For me, middle school was a complete crapshoot.
There were bullies, puberty and that sweeping awkwardness accompanying all social interactions. I am pretty sure middle school is the place where you gain all the painful memories that you go to counseling for in your 30s. Middle school was also the time when I loved the band Creed — not all wounds are created equal.
Beyond the first kiss, first sip of alcohol and unrelenting quest for coolness, there is one moment from those days that I remember with an odd salience. The memory concerns my churlish seventh grade math teacher. He was somewhere between Severus Snape and Attila the Hun. (Well, at least to my young imagination.) Two months after the societal rupturing of 9/11, this teacher stood in front of a group of oddly quiet teenagers and said, “You are who you are when you stand in the road, naked in the middle of the night.” You can guess what came next. That kid who had learned the art of classroom humor as a way to disguise his insecurity about being the smallest kid in the class blurted out, “He said naked!” We all cackled and hummed. In the moment I thought that my math teacher had finally lost his evil marbles. What a weird thing to say!
I’ve thought of this memory several times during this pandemic. You are who you are when you are naked, standing in the road in the middle of the night. Though he was off with his delivery and timing, I think my math teacher was asking the existential question of our days: When everything is stripped away, when the branches of your life are bare and the womb of normalcy barren, who are you? To frame it biblically: When we have hung up our harps in the trees of Babylon, when our couch is drenched in tears, when change erupts and irrupts our sense of self and security, what is left?
This existential question is a deeply theological, pastoral question. I’m involved in several pastor support groups, and have some beloved spiritual friends who are in ministry as well. The common thread weaving through the anxious mosaic of ministry in this time is the fact that everyone is struggling, everyone is suffering in some way. In many ways we spend much of our pastoral energy dealing with the symptoms of this struggle. Our inboxes are filled with the words of angry church members — some say we haven’t opened early enough, some say we’re opening too early, and some haven’t been to church since March (which also hurts our feelings if we’re honest). People fight about masks or no masks, schoolchildren have become objects of liberal vs. conservative debate and all of us feel somewhat stoic after our numbing agents of alcohol and Netflix have ceased to bring joy. Resentment for the people we are called to love creeps in, fatigue disguises itself as righteous indignation and the pulpit becomes a boxing ring. These days it feels as if everything has been stripped away. We are, as an entire society, standing naked in the road in the middle of the night.
I am less interested in the symptoms of societal upheaval than in the underlying currents of our pain. What’s the answer to who are we, really? People aren’t really that passionate about wearing a mask or not, being in schools or not, worshipping in person or not. While these are significant issues, these conversations and debates are rooted in the emotions all human beings share — namely fear and shame. The opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. The opposite of beloved community is not individualism, it is tribalism. The opposite of empathy isn’t selfishness, it is shame.
We don’t feel lonely right now because we aren’t seeing one another, we feel lonely because we are afraid. Fear begets a smaller and smaller world until all that is left is one’s own worldview — a crushing individualism that isolates us from sources of love. Fear asks us to live in an unnuanced world of absolutes — of evil vs. good, black vs. white. This is the world where people post videos on Facebook of people misbehaving at department stores. This is the world where quality of persons is defined by one moment, one mistake, one grave sin — be it a racial epithet, refusal to wear a mask at Costco or a reshare of a ridiculous article from a news agency you despise. Fear doesn’t make us hide from sharing our opinions, rather it makes us more certain that our opinions are the right ones. As a pastor and a person, I see in myself and others a dangerous fear that is tearing us apart, quite literally from the inside out. Theologically the answer to this fear is not screaming “do not be afraid” from the pulpit. Tell afraid people to stop being afraid and all you will get is shame on top of fear, and that combustive combination is a recipe for depression and anxiety.
Perhaps fear’s vaccine is friendship amidst vulnerability. Brené Brown’s awesome book “Dare to Lead” suggests that vulnerability beats the crap out of fear, one shared emotional experience at a time. When I was a child, scared of the creatures of the night and hiding under my covers, my father would kill my fear not by shutting the door and saying “grow up,” but by climbing under the covers with me. “I get scared, too,” he would say. While our church programs are obliterated and our congregants are roaring, maybe we pastors need to practice courage as vulnerability. Maybe then we have a shot at pushing away the fear that stalks us in the middle of the night. This practice begins when we simply listen to our life and ask, “What’s really going on within me?” And though we can’t ever know the answer fully, the psalmist reminds us that God knows us in our inward parts and Paul reminds us that our life is “hidden” in Christ. As long as God is under the covers with me, I’ll make it through the night.
Fear’s best pal is shame. These two hang out together, buy one another drinks at the bar and grow up together like siblings in the same house. Brown says that the difference between shame and guilt is that while guilt says, “I did a bad thing,” shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt questions our moral actions, but shame doubts our inherent dignity. This terrible minion, shame, is haunting our current moment. It is often thought that narcissists are the most self-consumed, self-obsessed among us. But it is likely they are actually the most ashamed among us, because the more shame we feel, the less empathy we can feel for others. It’s commonplace for people to say, “We’re just so politically polarized.” Sure, that’s true. But get to the deeper stuff and you’ll likely find that we are more ashamed than ever. Disunity doesn’t produce shame, shame produces disunity. Shame is like an internal wound-tornado — everything that tries to get close gets spun around and thrown violently away. The tricky part here is that the rhetorical ammo used in arguments these days is shame more than anything else. I am so completely unsurprised when a 75-year-old Southern born white man who grew up poor and from a small town gets angry and rigid when a young liberal from the city tells them on Facebook that they are racist. It’s impossible for shame to beget empathy. If you can name one person who’s been shamed into a worldview change, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.
What are we to do when we are feel ashamed, naked and wondering in the middle of the road at night? Shame’s vaccine is empathy — the judgement-free spirit entering into another’s story of suffering. As much as woke culture hates to admit it, all of us suffer. And yes, certain suffering is bigger and worse than others. Systemic racism is worse than my middle school wounds, but I’m not sure I can become anti-racist without learning to love my own woundedness. It is untrue that because some people suffer worse, the small sufferings of some don’t matter. Paul didn’t say, “Jesus came for those who suffer the most, so who cares about the rest?” He said, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” In other words, while we were completely lost and covered in shame, God took on the flesh of our human story.
The incarnation is the God of history choosing our story as God’s story, which means more than anything God is an empathetic God. To overcome the alienation we feel from one another, we may have to holster our weaponized shame and dare to believe that everyone – our enemies included – are suffering right now. Brown says there’s no such thing as limited empathy, which means that the more empathy there is in the world, the less shame there is in the world. To those of us who say, “I just can’t make a difference right now,” how does emptying the world of shame sound?
I’ve started to see the truth of this in my own life. There are times that I could burst from all the pressure we pastors currently feel from our congregants — and from ourselves. But when I get angry, dismissive, tired and petty, I must admit that shame is at work. And I have begun to find, bit by bit, that the more I understand the suffering of my people and the more I befriend my own suffering, the less chance shame has to rule my life.
So, I begin to answer my teacher’s lifelong question: “Who are we when we are naked and standing in the middle of the road at night?” The answer — we are not alone, our suffering matters. As one of the credal statements of our denomination might put it, “In life and in death, in shame and in fear, we belong to our lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
JOSHUA MUSSER GRITTER co-pastors First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife Lara. They watch movies together with their dog Red.