Bearing the shame of having a psyche and a spiritual life!

Part of the whole issue of learning to love and trust involves confronting feelings of shame. This is shame within and about oneself – perhaps it’s connected to caring about how one appears and how one seems in the eyes of other people. From really quite early on in childhood it starts to matter how we are and how we appear out in the world; of course this will be less important for the lucky ones who have been loved unconditionally from birth, but it also means that it is exacerbated for those who have been conditionally loved and learnt to comply with parental commands and expectations. This of course is what the child and adult psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott understood led to the development of the false self where authentic feelings are sacrificed in order to fit with another person’s (usually a parent) needs. It then takes a long time to start to be able to be in touch with what one is really feeling.

I very much like in the account by Michael Eigen of his meeting with Winnicott where he describes how Winnicott trying to communicate something left his chair and sat at the end of his therapy couch, ‘hunched over, visibly groping, corkscrew-like, unafraid of awkward intensity, digging into what he was trying to find.’ This Eigen sees as an unembarrassed nakedness, and he writes that he felt relieved to see Winnicott reaching for a depth he wanted to share. And then Eigen writes this strange sentence which for me has such resonance: ‘It is, I fear, more novel than one would like to think, to feel unashamed of having a psyche.’ Unashamed of having a psyche… But this lack of shame allowed Eigen to affirm his own psyche in Winnicott’s company.

It seems to me that in our current culture it can be shaming both to have a psyche and to have a spiritual life – it’s certainly shameful in many ways to come out as a Christian. It seems to be fine to be a Buddhist or to practice Zen. And as for the psyche we may be allowed to have a psyche if we are displaying ‘problem behaviour’ or suffer from a number of psychological symptoms or addictions but the run-of-the-mill everyday psyche (which is everybody’s) where we struggle with conflicts and doubts, fears and desires and so on seems to have been relegated to some strange area which is all about neurons firing and cognitive bits and pieces.

In the baptism liturgy there is a statement which is said to the candidates: ‘Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified’ …. because of course like Peter on the night of Jesus’ arrest it is only too easy to betray one’s beliefs, and it’s often when it doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps when they’re really big occasions and we are primed up to acknowledge our faith it’s easier; sometimes caught off guard it requires a lot more strength. The other day an old friend who I had thought knew me asked, ‘you don’t really believe that Jesus was the son of God do you?’ I felt very hot and managed to say ‘yes’ although I rather wished later that I’d also handed back the question by saying, ‘well it’s clear that you don’t!’ I was both ashamed and unashamed but it did mean that I then became an outsider in that situation… My response removed me from the main stream. I can see that to love and trust includes loving and trusting one’s own beliefs including one’s own psyche and one’s own spiritual life…and to love and trust means owning and accepting one’s shame.