping, farting, big bugs, fire, things-that-go-boom and things-that-go-fast.
However, out of respect for my wife and daughter, I have become more sensitive to the means by which I indulge in these fascinations. So, when I recently decided that I would burn the brush pile in my backyard, I had a little talk with myself about the importance of adult responsibility, the proximity of the neighbor’s homes and the potential humiliation associated with having to call 911. Resolved to live out this new-found discretion, I retrieved a can of gasoline from the shed and committed to use only a minimal amount of accelerant to prime the fire. …but when I walked over to the brush pile I found that the ground was a little wet and so I was afraid that it might take a more generous allotment of gas to get things going… and then, I thought, perhaps it would be a good idea to leave a trail of gas leading away from the fire so I didn’t have to fling a match in there… and, anyways, I had the garden hose right by me… and it was the middle of the day so none of the neighbors were probably home… So, curious to learn how long it would take a flame to travel up a 15 foot trail of gas, I sparked my lighter and passed it over the tiny puddle of gas at my feet.
I promptly learned that it takes approximately one nano-second for a flame to travel 15 feet up a trail of gas - or about the same amount of time that it takes a middle-aged man to blink his eyes shut. So, while I wasn’t blinded by the explosion, I did share an intimate moment with a warm percussion that pushed me off balance and onto my butt. And before I could definitively discern that I was still alive – and not on fire – I saw that my wife and daughter had fled the house and were now running toward me. Suddenly aware of how foolish that I certainly looked, I briefly considered whether I could successfully hide myself behind a nearby bush. Recognizing the futility of any effort to hide at this point and, thus, lacking a fig leaf with which to cover my shame, I turned to face my loved ones… to tell them that I was OK… to tell them that I was, in fact, aware of how loud that boom was… and to tell them that I felt it was an exaggeration on their part to say that it shook the entire house. And, in spite of the fact that I was sprawled on my butt in front of a small inferno, I found myself ready to fight - ready to defend my actions and challenge the drama displayed by these two daughters of Eve. Fortunately, the knowledge that I was not ablaze was enough to satisfy my wife; sharing a snicker with my daughter, she graciously retreated back into the house before I had opportunity to expel my defense. Left alone to ponder my embarrassment, I was reminded of the power of shame and the extent to which I would go to escape its grasp. Like Adam – caught with apple juice dribbling from the corner of his mouth – I was prepared to hide myself, conceal my shame or, if needed, direct the attention toward someone else’s failure.
Shame is the emotion alerting us to a risk of exposure: it is the fear of being revealed as flawed, inadequate, unacceptable… unlovable. Like a splinter under your fingernail, it demands a response. Because the intimacy of marriage exposes us more fully than any other human relationship, a marriage founded on anything other than love and grace is quickly compromised by shame. In marriage, shame is an insidious cancer that readily metastasizes into every interaction. It is the source of the conflict that crushes young marriages and the cause of the distance that dissolves those couples moving into the empty nest. Contemporary research on marriage1 indicates that four solid predictors for divorce are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Reflection reveals that shame undergirds each of these “four riders of the apocalypse”. Shame precedes a wife’s critical and contemptuous efforts to conceal her own fears of inadequacy by directing attention toward the failures, inadequacies and weaknesses of her husband. Similarly, it is shame that compels a man to defend himself from even innocuous threats to his adequacy, refusing to understand his wife’s experience and hiding himself behind the safety of emotional detachment (stonewalling).
However, shame, as well as the conflict and distance it creates, need not dominate one’s marriage. Shame is like a fungus which flourishes in the dark, but quickly withers and dies when exposed to the light. When Adam went into hiding – struggling to conceal his own nakedness behind a fig leaf – God flushed him out. And in the light of God’s love and grace – ultimately consummated in Christ’s sacrifice – Adam and Eve found the grace needed to re-establish the connection with God which they had lost. However, as C.S. Lewis observes, shame is like a hot cup of coffee2; if you spill it on your skin it scalds, but if you drink it down fully, you are able to digest and process it. When shame is acknowledged and one’s failures, weaknesses and inadequacies are laid on the altar of love and grace, shame’s power is broken. When a spouse is willing to expose their fears, failures and weaknesses – leaving themselves dependent upon the grace of their spouse – they break the power of shame, reach beyond the demands of performance and create an opportunity for love.
And so, as my wife giggles, leaving me to manage the inferno I’ve created, my awareness of my own foolishness is muted by the generosity of her love.
1Gottman, John, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 1999, Three Rivers Press
2Lewis, C.S., The Great Divorce, Harper-Collins, 1946