In his novel, Miss Wyoming, Douglas Coupland recounts an exchange between a young woman, Vanessa, and John Johnson, a “debauched, disillusioned movie producer who has given away all his possessions” in the attempt to start a new life—to “reinvent” himself.
“Do you think,” Vanessa asks, “that I’m capable of—“
“Of what?” says Johnson.
“This is embarrassing. Okay, I’ll say it: of being loved.” Vanessa looked as if she’d suddenly discovered she was naked in public.
Johnson tries to reassure her that she is lovable, but tells her that she has to expose her heart “to the open air, let it get sunburned.” Vanessa responds: “I guess the thing about exposing your heart is that people may not even notice. Like a flop move. Or they’ll borrow your heart and forget to return it to you.”
Vanessa’s words are tinged with a shame most of us recognize, and the shame creates a primal fear: if we are honest and open about who we are, including about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, then we will get hurt. How could anyone love us when they see us for who we truly are?
Martha Nussbaum, who teaches at the University of Chicago, says that shame comes from a realization we first have when we are still babes in our mothers’ arms; in fact, it comes precisely from the fact that, early on, we had to be carried in her arms. It is the realization that we are, for all our lives, in ways we’d rather not acknowledge, dependent and needy: we can’t stand on our own two feet (See Upheavals of Thought, Cambridge, 2001). From our earliest days, we learn that we are limited, weak and vulnerable, and we spend the rest of our lives running from that realization. Eventually, though, it catches up with us.
Something beyond our control, something we can’t manage, happens. An injury knocks us off our feet. Illness sidelines us. A family member gets trapped in a vicious cycle of self-destruction. The plant closes down, and all the jobs go to Mexico. A drunk driver crashes into your husband’s car and you’re left alone to raise three children. Something happens, and we are overwhelmed by it all. No matter how smart we are, how hard we work, how much money we spend, how many experts we consult or, even, how much we pray, it, whatever it is, doesn’t go away. We find ourselves wanting someone to hold us like mother did, to protect us like father did, and to listen to us like our grandparents did. We look for someone to cry with us until we can laugh again, to feed us until we are strong again, and to carry us until we can walk again.
Our helplessness embarrasses us, and our neediness makes us afraid. The shame of it all makes us want to hide in the shadows. We don’t have to hide; we don’t need to be ashamed. Love is the alternative to shame. Love admits that “I” can’t be “I” without we— without you and without God. We need each other; we can’t make it without love. So, when we can finally admit that all of us are human, that all of us are limited and vulnerable, then we can, at last, open ourselves to receive love—from God and from others—and to share our love freely and joyfully in return.